'Recruiters use group exercises to see aspiring solicitors in action. In interviews, we don’t have the luxury of seeing candidates interact with peers.'
If your training contract or vacation scheme application is successful, chances are you’ll be invited to an assessment centre at the law firm’s offices.
In this article, we write about assessment centres as if they are going ahead in a face-to-face environment. However, if the coronavirus pandemic continues to make remote working a necessity, firms may consider running virtual assessment days over a digital platform. If you are invited to a virtual assessment centre, much of the advice we give to prepare still holds true.
The three types of group exercises you’ll find at law assessment days
- A practical exercise, which may not be work related. As a group, you could be asked to build a bridge out of buckets and planks of wood, or create the tallest object you can out of a pile of newspapers. ‘This type of exercise is less about your individual knowledge and technical understanding, and more about your interpersonal skills and ability to work in a team,’ explains Lucy.
- A role play exercise. Each candidate is given a role in, say, a mock client meeting and needs to fulfil their own objectives in that role and group. ‘We’re testing your technical knowledge as well as commercial and interpersonal skills,’ says Lucy. When we interviewed Rob Wilson, partner at CMS's Edinburgh office for TARGETjobs Law, he explained how his firm uses the role play exercise: ‘During our assessment day, we ask aspiring trainees to participate in an exercise that involves advising on a fictitious global transaction. These exercises often draw out candidates who have a better understanding of what’s important to the client and how law firms operate. We’re not expecting candidates to have all of the right answers, but someone who can identify the key elements that need to be considered in a transaction is impressive. It demonstrates that they are asking the right questions and thinking things through in advance.’
- A discussion-based exercise, aka a leaderless group exercise. Candidates are given a scenario, facts and information, and they need to come up with an answer or recommendations as a group. In a Reed Smith mock group exercise, the attendees had to work out which day of the week a structure in a mythical city was completed. Each team member was given three pieces of information that they could verbally communicate to, rather than show, their team mates (including some red herrings).
Assessment centres last half a day or a full day and may be made up of any of the following: panel interviews (with partners and/or the HR team), presentations, aptitude tests, a tour of the offices, a networking lunch, written exercises and group exercises. Let the following advice help you shine during the group exercise. ‘Recruiters use group exercises to see aspiring solicitors in action,’ explains Lucy Crittenden, graduate recruitment manager at Reed Smith. ‘Vacation schemes aside, it’s one of the only ways we can do that. In interviews, we don’t have the luxury of seeing candidates interact with peers. The theory behind using assessment exercises is that those who perform well in them typically go on to perform well in the job.’
The skills you need to demonstrate during the group exercise
In a real assessment centre, participants are typically put in groups of four to eight candidates and are ‘people-marked’ by assessors; typically, one observer per candidate writes down everything that the individual says or does. ‘Ignore the assessors as best you can and treat the group exercise like a real work meeting,’ advises Lucy.
In all of the above types of group exercise, assessors look for:
- Team-working ability. Recruiters want to see that you can collaborate with others – an important skill for solicitors.
- Problem-solving skills.
- Social and communication skills. Crucially, communication does not just mean speaking or writing; it includes active listening. A candidate who says ‘Jo had a good point earlier. She mentioned X and Y. Can you talk through that point again Jo?’ shows they are listening to others’ ideas (rather than concentrating on making themselves heard) and are skilled at drawing others into a discussion.
- Ability to work to deadlines and under pressure. You’ll be given a time within which to complete your group task. Solicitors work to deadlines all the time – make sure you can demonstrate your time management skills by keeping track of time.
- Decisiveness and critical thinking.
