Guest post: How to perform well at an interview for a training contract

This is a guest post from the recruitment partner at a top international law firm (who has chosen to remain anonymous due to the firm’s guidelines). I’m really grateful as I think that it contains some great advice, and some excellent example questions for students to think about:

We are often surprised at how many candidates, who are first class on paper, fall down at interview due to lack of thorough preparation. The candidates that stand out and perform particularly well don’t blind us with legal brilliance (which would be hard to do in a 45 minute interview) nor have they mastered some dark art of interview techniques. Rather, they have really thought about the firm they are applying to and what the interviewers are likely to ask them and want to hear. That is, they have worked out what the firm is aspiring to be and why and are able to talk about, amongst other things, the training contract, the types of work undertaken, the clients, the culture and what challenges the firm faces. They also convince us that they really want to be lawyers in a city law firm and are not just going through the motions.

Whilst no two interviews are going to be the same, even within the same law firm, candidates applying for city firms can expect to be asked similar questions. For those who have been through the summer scheme programmes and/or the trainee contract interview process many of the questions below will be familiar but for the uninitiated here are some of the likely questions for you to ponder. Often there are no right or wrong answers and I am not going to give them to you now; that would be no fun! Be prepared to explain yourself clearly and convincingly and be ready to defend your position when challenged.

So here is a sample “Top 10” set of questions you will need to be able to answer off the bat:

1. Why are you interested in pursuing a career in law rather than working in say an investment bank or large accountancy firm? What do you think the differences between the jobs would be?

2. What interests you in particular about this law firm and what other law firms have you applied to?

3. [For those who have done work experience] Explain one piece of work you did during your work experience and what the legal issues where (you will not be asked to disclose confidential information!)?

4. How does a law firm like this assist its key clients and discuss some of the jobs that you know the firm has been involved in?

5. Which teams from the firm would need to get involved in a global M&A transaction?

6. If you were a General Counsel at a client and a law firm was pitching to you, what would be the three most important things you would look for in your law firm?

7. What are your top 3 requirements from a training contract?

8. Discuss something you have seen in the news in the last 6 months which has an interesting legal slant to it?

9. What are the three biggest costs which a law firm faces?

10. What challenges and, potentially, opportunities do you think the economic downturn has created for city law firms?


Asking Google why you want to be a lawyer

It’s amazing how many statistics you can see behind a web-site – for mine, I have just noticed a list of the search terms that are used to find it. I was really surprised by what I saw – here is the list of the top 8 in order (which by the way represent over 95%):

Why do you want to be a lawyer” (283 times);

Why do you want to be a lawyer answer”;

Why do you want to be a lawyer interview answer”;

Why do you want to be a solicitor”;

Why do you want to be a lawyer interview question”;

Why do you want to be an attorney”;

Why do I want to be a lawyer”;

How to answer why do you want to be a lawyer”.

What I take from this is that students are asking Google why they want to be a lawyer, whether for interview preparation or as a career choice. I’m not sure what to make of this, except to wonder whether there are better tools to make careers choices, e.g. for students to really get to know themselves (likes and skills) and then to match to careers.

By the way (i) the post that they find is this one:, which probably doesn’t help; and (ii) it’s only by the time I get down to search term no. 9 that the subject changes, which is “Legal work experience”.

One-way video on application forms – a prediction

As a recruiter (and probably without knowing it, as a candidate), I look back at some interviews that very quickly and obviously became a waste of time.  I know that good interviewers do try to challenge their own assumptions, which are made based on their first impressions, but that can be hard.  And the problem is that interviewers feel obliged to fill up the allotted hour out of respect for the candidate – frustrating for both parties.  It’s not necessarily about bad candidates – there needs to be a mutual click at a human level that sometimes just isn’t there.

The point of this post is not actually to do with hiring experienced candidates.  In fact, this normally works well, as it is very common to use a specialist recruitment agency to filter down to only quality candidates.

