Technical Interviewing

By: Michael Duffey, Fall 2018 HeLP Legal Services Clinic Intern

We all grew up knowing what interviews are. We’ve all seen them on the morning news, after big football games, with celebrities, in the courtroom, and in countless other contexts of regular life. Even more, we all know the formula for a good interview. You start with introductions and small talk, you ask an easy question or two, and then you ask about what you were really interested in from the start. Interviews are so familiar to us that we all know how to do it ourselves if we need to, right?

In this post, I’d like to discuss one of the most significant hurdles to interviewing, what I’ll call the technical aspect of interviewing. The interviews we are all, as a society, most familiar with are ones conducted by skilled and practiced interviewers. These interviews go so smoothly that they feel almost like a natural conversation. Consequently, it’s not surprising that we all begin to view interviews mostly like everyday dialogue with just a few more questions. However, these smooth interviews are deceptive; they are merely the product of an interviewer who is highly proficient in the technical aspect of interviewing.

What is the technical aspect of interviewing? I’m glad you asked. The technical aspect of interviewing is the reason a sports reporter can’t cross-examine a witness on the stand and the reason an attorney can’t do Conan O’Brien’s job. The technical aspect of interviewing is the hidden distinction between an interview with a perceptibly graceful flow, and a clumsy conversation more reminiscent of a middle school dance. All interviews have a predetermined subject matter. For instance, an interview with Donald Glover may have a range of predetermined subject matter. He could speak intelligently about film, art, or the culture of Atlanta. An interview with Donald Glover is not, however, likely to focus on technological advances in open-heart surgery. Donald Glover almost certainly has little to say on that topic.

Technical interviewing comes into play because, just as the interviewee has limited subject matter about which they can give valuable responses, so too the interviewer brings pre-existing knowledge to the table. It is not enough for an interviewer to have a rudimentary knowledge of the interview topic; he or she needs to have a working, technical knowledge of the topic. In our Donald Glover interview, it is not enough to know only the titles of his last few musical albums, because that knowledge alone doesn’t lead to insightful questions. Someone interviewing Donald Glover would want to be familiar with the tone of each album, the most popular tracks on each one, and the overlap between his musical work and his television production. This better-equipped interviewer would then be able to apply this knowledge to elicit quality answers from Mr. Glover, which might reveal more than generic questions. It is this application of knowledge that constitutes technical interviewing.

Technical interviewing is the art of applying pre-existing knowledge to an interview in a way that avoids adopting a robotic back and forth. Interviewees are naturally more inclined to share when they feel comfortable with their interviewer, and an interviewer, in turn, often benefits from this increased willingness to share. But often, newer interviewers or interviewers who are addressing a less familiar subject matter may fall back to awkward or stilted conversation. In these situations, the quality of the interview and the information obtained often suffer.

This principle is particularly true in the legal context, where attorneys are seeking information in order to evaluate various courses of action. While most attorneys who conduct interviews (in their various forms) develop an area of expertise and thus refine their technical interviewing skills in that realm over time, they all must be prepared to adapt. The needs of no two clients are ever exactly the same, so an effective attorney must be prepared to not only commit new information to memory but also to apply it in the context of an interview. While attorneys undoubtedly benefit from paying attention to their technical interviewing skills, these benefits are not limited to litigation. Many career fields require regular interviews in some context, and all of us would likely benefit from a little more attention to our technical skills in that regard.