Preparing for training contract and vacation scheme interview questions
If you’ve been invited to an interview or assessment centre at a law firm 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 Brexit negotiations to a third runway at Heathrow) could provide work for a law firm or impact its clients.
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.
- Video interviews are used to assess whether a candidate and firm are a good match before inviting that applicant to an assessment centre. There are two types of video interviews used by law firms – live interviews using a platform such as Skype or Zoom, and automated, recorded on-screen interview questions via third party software from companies. Video interviews are being increasingly used instead of in-person interviews due to social distancing restrictions used to slow the spread of coronavirus – but much of our advice for face-to-face interviews and assessment days will also be useful for virtual ones.
- 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. ‘The interviewers will give you a news article, often unrelated to the legal sector, and ask you to review it. 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.
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?’. As Ben Wilkinson, partner at White & Case LLP, explains: 'I’ve been involved in graduate recruitment for most of my career. One of the things that can sway an interviewer is someone who can very clearly explain what it is that attracts them to that particular firm, and why they are a good fit.'
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.
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 a 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, early talent lead 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. Using the ‘BACK model’ helps you to organise 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.' Think carefully about the examples you 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'.
Whereas competency questions test your ability to do the job based on past experience, strengths-based questions seek to discover how well you are likely to do the job. Some firms are moving away from the former to the latter. Typical strengths based questions include: ‘When do you feel most inspired?’ and ‘What would your perfect day look like?’. Recruiters will have decided which strengths they are testing for in each question (eg relationship building) and they will gauge how well you would do in the job based on your answer.
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 Brexit negotiations to a third runway at Heathrow) 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.
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.
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. Chris Brown, partner at Norton Rose Fulbright LLP, recommends asking: 'What challenges does your firm face to maintain or grow its position in the market?' – a useful question for both interviews and networking events.
Criminal partner at Albin & Co, Kate Macnab, says: 'Ask an advocate to tell you about their last successful trial – that’ll take a long time, be entertaining and they will remember you were interested!'
Other suggestions include pulling out some issues from recent press articles, or asking 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 the 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, graduate recruitment manager 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.
While we've got you here, did you know that massive changes to the way solicitors qualify are on the horizon with the new SQE law exam. Do you know how they will affect you? Find out here.