Succeeding at the Clifford Chance assessment day: the case study and competency interviews

Interviews form an important part of the Clifford Chance assessment day – so much so that there are two interviews to complete as part of the process. The assessment day structure is identical whether candidates have applied for a vacation scheme or training contract: a Watson-Glaser critical reasoning test; a case study interview; and a competency-based interview – there are no group exercises. There’s a lunch with fellow candidates (typically 20 people per assessment day in 2013), followed by an informal tour of the offices by trainee solicitors.

Interview questions will not be based on your application form answers

As part of its diversity policy, and to encourage recruitment from a wide range of universities, Clifford Chance is one of the few City law firms that asks its interviewers to interview ‘blind’, without seeing the candidates’ application forms beforehand. The application forms are reviewed by the graduate recruitment team but are not seen by the interviewers for the case study and competency-based interviews. The interviewers – typically a partner and an associate (or a HR team member who hasn’t assessed that candidate’s form) only know the name of the candidate.

Interview 1: Clifford Chance case study interview

You will be given documents outlining a business scenario to read 15 minutes before the case-study interview. Your ideas on how to approach the scenario will be the basis for a discussion with the interviewers. Jane Croft-Baker, graduate recruitment specialist at Clifford Chance, explains: ‘Candidates must present on the salient points. We are looking for candidates to decide on a certain course of action. The interviewers then ask them additional questions about the case study. We’re not expecting any legal knowledge to answer the question. The case study has a commercial, rather than law, focus so as not to put non-law students at a disadvantage – candidates need to put themselves in the mind set of working for a law firm, however, and ask themselves about the client’s and the firm’s needs and priorities in that situation.’

How can you prepare for the case study interview?

It can be difficult to predict what the topic of your case study could be, but there are ways to practise the skills that will be tested in the interview. ‘We’re looking for the way aspiring trainees present their ideas – their communication and listening skills – and how they structure their responses when interviewers probe further,’ explains Jane. ‘Mock interviews, offered by university careers services, are useful preparation. It’s about understanding the importance of a timed exercise – how to gather their thoughts together in a logical and organised way and then present those ideas to the interviewer in a convincing and creative way.’

As well as mock interviews with your careers service, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on current affairs and the business press. Choose a particular news story that interests you and give yourself 15 minutes to think about the most important issues and how they might be relevant to a law firm. Choose a story involving one of Clifford Chance’s clients, such as Siemens. Note down a few points and then discuss them with a willing friend.

An example Clifford Chance case study question: One of our clients is experiencing manufacturing problems, what's your advice?

For a lawyer to provide appropriate legal counsel, they need to understand their client's needs. Commercial clients have one overarching requirement: to make profit. Manufacturing issues could negatively impact profit in two ways:

  1. Profit is revenue minus costs. Revenue depends on units sold; manufacturing issues limit units sold and, therefore, profit made.
  2. Manufacturing issues engender supply chain risk: aggrieved parties along the supply chain might lodge expensive claims, and this would also affect profit.

As the client's lawyer, you can't fix a conveyor belt but you can protect them from aggrieved parties on the supply chain. Your approach should be to explain your grasp of the situation as above. Search the case study material for answers to questions such as: does the client have well-drafted commercial agreements? Are they clear on their duties and liabilities? Is there the possibility of a commercial dispute? Could the end-game of this manufacturing issue be insolvency? When you come across areas that need to be addressed, note them down – these should form the basis for your presentation.

The interviewers will steer the discussion once you have presented your findings, but you should take the initiative and ask relevant questions in order to impress. If the interviewers challenge your points, take into consideration what they are saying and decide whether you need to change your advice. Don’t, however, agree with their opinion just because you think you should – the interviewers want to see that you can be flexible when appropriate, but hold your ground when confident.

Interview 2: how to impress in the Clifford Chance competency interview

Clifford Chance’s assessment day includes a competency interview designed to determine whether you have the skills needed to succeed as a trainee solicitor. Establishing a candidate’s skill set is a crucial part of the assessment centre: ‘We have designed the assessment days very specifically to gain evidence of the competencies we look for; we don’t mark candidates against each other,’ says Jane Croft-Baker.

The impetus is on you to demonstrate your abilities in this interview. As Jane told us: ‘Our interviewers only know the name of the candidate, so it’s up to the individual to shine and make sure that they draw on their experiences as evidence of the various competencies we look for. The interviewer won’t ask questions such as "So we see you’re the captain of the netball team, tell us more about that leadership role".’

Clifford Chance interviewers will be looking for clear evidence of the competencies: research which competencies they seek using the videos on the firm’s graduate recruitment website.

This part of the assessment day is an opportunity to sell yourself. Clifford Chance likes what it saw on your application form and wants to ensure you're as good in person as on paper. Make sure you are familiar with what you wrote in your application and have plenty of examples to hand of times when you have demonstrated Clifford Chance's required competencies.

What questions are asked in the Clifford Chance competency interview?

Here are some examples of questions previously asked in Clifford Chance interviews, with tips on how to answer them.

Why are you applying to be a trainee here?

Have an idea about which practice you would like to join on qualification (while keeping in mind that training contracts are designed to expose trainees to a range of practice areas before qualification). Research it (and other practice areas) via Clifford Chance’s website and the trade press. Who heads the practice? What cases is it working on currently? You should also be able to explain why this is the sort of work you are particularly suited for. It might be a good idea to focus on banking and finance, capital markets or corporate – these are the firm’s core practice areas and you’ll be required to spend time in each of them.

To make your answer specific to Clifford Chance (which is important), you may want to mention any occasions when you have spoken to recruiters or lawyers from the firm – for example, at open days, careers service presentations or one of its ‘Meet the Recruiters’ Q&A sessions on Facebook. What did they say that made you interested in the firm? You could also consider specific aspects of the training contract when forming your answer – how does the possibility of a client secondment to Barclays, for example, fit in with your career aims?

Have you ever overcome a significant obstacle to achieve an objective?

Any interviewer would be interested in a situation you resolved with leadership or dispute resolution abilities. Also keep in mind that one of Clifford Chance’s competencies is ‘problem solving with commercial insight’ – if you can choose an example that combines leadership with commercial awareness, then you’ll be off on the right foot.

An example answer that would satisfy all of the above criteria is: there was a shortfall in funds when you were treasurer of the student union; you had to raise £1,000; you rallied a team to organise fundraising; you exceeded the target by £100. Having a quantitative element to your answer, eg the money raised, further underlines your commercial awareness. If you haven’t led a project or team, consider ways you’ve demonstrated leadership qualities, eg negotiating a reduced rent of your term-time accommodation.

Do you prefer working alone or in a team?

Give an example that illustrates your ability to work both independently and in a team. Clifford Chance is looking for trainees who can prioritise their workload and organise their time to meet deadlines. On the other hand, they must accept the limits of their ability and be willing to ask for help when appropriate. Trainees also need to able to integrate with a broad spectrum of people: you’ll be changing seats every six months, and there’s a good chance one of those will be overseas or with an external client – you’ll have to build relationships quickly.

An example of managing conflict that satisfies all of the above criteria is: the charity event you helped to organise lost one of its key sponsors at the last minute; there was another possible sponsor but its environmental record is questionable and your fellow decision-makers were divided into two camps – ‘easy money’ vs ‘preserve integrity’; you persuaded them to do some cold-calling to find a series of smaller, universally-accepted sponsors; the event went ahead and your team raised £3,000 for your charity. An example like this shows your ability to be persuasive as an independent thinker as well as your skill at working towards a common goal. Remember, a quantitative element underlines commercial awareness.

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