I’m surprised my rejection didn’t beat me home on the drive back from this interview.
So I got an interview at a county DA’s office for an ADA position. I drive out to the office which is located just a little bit farther beyond the edge of civilization than I thought it would be. You know the situation… driving along seeing large office buildings give way to strip malls, give way to further expanses of undeveloped land; and at a certain point you wonder if you drove too far and missed your exit, only to look over at the GPS and realize you’re still 5 miles away.
I show up at a small, but well maintained town which seems to be hovering on the better end of economically depressed. You know its a smaller town when all the parking in the middle of the city is free. But also a nice change. I wander into the wrong building at first, the courts building was… ugh. gross. And since it was right before court started, the hallways were filled with what looked like a casting call for the Jerry Springer Show. I had a creeping feeling walking through the courts building that the office was going to be dreadful. I finally find a receptionist who directs me to an adjacent building. I walk into the (correct) building this time and I am greeted almost immediately by one of the ADAs who walks right up to me and says “You must be Azrael!” Seems a bit odd that someone walking into their building in a suit can only be the applicant… and also a bit odd (though nice) that someone was waiting for me in the lobby.
So I ride the elevator up with the guy talking to me the whole time telling me how the interview is setup. He started throwing out names and titles at a breakneck pace. “You’ll be talking to X who is the ADA for Y, and also talking with Z who is assistant director of W…. ” He spun through about 6 or so people and titles without pausing for breath and I was still trying to remember the first name he had given to me as we whirled through the security door and into the main office.
It was really a nice office. Spacious and modern, and clean! A far cry from the building next door. Things were starting to look up. I’m led down a hallway and my guide is still talking like an auctioneer next to me while I try to sift through the information he’s gushing forth. He pushes open a door to a conference room with the aforementioned 6 other attorneys already arrayed around the table waiting for me. I’m motioned to a seat at the end of a big Gothic black table and told to take the end seat.
The chairs around the table were just as large and Gothic as the table itself. Huge, black throne like wooden chairs with gnarled armrests rising out from the sides and big bronze diamond-shaped studs holding the leather upholstery to the chair. And it’s not just regular leather either… oh no. It is cow-hide; the type of leather with the cow hair still on it. As I pulled out the chair to sit, a tiny voice in the back of my mind looked at the chair and went “Eww… Couldn’t we just stand?” I briefly wondered if it would stick to my suit like cat hair after I stood up. Completing the picture was a set of longhorns on the wall above the table that nearly went the length of the table itself. The conference room definitely made an impression. And that impression was ‘bad interior decorating skills’.
I sit down on my designated bit-of-cow chair and I am introduced to everyone in the room in the same rapid-fire manner in which they had been mentioned before. Fast enough that I probably only absorbed one more name (for a total of 2 now) before the interview began.
The DA looked at me and said that I had one of the most impressive resumes he had ever seen. (uh oh… nothing like that is ever uttered without a ‘but’ following it). The interview really began and ended with the first question he then asked me.
“Why do you want to do criminal law?”
The question seemed straightforward enough. He may have added a bit more inflection on the “you” part of the question though… which is where the interview really came apart.
I started talking about my background in criminal law and how I really enjoyed doing it and why. I was then asked again, by the ADA right next to the DA, ‘why did I want to do it.’ (there was that emphasis again…) There is the half second where I wonder if he wasn’t listening to the answer I just gave, but that can’t be it. So I take a different tack and start explaining using more specifics from my background, and particular cases I have done. I explain that I enjoy the novelty of cases with unique and potentially undecided law. How courtroom litigation in my mind was fun and enjoyable and provided real stimulation, how I realized that a large number of cases are rote in a DA’s rotation but the ones which aren’t are what I found to be enthralling. Everything I was saying was true, I was enthusiastic and energetic and I had a few moments where everyone in the room laughed at some anecdotes from one of my previous cases. I thought I had answered the question well, showing my knowledge and ability.
The ADA who had walked me up was sitting closest to me. He was severely balding which made his deeply furrowed brow seem to crease and ripple a greater swath of his forehead than should be possible. He asked the same question a third time… (god damnit, they were fishing for something) and finally stated bluntly what the others had been dancing around. (It was a moment much like the “why are you here” from my internship.) He looked at me and said, “what we are trying to find, is what is motivating you to want to come here and do criminal law.”
