How A Judge May Test You
When asked about an ideal candidate at the interview stage, virtually all judges emphasize personality as the most important trait. They look for candidates who are well-rounded, who have life experience, who can display humanity and humility, who have a good sense of humor (without being inappropriate), and who can take a position without being disagreeable. All in all, they want someone who is a great fit. One judge describes his interviews this way: “I usually need to get through them quickly so I can get back to work. If a candidate gets makes me forget about the time and makes me think, ‘What a nice way to spend a day!’ he or she is the one who gets an offer.”
Judges occasionally employ sophisticated interview strategies to test their applicants’ personalities. Some judges, for example, start forming an opinion about a candidate during their initial phone conversation. They expect a professional answering machine recording, a polite tone, and eagerness in a candidate's voice. If any one of these components is missing, this may be enough for a judge to withdraw an interview offer. One judge we know is known for asking candidates trivia questions on such diverse subjects as history, geography, and literature. He wants his clerks to be well-rounded and knowledgeable, and he finds these questions helpful in identifying star applicants from lower-ranked schools.
Other judges watch a candidate carefully during the first few minutes of an interview, analyzing his or her dress code, body language, and demeanor. Says one federal judge, “When the candidate first walks into my chambers, I give him a choice where to sit. He can pick between such formal interview settings as my desk or a conference room table, or he can proceed to a casual corner with a sofa and two armchairs. I am looking for people who can relax, be upfront and casual, and who can have informal conversations with me. So the sofa is my top preference. To this day, I cannot think of a candidate who received an offer [who] didn't choose the sofa.”
Not all judges look for clerks for are casual, though. Some judges are very formal and expect their candidates to be, as well. This is why it is so important to do your homework and to let your first impressions guide you. One judge never talks during the first few minutes of the interview. When the candidate walks in, he or she is expected to do the talking. This puts incredible pressure on the candidate to initiate and carry on a conversation. The judge only hires those clerks who can withstand this silent treatment.
Some judges also ask tricky questions. One court of appeals judge, for example, asks his clerkship applicants when they last spoke to their mother. You may not have guessed it, but the best answer (in this judge's opinion) is “10 minutes before this interview.” This judge believes that a candidate who is close to his or her mother will be very loyal. Another judge always asks whether a candidate has anything to add at the end of the interview. To her, the most impressive answer is a sincere “I really want this job” or “There is one more thing….” Bad answers include “No, I do not have anything to add” or “Please, please, hire me! I will do anything to get this job.”
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