- Leadership skills. If you’re not assigned a leadership role by the recruiter, it’s ok to take that on. Don’t feel you need to take the lead for the whole exercise (that could come across as overbearing) but perhaps identify an area you’re strong on – time-keeping or, if you’ve got clear handwriting or are artistic, writing up recommendations on the flipchart – and offer to take that on. ‘Students shouldn’t feel under pressure to take on the role of group leader,’ adds Lucy. ‘There are other roles to play within a group which might better suit your strengths and help the group to be more effective. Often we see students who try to take on the role of leader, but then forget to demonstrate the other skills we are looking for as they perceive that employers are only looking for leaders (or those people who speak the most).’
- Commercial awareness – particularly in the role play or discussion-based exercises involving a client scenario.
Tips on how best to prepare for and perform in the group exercise
- Make use of your careers service and the content on sites such as targetjobslaw.co.uk when researching. Some careers services offer mock assessment centres – use them!
- Try to find out which of the three types of group exercise you’ll be given – go to our employer profiles to use the Insider Reviews from trainees to hear how they succeeded at assessment centres (and they obviously did: they’re in the job now). ‘It’s worth emailing the recruiter beforehand to try to find out,’ says Ella Keefe, graduate recruitment and inclusion co-coordinator at Reed Smith.
- Look the part of a lawyer and dress smartly. At the group exercise I attended it was difficult to tell the students apart from the trainee solicitors – they’d all made an effort to leave a good impression.
- Take well-structured notes – they will help you give feedback after the exercise.
- Follow instructions and take a systematic approach. Keep reminding yourself: ‘What are we being asked here?’
- Try to take on a role. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t have to be a leadership role – ‘Being a timekeeper, facilitator or note taker is useful too,’ adds Ella. ‘Not everyone can be a leader.’
- Refer to other teammates by their names. Take the initiative of asking everyone to introduce themselves at the start and don’t rely on name cards or badges alone: recruiters have been known to quiz candidates about the group exercise later on in the assessment day when you won’t have a prompt to remind you of your teammates’ names.
- Maintain eye contact, smile and use positive body language, such as leaning in and unfolding your arms.
- ‘Be your best self’ was the mantra used at Reed Smith. Maintain a balance between contributing and listening. Collaborate, let others speak and allow teammates to take on a role. Mind your manners, be considerate and give positive, constructive feedback about your teammates’ ideas.
- Stay calm and be mindful of time – particularly in an exercise where you need to come to a conclusion.
- Try to establish the skills set of the team members early on. In the mock group exercise I observed, the winning team identified the mathematicians in their group and delegated the maths element of the exercise to them. They completed the task in 20 minutes – half the allotted time.
- Be self-aware of your own personality. Do you lean more towards being an extrovert or an introvert? There’s a place for both at a law firm so be yourself. Assessors are impressed when a confident participant draws a quieter candidate into the discussion so if you know you’re an extrovert, make sure you involve the introverts in your team. Rather than put quieter members on the spot by asking them ‘What do you think?’, you could ask them whether they agree with a point you’ve made or ask them if your point makes sense.
- Don’t put yourself down by saying things like: ‘I’m not being very clear, am I?’, ‘I can’t do maths!’ or ‘I’m not explaining this very well, am I?’. Remember to ‘be your best self’ and don’t reveal any weaknesses or nerves but, rather, ask for feedback about your idea: ‘Does that make sense?’ or ‘Does anyone come to a different conclusion?’.
- Be creative – if there are visual aids or flipcharts in the room, assume they are there for a reason and use them to present information.
- If your group is getting bogged down in the detail or starts going off on at a tangent, why not show your leadership skills by suggesting you all take two minutes to think about what the objective of the task is or recap on what you’ve discovered so far. At the Reed Smith event, current trainees recommended that it’s good practice to take a break when you start being unproductive and remind yourself of what’s being asked of you – that’s what you would do as a trainee.
- Wear a watch! The room you’re in may not have a clock on the wall.
- You can practise for group exercises here.
Thank you to the graduate recruitment team at Reed Smith for letting me be a fly on the wall at their mock group exercise afternoon at their London offices. Most of these hints and tips came out of that day – Julia, editor, TARGETjobs Law.