WTF Wednesday: Ask a Stupid Question


You know how they always say there are no dumb questions? It’s not true. There totally are dumb questions.

Back when I was clerking, I applied to the U.S. Department of Justice Honors Program. This is how the DOJ hires people who just graduated from law school or have been clerking. I really wanted to work for the Antitrust Division. (I am a total dork for anything related to antitrust and mergers & acquisitions. Oh man M&A is so sexy I can’t even stand it. I would’ve loved to practice M&A law if it didn’t require long hours at a big firm.)

My understanding is that you have to be pretty awesome to be hired through the program, so I didn’t think anything would ever come of it. I was surprised when the DOJ flew me to DC (I used to be less opposed to flying than I am now) for an interview. I went out there, had what I thought was a good interview with a nice woman, and went home. I didn’t get the job.

Later, I got an interview with the Antitrust Division’s Chicago office. Holy crap! It was the best of all possible worlds — pretty much my dream job in my own city. Woohoo!

Apparently I did okay at that interview, because I was called back for a second interview. Apparently I did okay at that interview, too, because I was called back for a third interview.

The third interview took place in a conference room with approximately 100 people. I exaggerate, but there were enough people to fill up a big table. (Wouldn’t it be great if I blogged back then so I could check my facts? Not really.) It was mostly people I’d already met during my first and second interviews — the big boss and whoever else was interested in potential new hires.

One thing that was drummed into my head repeatedly throughout law school was that, when asked what your biggest weakness is, you’re supposed to respond with something that isn’t really a weakness and then explain how you use this non-weakness weakness to your advantage or have improved yourself as a result of having a non-weakness weakness. This kind of fake bullshit is why I hate interviews. The non-weakness weakness paved the way to today’s non-problem problem (I’m so gorgeous men are afraid to ask me out! I’m so smart people are intimidated by me!), also known as the humblebrag. I hate that shit.

If there was another thing that was drummed into my head repeatedly throughout law school, it was that you’re always supposed to ask questions. Never, ever, ever say “no” when asked whether you have any questions. To be a viable job candidate, you absolutely must have questions. Questions during an interview are the “staying on the rails” of Tootle. Do it no matter what.

When it came to the part of the third interview where I was asked by the big boss whether I had any questions, the truth is I didn’t have any questions. I’d already completed 2 2/3 interviews with these people and all questions had been asked and answered. No questions? You have to have questions! Questions!! So I looked at the big boss of the U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust Division Chicago office and I said, “If you were an animal, what animal would you be?”

I’ll never know if everybody in the room laughed with me or at me (maybe both?). To his credit, the big boss gave a very thoughtful response, something along the lines of he would be a sea turtle — not a little turtle — a big turtle who swims around the ocean.

You know how this story ends. I was one of two finalists and they hired the other one.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that this wasn’t the first time I asked someone the if-you-were-an-animal-what-animal-would-you-be question. One of my responsibilities as a member of the editorial board of law review was interviewing candidates for next year’s editorial board. The entire editorial board interviewed each candidate, and each editor was responsible for asking one question. My question was, as you might have guessed, “If you were an animal, what animal would you be?”

This indicates two things. First, I’m an asshole. Second, I’m clearly making use of that undergraduate psychology degree. I thought that how a person responded to the question — Does he give a serious answer? Does he give a dumb answer? Does he blow it off as a stupid question, which it totally is, but in so doing indicate that he’s an uptight prick who can’t be even a little creative or flexible under any circumstances (this guy is the bane of law reviews everywhere)? — was more important than what he actually said. The important thing, too, is that I never asked why. If you wanted to share the why, that’s cool, but I’m not going to ask you to because that’s just crazy — or crazier than asking the question in the first place.

By the way, I’d be a giraffe. They might be the hippies of the animal world, all tall and elegant and eating leaves.