It is more about the application process for first jobs – I’m thinking of training contracts at large law firms, and graduate schemes at banks and large multi-nationals, which all receive thousands of applicants.  The brutal reality is that very very few of the applicants are invited to the 2-way interview stage, whether face-to-face, by telephone or by video, because the internal recruitment teams have limited time / resources.  The risk is that they are missing some of the best candidates, based on a quick-skim of an application form, knowing that there are a limited number of interviewing hours in the calendar. 

For all of the jobs that I mention above, communication skills are crucial: both written and oral, but today’s application forms are performing the first filter based on only written skills – so I think that this is an inefficient and incomplete process.  That’s why I think the future application form for these types of jobs will include a video clip of applicants’ answers to a few questions: for example the “Tell us about a time…” type questions – this is already starting to catch on in the US. 

Students are very comfortable filming short clips and sharing them, and they don’t need a special room or to invest in any new technology.  And for the recruiter, it doesn’t take that long – they can watch these short clips in their own time, to get a more interesting first impression.  Most importantly they get better coverage, i.e. a good insight into many more candidates than they could dream of inviting to a first interview. 

So I predict that the one-way video will become a standard aspect of any graduate job application form, to quickly improve the quality of the candidates that are invited to the 2-way phase of the interview process.   In turn, this improves the quality of the cohort of new starters – thus giving the company / firm a competitive advantage.  What remains to be seen is when this happens, and whether they use a 3rd party outsourced provider, take a white label service integrated into their application process or simply ask applicants to paste links to a video of their answers.

[ 5th Feb 2013 postscript – this article was published at: ]

What is “Commercial awareness”?

All firms are looking for it, but what does “Commercial awareness” mean?
And how to prepare for an interview for a training contract to demonstrate your “Commercial Awareness”?
That’s what I was told and it’s probably very good advice, but it’s important to think about why. I made the mistake of thinking that it’s all about being able recount the chronological chapters in each news story. But it’s not.
The best interview question that I ever had (Magic Circle law firm) was “What should you think about if you were advising someone wanting to open a restaurant?” – oh dear, my avid reading of the FT and Economist hadn’t really prepared me for that.
Yes, these “case-study” type questions are all about commercial awareness – but it’s not about general knowledge – it’s more about having an opinion that you can defend, spotting the big issues, knowing what more information you need, dealing with ambiguity, problem solving, and structured thinking – all with a business-like approach. And I think that this can be practised.
I think that lawyers and candidates for legal jobs have a lot to learn from Management Consultants and their interview processes – this is from Bain –

Trap interview question no. 2 – Do you have any questions?

Writing a previous post about avoiding the obvious traps in an interview, which focused on “What are your weaknesses?”, made me think about another potential trap, which is right at the end of an interview: “do you have any questions?”

I interviewed a candidate once, and it was going really well until this part of the interview – i.e. good first impressions, good evidence of the right sort of skills, good experience and a nice manner.   But then I turned the interview over to the candidate – (by way of background I always allow as much time as the candidate wants for this, usually around 20 minutes of an hour, as even if they run out of questions, there is always more to follow up from the Q&A).  Anyway, this candidate wasted the opportunity of these crucial 20 minutes to ask mainly for my advice on how the drive to work would be: traffic conditions, best route, time of day to drive etc.  Really disappointing as the very good impression was unravelled – not by a difficult interview question, but by this avoidable mistake. 

Remember, an interview is a series of questions, all of which are answered from a high wire.  Any bad answer is an opportunity for the interviewer to mentally conclude “rejection”.

“Do you have any questions?” should be your opportunity to find out what you really want to know about any employer, but be careful.  You might at some stage want to know about how your drive to work would be, pay, pensions contributions, number of days’ holiday, working hours, flexible working opportunities, quality of meals, dress codes, but don’t ask questions about any of these.  None of these really matter in an interview as you could find out through other means, and they reveal a lack of understanding for the process and the interviewer. 

And more importantly it reveals that you are not giving enough respect to this opportunity to ask your questions of a senior lawyer at a potential future employer. 

This type of exchange is very different to a conversation with lawyers at a careers’ fair, which I wrote about last week, so in an interview it’s too late to show any uncertainty about your choice of a legal career. 

