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Making the Interview Process More Empathetic: A First Generation College Student’s Perspective

This Legal Problem Solving post is by Sam Sergent, Vanderbilt Law School Class of 2019.

There are some questions that you expect to be asked during an interview: “Why this city?”; “Why this firm”; “Why are you interested in [insert general practice area here]?” Another apparent favorite of interviewers is some iteration of: “Tell me something you’re proud of that isn’t reflected on your resume.” When I received this question from a senior female associate during a callback interview at a well-known Washington, D.C. law firm, I was prepared and answered: “I’m a first-generation college student.”

Until this point in the interview everything was following the traditional interview trajectory: basic questions about who I was and how I chose Vanderbilt for law school, a few questions about why I was interested in that particular firm and city, and finally more substantive questions that would allow my interviewer to determine whether my personality would be a good fit. Instead of an acknowledgement of my answer and a transition to the next talking point, my interviewer looked over the top of my printed resume in her hands and responded, almost accusingly, “oh . . . well then who helped you get here?”

Looking back on that experience a year later, I’m sure that the discomfort and shock I felt were evident in my expression. I hesitated and responded “no one?” This answer didn’t satisfy the interviewer who rephrased her question and pointedly asked me who helped me navigate the college process. I regrouped and stumbled through an answer explaining that I used google to research both my undergraduate and law schools. Walking out of that interview I felt like I, and people from similar backgrounds to my own, didn’t belong in a big law setting. As a result, I refrained from bringing up these personal facts during future interviews, thinking that my personal experiences were not of interest to a future employer.

Right now, you might be wondering what this unfortunate experience has to do with legal problem solving. The answer is empathy. Our Legal Problem Solving class has discussed at length the importance of understanding what stakeholders need and want before attempting to offer a solution—or to be more accurate before developing a prototype. In short, incorporating empathy is central to the design thinking process.

A lot of proposals applying design thinking to the legal profession have focused on bringing empathy directly into client dealings or applying the principles to legal education. These suggestions are meritorious and should be strongly considered and most likely adopted by the legal profession. However, one sector of the legal profession that could benefit from legal design principles is often overlooked—the interview and employment process.

Interviews lacking empathy, like the one described above, can send the message that divergent experiences are not valued by an employer. This could stifle an applicant’s willingness to disclose and discuss their unique attributes. Ultimately what may result from this process is a workforce that values shared experiences and fails to embrace differences. These effects will likely cascade through a person’s career, severely limiting their innate ability to think creatively and engage empathetically with clients.

Legal design principles—specifically, empathy—employed during a law student’s first foray into the legal profession can combat the vicious cycle described above. Applying legal design principles to the legal interview and employment process would encourage applicants to embrace their unique attributes and highlight them and their importance during the interview process. This would in turn facilitate a workforce that embraces its internal differences and, even more, views those differences as attributes.

Approaching interviews in a more inclusive way not only serves the interests of job applicants but also of the employer. By creating a more welcoming environment, employers will have a more authentic picture of the people they are interviewing. In addition to making more informed hiring decisions, an empathetic approach to hiring will likely benefit the employer’s clients when the applicants become employees. This is because including the importance of divergent life experiences in the employment conversation has the added benefit of better preparing new lawyers to incorporate empathy into their work from the start.

Employees who believe that their employer values divergent experiences and personal connections will be more likely to utilize those attributes in their work. Utilizing these assets will in turn foster an empathetic approach to serving clients. This will occur for the simple reason that when an employer places positive emphasis on divergent life experiences, their employees will likely feel more comfortable drawing on those experiences in the course of their work. Ultimately, actively incorporating empathy into the start of the legal profession during the legal interview and employment process would better position new lawyers to engage in design thinking throughout their careers.