Handling Legal Gotcha Questions

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Summary: Interview gotcha questions are potential landmines in outing you as a poor candidate. They are also great opportunities for spotlighting you as the best candidate. Anticipating and preparing for these questions will give you an edge in your interview.
Handling Legal Gotcha Questions
  • Gotcha questions are the worst questions to field when in law firm interview.
  • Gotcha questions can be random, grossly unrelated, and downright unfair, causing you to suddenly struggle during your interview.
  • The thing is, you’re still going to be asked gotcha questions, and you better have the correct answers.

Having an interview in the morning is a sure way to lose some sleep. Even the most confident of us are wary that things might go contrary to expectations. Wouldn’t it be nice if some angel whispered the right answers to each question while we were interviewed? The next best solution is anticipation. Those pesky gotcha questions, where you don’t know what to say, stutter, hem-haw, and get that sinking feeling that there is nothing you can say – a little preparation can take such stumbling blocks and turn them into stepping stones. For as surely as they could trip you up, they are also an opportunity for your shine where you competition fell.

So why would an interviewer ask a gotcha question to begin with? We know why journalists do it. When they can embarrass a politician, they sell more papers. The law firm interviewing you probably has no interest in embarrassing you. Often enough, the lawyers interviewing you may not be savvy at HR stuff, and don’t know exactly what questions to ask. But those who do might resort to tricky questions to catch you off guard, get at the real you, see how you think on your feet, rather than receiving the sorts of canned responses they hear over and over from prospective hires.

Another reason an interviewer might resort to gotcha questions is to make their final round easier. They may have a handful of good candidates, and want some indication of who they can mark off their list.

After all, interviewers are not sadistic (let it be hoped). Bill Heyman, President and CEO of Heyman Associates, said in an interview:

“Gotcha” questions set up a negative and adversarial interview situation. It doesn’t bode well for the interviewer. These questions do not get at the root of much of anything. They put candidates on the defensive and you don’t get the best from the candidate or represent the hiring company well.

Though you don’t want to give a canned answer, it is best to write up a personal response to each of these questions and read it aloud many times before the interview. Then, when caught in the headlights of a gotcha questions, you’ll have the presence of mind to leap nimbly to safety.

It is difficult to pretend to be something other than who you are. You’re a lawyer, not an actor, so why bother being anything other than yourself? Of course, that’s true, yet the more enthusiasm, confidence, and cool demeanor you present, the more your interviewer can get to know the real you.

Such softball questions such as how you liked law school are easy enough to field. School was challenging, you struggled with some parts, excelled at others, and over all enjoyed it. Do some variation of this formula – and avoid putting the accent on the negative.

1. Why Should We Hire You?

This question is so blunt, bald, and obvious that it can be unnerving. Don’t offer something lame like, “I would be a good fit for your company.” Think it out. This is your opportunity to sell yourself. Review your resume, and determine your three most stellar selling points. For each point, find some stories or good examples from your schooling or previous work experience that justifies them. Anybody can speak well of themselves. What you need is a witness. Quote a professor or a former boss; furnish an award or letter of recommendation. Ask yourself: What is it this interviewer is looking for? And make it happen.

Know your resume well. Your interviewer may have prepared some questions to ask you about that. Be able to riff off any of your bullet points, and had an endearing story for each of your qualifications. This means you’ve done your homework and know what your interviewer’s organization is looking for. You can’t sell yourself if you don’t know what they want.

If you’ve listed a publication on your resume, summarize it in advance so you can relate it quickly. Memorize some slogan like selling points, those sound bites that stick in an interviewer’s mind.

2. How are your grades?

Not everybody shines in grades, but you can turn it around. If you have some embarrassing grades, be honest, direct, simple, and brief about why your grade in a given class fell short. Determine what classes relate best to the firm’s practice area, and follow up your explanation for a bad grade with a presentment of a much more relevant good grade.

Emphasize relevant classes, and tell stories from your studies that relate to the job at hand. Yeah, you might have some embarrassments on the way. Be frank and brief about that. But eagerly tell them how you thrived in the classes that mattered.

3. What is your greatest weakness?

The classic gotcha question: Avoid saying, “I don’t have any.” That just demonstrates lack of insight, or honesty. Also, there’s no need to outdo yourself with a confession of how weak you can be. Instead, describe an honest weakness along with an explanation of how you worked around it. Give concrete examples of exactly how you surmounted a weakness. Again, a witness helps, so it would be gold if you can quote a former boss or teacher commenting on how you improved in this area.

Don’t be defensive and don’t make excuses. State your failings with frank nonchalance and follow them with what you’ve done to overcome them.

4. Why did you choose law?

Be prepared to tell a story. Consider it: Think of your favorite professor. What comes to mind? Probably an anecdote he or she told you in class comes to mind sooner than some statistic or factoid they offered. Everyone loves a story – so make yours sharp. Mention what in law drives you, why you are dedicating your life to this. “To make money,” won’t cut it. “I like to argue,” is too cliché. Talk about the legal issues that fascinate you or the societal injustices you wish to correct.

Related to this question is What Type of Law Are You Interested In – to which, “I’m not sure,” is a horrible answer. Talk about what you enjoy about law, and your dreams – so long as they are relevant to the job you are seeking. Dreamers make us see visions, and nothing is as contagious as enthusiasm, so when you can answer a question passionately, let yourself go.

Note also that sometimes something totally unrelated to law may endear you to your interviewer. Mentioning a personal hobby, passion, or inspirational relative who somehow relates to your decision to get into law, even vaguely, makes you look more human. I know of one applicant who mentioned he played tennis. That clicked in the interviewer’s mind. On call back, he said, “You’re the tennis player, right? Well we looked over our notes and determined you are the best fit for our opening. “

5. Were you in your school’s law review?

If the answer is no, don’t worry about it. Law review instructs you how to research and write – basically much of the work of lawyering. Tell in what other ways you’ve improved your legal writing skills. Mention a blog, or any publications you might have had. Also, if you didn’t spend your time on this, detail exactly what you did spend your time on. Did you work full time, were you part of a research project, did you participate in moot courts? That your time is well spent is more important than on exactly how it is spent.

6. Why are you leaving your current job?

This question requires tact. I talked with a hiring manager once who said of a candidate she’d interviewed, “She was so perfect, and had all the qualifications I wanted, but she started venting about her old boss – so I didn’t choose her.” Don’t complain about your old job, certainly don’t bad talk your former boss, and meanwhile don’t say anything like, “I wasn’t good enough at the job.” Speak of your interest in growth, or how you’ve heard so many good things about the interviewer’s company.
  • Review the gotcha questions and come up with personal answers
  • Read over your answers many times so you have the gist of them memorized
  • Gotcha questions are a great opportunity to outshine your competition


Gotcha questions may not at first be apparent to you when you are in a legal job interview. In fact, they can come completely out of left field, leaving you completely in the dark, surprised, or worse yet, without an answer to what was asked of you, which needless to say, is a very bad predicament to be in.

Be vigilant and prepare yourself for the unknown. Sure, you will be asked questions that seem like slow curves, but give yourself a couple seconds to breathe and think about exactly the interviewer is asking. If at least, ask your interviewer to repeat the question if you feel doubtful about the enquiry. The last thing you want to do is give a bad, poorly thought out or completely wrong response. Don’t rush, think.

Remember, law interviews are tough. In some cases, they’re also even tougher to get. Approach your law firm interview fully prepared for any sort of question, including the gotcha questions to further your chances of having a stronger chance of successfully netting the legal position you’ve worked this hard to make the end result of your legal preparation.

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