My tip:  demonstrate through your questions that you know about the job / firm and / or ask for a senior person’s insight into a real issue facing the employer. 

Trap interview question no. 1 – What are your weaknesses?

When I am recruiting for someone in my team, it’s probably no different to any other interview process – I receive details of lots of candidates, and try to narrow them down to one.
This narrowing down exercise could be by various means: by reading cvs, interviewing, reference checking, internal 2nd opinions and / or on-line tests. Recruiters use all of these techniques with one objective – which is to find a reason NOT to hire each candidate. It’s a “last one standing” approach, and I reckon that many hiring processes are the same.
So bear this in mind in an interview: be yourself and answer honestly, but don’t say anything to rule yourself out, and avoid the obvious traps. The first trap question is: What are your weaknesses?
I find it a bit annoying to be on the receiving end of that “weaknesses” question as it’s not the most imaginative, but we all need to be prepared for it. The worst answer to is to admit to a weakness that is fatal for the role – remember that the interviewer is looking for reasons to reject you.
But then again, I’m not sure that I agree with the standard advice that you should present a strength as a weakness, such as “I’m a perfectionist”, or “I find it frustrating when people with whom I work don’t pull their weight”. I don’t find that sort of answer credible.
So what’s the best answer? I’m still trying to work this out, but I think that it has to be genuine and credible – maybe to present a real weakness, but a solvable one. Or a weakness that is not relevant to the role of being a solicitor. Interested in anyone else’s view on this one.

Why do you want to be a lawyer?

This question is going to come up in any interview, so you can’t avoid it – perhaps not in those exact words – but by the end of your meeting, the person sitting on the other side of the table is going to want to be convinced as to whether or not you have the right motivation and potential to do the job.

In my group sessions, we explore this – I ask for people in the audience to give their own answer to that question in front of the group, and really appreciate it when somebody volunteers. I then ask others to give their comments.

It’s not an easy one to answer, because (let’s be honest) many people choose jobs for what are probably the wrong reasons – milk round visits, money only or perception of parents’ expectations. The reason that I chose law was probably not much more logical than any of those reasons – a really fun internship at Clifford Chance.

I have been asked a few times for tips on how to answer this one; but as I have said in a previous post, this isn’t a question that someone else can answer for you. I don’t think that any interviewer is expecting you to have a “calling” to law as some people do for charity work or medicine; but they do want a credible story. All I would say is that commercial law firms expect candidates to understand that the job is an academic and a commercial one, with a focus on clients.

Other than that, you should prepare your own well-practised credible answer – you are going to need it.
Do have a look through other tips in the archive folders on the left.

Practise answering those questions that you can’t predict

That title sounds strange, but I’ll try to explain what I mean.
Many interview questions are designed to make you think of an example story to demonstrate a particular competence. Then there might be follow up questions about how you dealt with the challenges along the way, and then perhaps in retrospect whether you’d have done anything differently.
So the point is that even though you can’t predict the specific question, it’s a good idea to think of a few examples of your most interesting professional experiences, and really analyse how you acted along the way – and then practise telling the story (see my previous post about rehearsing in front of friends or the mirror) – always bear in mind that these stories should demonstrate skills that are relevant to the role of being a lawyer.
And finally, yes, it’s OK to have made a mistake and describe it, as long as you have the self-awareness to realise that it was a mistake and show what you have learned.

Practise answering those questions that you can predict

There are a few questions that you can be quite sure will come up if you have a few interviews, such as:
Why do you want to be a lawyer?
Why this firm?
Tell me about yourself
In my coaching sessions, I make 3 points on this type of question:
1. I can’t answer these questions for candidates, because
2. they need to be answered in a sincere way with well practised answers; and
3. those answers should be concise.
Here I want to develop points 2 and 3. When I ask these (or any) questions, the worst answers are those that don’t seem to end – it is so frustrating when a candidate doesn’t stop talking.
Much better to rehearse answers to friends and in front of the mirror that last no more than 1 or 2 minutes, and then stop. After you have finished, be comfortable with a moment of silence while the interviewer digests your brilliant answer and moves to the next question.