When I’ve asked attorneys about their strengths, loyalty is a surprisingly common answer.

Loyalty can refer to many things—dedication to a mission, excellent client service, practice area, professionalism, personal improvement, and more. In this context, however, attorneys are often referring to loyalty to an employer.

They give this answer for primarily two reasons. First, they believe employers value loyalty, and that they are more likely to be hired by a potential employer if they’ve demonstrated loyalty to previous employers. Second, they can’t readily think of other strengths (which is a warning sign itself, though one that can sometimes be addressed through interview preparation).

The problem is this: what these job hunting attorneys sometimes see as “loyalty,” their would-be employers sometimes see as “lack of drive.”

Why the disconnect?

Loyalty, of course, is a good thing. Employers do in fact want to hire employees would will stick with them, perform with technical excellence, and act with the employers’ best interests in mind. That’s the sort of loyalty they want to see in job candidates’ cover letters and resumes and that’s the sort of loyalty they want to hear about in job candidates’ interviews.

However, when I ask attorneys to give me examples of their loyalty, their examples invariably center on staying in a particular job for a long time. Often a very long time. Sometimes well past the expected length of time that a person of reasonable ambition, drive, smarts, talent, creativity, and energy would tolerate, occasionally in the face of consistent action (or inaction) by the employer suggesting they don’t respect or value that person—such as refusal to promote or, worse, reduction in responsibilities and title (I’m not referring to challenges caused by the difficult economy, but rather to reductions that are implicitly or explicitly performance related), or even verbal and emotional mistreatment.

I recently asked an attorney (*this example is a composite) for an example demonstrating his loyalty. He told me that, on the side, he had worked as a barista for nearly fifteen years. He loved the company and he loved working with and serving people.

Now, he truly enjoyed the coffee scene. However, consider this information from the perspective of a law firm or company looking to hire a lawyer with three to five years of experience.

Pretend you are the hiring attorney. You are interviewing a job candidate who meets all your technical criteria. He has a professional degree, license to practice law in your state, and several years of on-point legal and corporate experience. He’s wonderful to talk to—friendly, professional, and knowledgeable. You think he’d fit well into the organization’s structure and culture. You’re reaching the end of the interview, and so you throw out a standard interview question—you ask him to name one of his strengths. He says loyalty. You ask him to elaborate… now you learn he’s been a barista for nearly fifteen years.

As an attorney handling hiring, you’re a skeptic—by nature, training, and experience. You are looking for weaknesses in applicants’ candidacies because you don’t want to make a costly error by hiring the wrong person. So let’s look at this information from a harsh, cold, skeptic’s point of view.

There are so many other things related to coffee (and the coffee scene) that he could have done during the last fifteen years. He could have become an expert-hobbyist, started a nationally known blog, written a book on rare coffees, been a part owner of a local bookstore and café, invested in a coffee plantation in Panama, gone on coffee-centric jaunts around the world, focused his law practice on serving the coffee industry… the list is endless. But instead he informs you that he chose to spend those fifteen years working part-time in a minimum wage-ish, entry-level position often filled by students whose inability to spell is so legendary that there are several websites dedicated to it.

Again, you are the hiring attorney. Do you hear “loyalty”? Or warning bells?