Answering the competency questions on Simmons & Simmons' training contract application form

Talk about projects that have a strong commercial or financial component.

Simmons & Simmons’ application form for both vacation placements and training contracts features the same three competency questions. We’ve suggested different approaches to the questions depending on whether you’re applying for a vacation scheme or a training contract. Think about referring to a different aspect of your experience in each answer, perhaps taking an example from law-related work experience, non-law related work experience, part-time paid jobs, any volunteer/charity work and university life.

Question one

Key to being a successful trainee at Simmons & Simmons is being able to build positive relationships with a variety of clients and colleagues from different backgrounds. Please describe a relationship you developed with someone which you found to be challenging, preferably in a work environment. Explain why this was the case and what steps you took to ensure it was a success. (250 words max)

How to approach: In their recruitment literature the firm emphasises the importance of having highly developed interpersonal skills. That is what this question is really testing – the firm wants to know that you can muck in and work as part of a team as you’ll be required to do so both as a trainee solicitor and a vac schemer. It also wants to know whether (as a trainee) it can put you in a room with a client and trust that business will go smoothly. For example, in the funds team that forms part of Simmons & Simmons’ financial services department, trainees can expect large amounts of client contact from the word go. Think about the variety of client-centred scenarios you’ll be involved in during your rotations.

Given the word limit, your answer should explain what made the relationship ‘challenging’. Note that ‘challenging’ does not necessarily mean conflict or confrontation, and that you argued with this person non-stop. It could be a question of perspective – perhaps there was a clash of ideas between you and someone else over which course of action to take. So, how did you work together to find a compromise?

More and more trainees have had earlier career experiences, so remember that you’ll be competing with people who may have had much more hands-on experience in the workplace than you. Try and pick an example that allows you to illustrate skills that a solicitor would need, such as the ability to successfully liaise with somebody and come up with a practical, workable solution rather than an academic argument.

Your example does not necessarily need to be taken from some law-related work experience; it’s more important that you show how you were flexible and adaptable in dealing with this ‘challenging’ relationship. Flexibility, assertiveness and resourcefulness are key: the firm won’t be interested in meeting anyone who portrays themselves as bullish. When it comes to tasks like drafting or working with detailed documents, practising lawyers have to acknowledge that other interpretations are possible and that there are different ways of interacting with clients in order to get the best outcome.

Question two

As a trainee at Simmons & Simmons, you will need to operate in a fast-paced environment, effectively prioritising tasks and quickly learning and adapting to the demands placed on you. Please tell us about a time when you have had to adapt quickly to change/learn quickly in a new environment. How did you manage this? What did you find most challenging about this process? (250 words max)

This question is examining your ability to be resilient and adaptable. Working for a commercial law firm can be a fast-paced environment where information comes in thick and fast and may affect how you proceed with a project. In your answer you should refer to a past situation where you had to change your priorities. A commercial, hands-on internship or period of work experience could be the basis of a good answer, or indeed any situation where you had responsibilities placed on you and had to cope with pressure. Think about jobs and paid work you’ve done in the past that required you to pick up new skills quickly and perform unfamiliar tasks independently, with little or no training.

Question three

At Simmons & Simmons we look for people who are highly motivated and can take the initiative to deliver a high quality of service to our clients. Tell us about a time when you have had to show real determination to complete a challenging task/project. What did you specifically do to achieve it? What obstacles did you have to overcome? (250 words max)

How to approach: Start by contextualising the task/project – what was at stake and what made it so challenging? ‘You specifically’ are the crucial words here: what concrete, pragmatic steps did you take in order to overcome the obstacles and finish the job? For example, it’s not enough to simply say you ‘worked really hard and put in overtime’; you also need to explain how you prioritised your time to focus on certain important parts of the task. You are trying to show recruiters that you took an intelligent approach to the task that required plenty of initiative, as well as fortitude.

This question allows you to show life experience as well as an awareness of ‘life beyond the law’ – both of which are important to the firm. It’s also an opportunity to demonstrate your commercial awareness in action. Given that it’s compulsory for trainees at Simmons & Simmons to complete at least one seat with the financial markets team and one with 'CoCom' (corporate/commercial), applicants can’t afford to be complacent about these areas. If you can talk about a project/task that has a strong commercial or financial component (eg participating in fundraising activities and hitting fundraising targets) it can help to underline how well your background and skills dovetail with the firm’s recruitment criteria for trainees.

Consider also that some of the firm’s legal areas, such as capital markets, are renowned for the large amounts of administrative and secretarial work involved. It falls to trainees to complete these tasks, so you need to show that you’re not precious about carrying out more mundane, repetitive work in order to get a job done.

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