Still not recognizing what fish they were looking for, I relied simply “I really enjoy doing it.” The DA shook his head and he then said as he pointed in a general manner to the ADAs at the table, “No, we want to know why you want to. I can tell you are very intelligent, but I can also tell you the reason why each person is here at this table. Be it social justice, protecting the innocent, getting justice for the victim…” With each pronouncement he jabbed a finger in the direction of one or another ADA who nodded imperceptibly at their pronounced ideology.
It was a startling realization once it sunk into my thick skull. I was sitting in a room of true believers. They wanted a philosophical argument as the reason why I was there. A soapbox from which I was suppose to proclaim that I wanted to right the wrongs of the oppressed and be ‘the hammer of justice’ for the downtrodden. I hadn’t run across this before… this was new. Very early on in my internship I was told that it was not good to get too invested in a particular worldview when dealing with the law. This has been reiterated by many, many very accomplished attorneys to me over the years. True believers make incredibly impassioned, but ultimately bad attorneys. You lose sight of what is right, or logical and instead always find a way to favor your ideological standpoint. Victims never lie. Defendants are always guilty. Corporations are bad. Etc. etc. etc.
True believers are passionate litigators because they can’t see how anyone could see any point other than their own. They lend believe-ability to their arguments because they themselves believe it so fervently and completely. They make horrible attorneys because they don’t see the other side. They lose their objectivity. There is no moment where they step back and say, “I don’t think this is a good idea / could I be wrong?” They often end up stepping over the line and doing something illegal themselves in furtherance of their cause.
So I was sitting in a room of ideological extremists, and I was apparently being judged because I was not one as well. But then something amazing and novel happened. The DA decides to take a different slant on the interview. He looks over at me and says
DA: “What is it you really want to do?”
Me: “Well, I really like litigation and…”
DA: “Let me ask it this way, what was your favorite class in law school?”
Me: “Uhm… well, I took quite a few classes in IP and..”
DA: “Ok, I know a lot of people. A lot of people in different firms here and in (big city). I could pass your resume on to some of these people I know. But I need to know who I should be sending it to. Is it someone in IP? Is that who you’d like me to pass your resume along to?”
There was a brief moment where I almost asked if this type of trick had worked for him before. The DA had just baited a verbal trap and asked me to step into it. He constructed the trap with such ease that I really was rather impressed. If I said yes, it meant the interview was over. It would mean I was actually looking to do something else and just happened to apply to his office for convenience sake. The hypothetical of him having friends in one field or another and actually passing on a resume was probably close to nil, but it was such a tempting offer; As it was intended to be. You say yes — and thank you, platitudes and whatnot and you leave with his assurance he’ll pass your resume on to someone, but you’ve just taken yourself out of the running for the position for which you were interviewing. They don’t need to reject you… you chose to bow out. You rejected yourself.
He had done it artfully. I was also a little insulted he thought I wouldn’t see it. I persisted in my claim that I enjoyed criminal work and parried around his verbal jousting. I successfully sidestepped some other verbal chicanery and apparently unsatisfied, he decided he’d reached his limit of patience with me and ended the interview with “do you have any questions for us?”
The questions (or maybe just singular question I suppose…) had so far only been asked to me from the 2 ADAs on the right side of the table and the DA opposing me at the other end, attempting to gain some ground (and failing) I quipped “Well, I haven’t heard much from the left side of the table, so…” I turned my attention to the left side and addressed a few questions to the other half of the ADAs silently sitting in the room like set pieces. I questioned them for a few minutes about various specifics of the office, but it was over. And it was obvious. I let it die and was walked out by the same ADA who walked me in. I rode the elevator down with a Game Warden and looked over at him and said, “well that sucked.” Briefly striking up a conversation about failing the interview hard. I actually sorta doubt I’ll even get a rejection it was so obvious.
Minor update #1: I told a friend the abbreviated version of this story. After telling them about the gothic conference room set and the true believers, they told me it sounded like they were crusaders. I think the analogy works amazingly well.
Minor update #2: Several months later, the same office started advertising for another open position. I figured, why the hell not and I sent a resume, I mean hey… now I know what answers they’d want in the interview. They sent back a letter which said (I wish I was joking) — Please don’t bother applying here in the future.
I am considering framing it.