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Preparing for training contract and vacation scheme interview questions

If you’ve been invited to an interview or assessment centre at a law firm rest assured that you’ve already impressed graduate recruiters with your application. Now find out how to prepare for interviews and tackle taxing questions.
Think about how events in the press (from the horse meat scandal to the government’s renewable energy plans) could provide work for a law firm or impact its clients.

Types of interviews | the questions you'll be asked | example questions from trainees | competency-based questions | commercial awareness questions | questions to ask your interviewers

Firms use interviews as an effective tool to: assess candidates against the firm's desired competencies; to understand your motivation; and to test your fit with the firm. In turn, interviews are an opportunity for you to assess the firm – hence the old, but true, cliché that it's a two-way process. Some law firms employ a two-stage interview process when recruiting graduates, consisting of a one-to-one interview followed by a second-round panel interview – often as part of a structured assessment day; others will just have the one stage. Either way you need to prepare.

Types of law interviews

  • One-to-one interviews are generally fairly structured, with the interviewer having a clear agenda that will be applied to all candidates. However, if the interviewer doesn’t ask you for information that you think is relevant, do politely interject it – perhaps at the end of the interview.
  • Panel interviews tend to involve HR professionals, the graduate recruitment partner and other partners or associates. When you are talking to the panel, remember that you are talking to all of them and not just the person who posed a particular question. Panel interviews may seem scary but they are probably the fairest type of interview as you are not dependent on one person’s assessment of you for the job.
  • Article’ interviews are used to test your commercial awareness. ‘We give an often obscure news article, unrelated to the legal sector, and ask you to review it,’ explains Kaylee Parkinson, graduate recruitment executive at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. ‘Think about the content and consider what the interviewers might ask you about. There are no right or wrong answers: the interviewers are looking at how you process information, discuss a topic and deal with their line of questioning.’

Before attending your interview, sign up for a practice interview session with your university careers service or get a friend to put you through your paces. Get honest feedback on your clarity, volume and tone – and take that on board in your training contract and vacation scheme interviews. ‘You will get better at interviews. Schedule interviews for the firms you are most interested in after those you are less interested in,’ advises Amelia Scott, graduate recruitment and development officer at Ashurst. 

The questions you may be asked at a training contract or vacation scheme interview

Broadly speaking, law interviewers use questions to test three things in a candidate: motivation; commercial awareness; and your skills and competencies. Be prepared to answer ‘Why a career in law?’ and ‘Why a career with this firm?’. Save talking about your legal work experience for motivation questions (as opposed to skills questions) – vacation schemes are an excellent opportunity to confirm whether you feel you are suited to a law firm or even a career in law. ‘I encourage candidates to talk about the skills they developed in, say, their regular part-time job rather than on a two-week vacation placement or open day – where, realistically, you have less time or opportunity to develop your soft skills,’ says the head of graduate recruitment at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.

Questions previously asked in training contract and vacation scheme interviews

Inside Buzz surveyed trainee solicitors about the questions they were asked in law interviews. Here’s what they revealed – notice the mix of questions around skills, commercial awareness and motivation.

‘I undertook a vacation scheme which had an exit interview. I was asked about my time over the two weeks, my feelings on the law, why I wanted to be a lawyer and why I wanted to work at Ashurst.’

Second-year trainee, Ashurst

‘Why CMS? Tell us of a time you worked in a team. Tell us of a time you solved a complex problem. Tell us what makes you suited to CMS.’

First-year trainee, CMS 

‘I was asked questions around commercial analysis, my perception of the legal market, current affairs and competency-based questions.’

First-year trainee, Eversheds

‘Why my department? My three greatest strengths and weaknesses? Six people I would invite to a dinner party? Greatest challenges facing lawyers in my field over next three years?’

Second-year trainee, Fieldfisher 

‘I was asked “Why do you want to be a lawyer?”, “Why the City?”, “Why not a barrister?”. We talked about the credit crunch and what I would do if I were an advisor to a national leader for the day (we covered different strategies for Germany, Britain and America). We discussed my degree, points at which I have been “persuasive” etc.’

First-year trainee, Herbert Smith Freehills

‘Questions: “Why do you want to be a corporate lawyer?”, “What was your favourite deal in the corporate group and why? Who did we act for? What do they do?”, “Was there tension between the management team and the private equity house during the MBO or management buy-out?”, “In an ECM deal, why did we list Zambian depositary receipts as opposed to shares?”’

Second-year trainee, Hogan Lovells

‘I was asked “If you were to speak at speaker’s corner, what topic would you speak about?”.’

Second-year trainee, Norton Rose Fulbright

‘Partner interview included personal questions, commercial awareness questions, questions testing awareness about the firm, and an exercise involving looking through a legal document.’

Trainee, London, Trowers & Hamlins

‘Questions are left field, usually moral and require to be argued eloquently. I was asked questions such as: “Is it ever acceptable to lie?”’

