“You can’t handle the truth!” is a movie line, delivered with gusto, by Jack Nicholson.  Is it relevant to everyday life?  To the extent that job interviews are a part of life, for some people, the handling of truth is a major consideration.

The subject recently arose when my daughter participated in a series of interviews that resulted in a new position.  Her performance was doubtless on the up-and-up, and she approached the meetings with confidence bordering on swagger.  Perhaps, that is because she was a marketing major, with a focus on “packaging,” both literal and figurative.  How different from my first series of job interviews several decades earlier.

I spent the year after law school in California as an aspiring screenwriter, playing tennis by day and skimming scripts for low pay at night.  Occasionally, I sat at my typewriter where I experienced writers’ block so complete as to approach paralysis.  I stared at the typewriter and concluded, with a strong dose of self-pity, that my blockage stemmed from having completed law school and taken the bar exam.  It was constantly on my mind that if I passed, I had a paying profession, just waiting for me to “buckle down.”

In reality, I did not have enough life experience and/or film knowledge to produce viable screenplays.  One typically pristine Hollywood morning, I paused between games to examine my tennis group.  Besides me, a 24-year-old aspiring writer was a 34-year-old aspiring actor, a 44-year-old aspiring director, and a 54-year-old aspiring producer.  In a “Eureka” moment, I realized one could aspire one’s entire life where the sun shines and courts are available.

As far as I knew, none of my fellow aspirers had a profession available to him and none had outstanding student loans.  Once I learned I had passed the bar exam, it was only a few days before I packed up the Toyota and returned east.  Though I never desired to practice law, after my epiphany, the ability to earn money and proceed with life was compelling.

I sent letters with resumes to firms throughout the Philadelphia area offering them the opportunity to employ me.   I was naively confident when several prospective employers contacted me for interviews.  Unfortunately, the parable of “lambs to the slaughter” soon came to mind.  The first interview, in Downingtown, went like this:

Partner:  “I see you were not on law review.”

Me:  “I played on their softball team.  Those guys really liked to study, so they always needed me.”

Partner:  “Were you near the top of the class?”

Me:  “Not at all, but I did better than some of the kids from foreign countries who didn’t speak much English.”

I did not get the job.

My next interview was with the District Attorney’s office in City Hall, and proceeded, as follows:

DA:  “Do you have a prosecutorial temperament?”

Me:  “Hunh?”

DA:  “Do you feel the bad guys should be put behind bars?”

Me:  “Oh, yes, definitely, but only if they are guilty beyond any doubt.  I worked in a clinic in law school and tried to get prisoners released if the prosecutors took short cuts.”

I did not get the job.

My third interview was with a small firm downtown.  I thought I was “in” since the lawyer meeting me was a Dickinson College trustee, where I had gone to college.  Things deteriorated quickly:

Attorney: “What fraternity were you in?  I’m Phi Delt.”

Me:  “I’m Kappa Wu.”

Attorney, raising an eyebrow:  “Kappa Wu?”

Me, knowing enough to have a sinking feeling, but not sure what to say:  “It wasn’t a real fraternity.  It was just what my friends, um created to, um, sort of, um, make a little fun of fraternities.”  I scrunched my face as one would when expecting a loud crash.  The interview concluded shortly thereafter.

My fourth interview was with another suburban firm.  I was ready for the law review question and the fraternity question.   The goal, as I now understood it, was to answer honestly, but not amuse or offend.  Two lawyers met with me in the library.  After initial pleasantries:

Lawyer #1:  “I understand you graduated a year ago but have not been employed.  Did you fail the bar exam?”

Me, with bravado:  “No, I passed the first time.”

Lawyer #2:  “So, what have you been doing since graduation?”

Me:  “I really wanted to be a screen-writer so I went to Hollywood to try.”

Lawyer #1:  “Didn’t you want to be a lawyer?”

Me, recognizing a patch of quicksand ahead, and trying to avoid it:  “I thought it would be good to ‘get the writing thing out of my system.’”

Lawyer #2:  “What if the ‘writing thing’ had worked out?”

Me, sensing danger, but certain that honesty was the best policy:  “I would have loved that.  I mean, who wouldn’t want to be a writer?”

Lawyer #1:  “I’ve always only wanted to be a lawyer.”

Lawyer #2:  “Me, too.”

The interviewing process was not going well.  I belatedly admitted I needed help.  I called my brother, a prominent attorney in Los Angeles.  Much to his amusement, I recounted my experiences.  You have to “frame” your answers, he said.  He suggested I explain my year away, as follows:  “I know that practicing law will be my passion for the next forty years and I want to devote all of my efforts to it.  Therefore, I thought that traveling the country for a year would be a mind-broadening experience and prepare me to focus thereafter exclusively on my career.”

He suggested I explain not being at the top of the class, as follows:  ‘I felt it was important to have a well-rounded law school experience, so I focused on clinical work and also on taking a variety of classes, no matter how difficult.  That is why my grades were not as high as they could have been, but I am well-prepared to practice law.’”

“But what if the truth is that my grades were actually terrible?” I asked.  “If it weren’t for the kids from Vietnam and Mongolia I might have finished at the bottom.”

He paused for a long moment.  “I hate to say this, but if you tell the truth, you will probably not get hired.”

“What if I lie and they check?”

“You will definitely not get hired.”

“Are you suggesting I lie and hope they do not check?”

A long silence:  “I could never suggest that you lie, but — just hope they don’t ask specifically about class rank.”

I received another interview and approached it with a different perspective:  less open, perhaps, but more prepared.  So long as they did not ask directly about my grades, I told as compelling a story of an ardent young attorney as anyone could want.  The law was my love, my focus, my lifelong passion.

Like magic, I appeared to be a wonderful prospect.  The interviewer at the classy New Jersey firm was so impressed that he called in two other partners to meet me.  No one mentioned grades, so delighted were they with my visionary, year-long trek across the country.

“I wish I’d done that,” said one.

“What a wonderful idea,” said another.

“You must have seen so much,” said the third.

“Oh, yes,” I said.  “You can hardly imagine.”

I neglected to say my cross-country trip was completed in less than four days and the only sights I saw were three Hotel 6’s with entrances off Routes 40 and 70.  A job offer ensued and, for better or worse, I was firmly ensconced in the life of a young associate within days.

Is there a lesson here?  Is honesty always the best policy?  What would I say if one of my children asked for advice before an interview?   As my brother said, I could never tell them to lie, exactly, but, sometimes, the truth may need a little finesse.