Will ‘extreme interview’ techniques be adopted by law firms?

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There’s been a lot of chat lately about otherwise sensible organisations using bizarre interview questions. A popular one being: ‘If you were a dinosaur, what kind of dinosaur would you be?’ (In city circles at least, the commonest answer is, predictably, a T-Rex.)

Part of the reason this ‘extreme interviewing’ has been in the news is the PR around William Poundstone’s book, Are You Smart Enough To Work At Google?, which contains ‘fiendish puzzles and impossible interview questions for the world’s top companies.’ The theory is that, post-crash(es), there’s a lot more talent out there than there are roles to fill, and organisations are using left-field techniques to briskly, even brusquely, sort the 100W from the 40W bulbs queuing up for employment.

Google (which apparently is in the habit of compiling fifty page dossiers on job applicants) spices up interviews with questions such as:

How would you weigh your head?

You are shrunk to the height of a nickel and thrown into a blender. Your mass is reduced so that your density is the same as usual. The blades start moving in 60 seconds. What do you do?

It’s not just the mighty Google who are playing with candidates’ heads. All over the States, extreme interviewing is spreading like a dodgy viral video. Hewlett Packard likes its interviewees to explore the literal implications of Deutschland Uber Alles by asking, ‘If Germans were the tallest people in the world, how would you prove it?’

Even the fabled Saint Steve of Jobs wasn’t averse to a bit of extremity. When faced with a candidate he thought dull, he would first cluck, then wave his arms, and slowly break into into a full-blown chicken impression.

Menlo Logistics operates group assessments in which applicants are split into pairs and the challenge is to make your partner look good – a counter-intuitive directive, if ever there was one.

Other extreme questions reported by candidates over the last few months:

Why are manhole covers circular?
Name three Lady Gaga songs.
On a scale of one to ten, how weird are you?
Are you exhaling warm air?
How would you weigh an elephant without using scales?
Give me five uses for a stapler that doesn’t have any staples.
What’s the funniest joke you’ve ever heard?
If you were for sale on eBay, what would be your starting price?

But is this a valid assessment device? Opinion divides. Some HR professionals (yes, they do exist) believe that extreme interviewing is a good way of evaluating candidates’ ability to think on their feet, and of bringing out the candidate’s personality. Others think it’s little more than a way of keeping interviewers entertained, prompting answers that are meaningless outside of pseudo-psychology.

So far, law firms have been slow to adopt. But let’s be honest. This industry is so conservative that even politely asking a candidate if they take sugar can be considered infra dig. But there has been some enthusiasm shown by US firm Pepper Hamilton. Speaking in an interview with the careerist last year, hiring partner Michael Subak talked about making interviews ‘more substantive’ and ‘elevating the discussion’. Peppers were using role play or ‘interactive simulation’ for both trainees and lateral hires.

Those interviewing for in-house roles might come across this kind of process, though, and perhaps the growing number of non-legal organisations moving into legal services might increase the breakthrough.

Anyway, we’ve given it some thought and think some good answers are:

Q. Why are manhole covers circular?
A. Because manholes are, cretin.

Q. Are you exhaling warm air?
A. Every time I sigh at your fatuous interview techniques.

Q. If you were for sale on eBay, what would be your starting price?
A. Dunno, but every time you ask a question like that my starting salary goes up ten grand.

Q. If you were a dinosaur, what kind of dinosaur would you be?
A. Erm, an HR ‘professional’?

Let us know if you’ve come across anything like this, or any improvements you might have on our meagre attempts at dry wit. AB

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  • Guest

    The trend of these extreme or bizarre interview questions comes from the big high tech companies which used them to examine thinking processes for engineering roles. I think it is refreshing to have nonstandard questions when interviewing someone as most interviewees know the typical questions and have prepared answers. A lot of lawyers work under pressure and throwing an unusual question at a candidate can give you some idea of how well they think on their feet.

  • Guest

    Thanks for the end of week chuckle, particularly like the suggested answers at the end. Let’s hope someone has the guts to use them! Never understood this technique… I was once asked “If you were a biscuit, what kind would you be?” Excuse me?

  • CJ

    Good to know that you regard your main client contacts (the HR teams) so highly. I’m charmed by the high regard in which you hold us. Was this written by a fee earner perhaps or someone who felt the sharp edge of the axe during the downturn and still blames the HR team and not the line manager that selected them …

  • Andrew

    Ouch! Sorry, CJ. The intention was to poke a bit of gentle fun at HR (and line) people using the technique, not at HR in general. Are you using something similar at your firm?