Second-year trainee, Travers Smith

How to answer competency-based questions in law interviews

Competencies are skills that recruiters specifically look for; great emphasis is placed on them as they indicate how you approach situations and will perform in a work environment. To succeed at interview think about which competencies are important in a legal sphere. Communication (eg the ability to communicate legal concepts to clients), resilience (eg the ability to overcome difficult situations and work under pressure), teamwork, persuasiveness, people skills, lateral thinking, problem solving and career motivation are some of the skills successful lawyers rely on. It’s important to check that particular firm’s website for a list of required competencies as they vary from firm to firm: some will value, say, creativity more than others.

‘It is important to have many examples to draw on to demonstrate key skills,’ says Luke Hurren, solicitor at Mills & Reeve LLP. ‘In an interview you will get asked questions such as “When have you had X happen to you, what did you do and what was the outcome?”. Whether it relates to team work or to a difficult moment, having strong answers to competency-based questions is vital. You may even get asked about times when you’ve made mistakes or things that haven’t gone your way. In these situations it is important to be honest as it gives the employer a chance to get to see the real you.’

Having a mental checklist of recent experiences (ideally from the last two to three years, recommends Ellinor Davey, graduate resourcing officer at RPC) to draw upon when answering questions will demonstrate to recruiters your strengths and skills across a range of situations. If you have experienced a vacation placement with the firm, prepare to be quizzed about your time at the firm and the work you carried out – use this experience to demonstrate your motivation and commitment to law. Be consistent with and expand on what you wrote on your application. Be aware that some interviewers will not have seen your application form: Clifford Chance asks its partners go into some interviews ‘blind’, only knowing a candidate’s name – this practice remains unusual, for now.

Be forthcoming with information but keep it structured and sum up what you have learned from your experiences. Kali Butler, graduate resourcing manager at RPC, recommends practising the ‘BACK model’ to structure your interview responses: ‘First, explain the Background (set the scene and your role in the situation); then go through the Actions you took; follow that by describing the Consequences of your actions; and, finally, reflect on the Knowledge you’ve learned as a result of your actions, eg “I didn’t delegate enough at the start of the project.”’ Kali urges students to think carefully about the examples they give in an interview: ‘All recruiters are trying to do in a competency-based interview is to predict future behaviour based on your examples of past behaviour.’ This model works well for competency-based questions, but wouldn't suit questions such as 'Tell me a bit about yourself'. 

How to answer commercial awareness questions in a law interview or assessment centre

If you’re interviewing at a commercial law firm, you should expect to be tested on your overall commercial awareness as well as knowledge of the firm. To improve your commercial nous, read about deals and stories in a business sector that genuinely interests you, be it a football club’s administration if you’re a sports fan or the merger of two retail giants if fashion is your passion, advises Samantha Hope, graduate recruitment manager at Shoosmiths. ‘Doing so will make the whole process easier and more enjoyable, and ensure that your enthusiasm for the business world really comes across at interview,’ she explains.

You don’t need an in-depth understanding of commercial issues, but firms want to see that you have a grasp of business issues that could impact on clients and are willing to consider the commercial implications of different situations. Read a quality daily newspaper and explore business and legal issues in some depth – think about how events in the press (from the horsemeat scandal to the government’s renewable energy plans) could provide work for a law firm or impact its clients. ‘Watching the news just a little bit every day, or reading The Economist, will mean that you’re not fazed by business talk,’ points out Katie Meer, the graduate recruitment adviser at Shearman & Sterling.

Spend some time finding out about the firm you’re hoping to work for, using its website as a starting point. Don’t just memorise lists of clients – give yourself some context by researching key, recent cases (from the last 12 months) and get your head around their main markets. ‘Mention specifics: names of clients, major deals or practice awards – we want to be flattered and know that you are aware of what the firm is doing. Don’t just name-drop from the firm’s website; know the ins and outs,’ warns Katie.

Questions to ask interviewers in your training contract or vacation scheme interview

To show you are enthusiastic and committed to a future with that particular law firm, make sure that you have some questions prepared. Think about the issues that would affect you and your decision to work there. Pitch your questions depending on who is interviewing you: partners or graduate recruitment specialists – partners are unlikely to know about the structure of the training programme just as graduate recruiters will not be familiar with the detail of individual deals.

Perhaps pull out some issues from recent press articles or ask what the interviewers most enjoy about working at the firm or how the development of trainees is managed. ‘If in doubt, always ask the partners about themselves,’ suggests Catherine McGee, graduate recruitment officer at Hogan Lovells. ‘Ask how they got into their area of law, their client base, the type of work they do and what they enjoy about being at the firm. Those questions show that you have a real interest in the firm and the opportunities available.’

The interview should be about you assessing the firm too. ‘Don’t ask something that you could have easily found out on the internet,’ warns Zoe Reid, trainee recruitment officer at Osborne Clarke. ‘It’s a better idea to demonstrate that you’ve done your research – perhaps there’s a particular deal or a particular sector that we operate in that you’re interested in and want to know more about. Questions should be very targeted towards us, rather than generic.’

Don’t ask for feedback at the end of the interview, but be sure to contact the recruitment team for feedback at a later date if you’re unsuccessful at making it through to the next stage – they will be able to identify something you can improve on for future interviews.