How to survive: assessment days
20 February 2012 | By Laura Manning
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Assessment days at your prospective firm can be a daunting experience but the opportunity to turn the eye of judgement around is there to use to your advantage.
Law firm’s recruitment processes are becoming more candid in their approach, openly tempting students with their interactive websites and dazzling freebies. Indeed, the truth is they are indirectly trying to sell themselves to the best and brightest candidates just as much as you are trying to sell yourselves to the firms.
Keeping this in mind, attending an assessment day is really an opportunity to stand up and dazzle your prospective employee with strengths that simply cannot be reflected on paper or in an interview; and the latter depends greatly on whether you successfully strike a rapport with the interviewer.
Shining the spotlight back on the firm will give you the opportunity to not only get to the roots of the firm but also decide whether you can truly picture yourself being a trainee solicitor there. Firms generally recognise this and many will offer candidates the chance to rub shoulders with current trainees over lunch so you can hear first-hand what it is like to train at the firm.
What to expect
Still the prospect of a bunch of ‘assessors’, usually including partners or members or the graduate recruitment team, watching your every move can be intimidating, but the range of different activities may actually be quite fun when you get into it.
First, the good news. Not all assessment days last the whole day. On the whole they often take up either the morning or the afternoon, starting with a presentation about the firm. The presentation is aimed to bring greater understanding of the culture, ethos and long-term vision of the potential employer, taking you beyond what is available on the website.
The presentation is typically followed by:
* Break out session (tea/coffee or perhaps lunch)
* Written tests
* Role play
* Group exercises
Break out session
The break out session allows you to network and mingle with your potential future colleagues, and give you the chance to quiz current trainees on their experiences of working life.
Useful questions to throw at the trainees might be:
* What difficulties did you encounter while looking for a training contract?
* Why did you choose firm X?
* What is your trainee intake like? Have you bonded well?
* Which department are you currently in, where do you hope to qualify and why?
* What does your typical day involve?
* What’s the hardest thing about being a trainee?
* How did you cope with the transition from being a student to life as a trainee?
* What are your working hours like?
* How is work allocated to you and how much responsibility do you get?
* How did your firm cope with the economic downturn?
* Where did you go to law school and what is the Legal Practice Course like?
* Do you have any regrets about training at firm X or indeed training as a solicitor?
Ensure that you be yourself but are respectful. The trainees could well be asked their opinions.
In recent years extra layers of testing has been introduced into the ‘application stage’, with a number of firms radically overhauling their selection procedures in a bid to weed out weak applicants.
With competition for training contracts remaining high, many top firms have added new exercises combining a mixture of psychometric testing, verbal reasoning and critical thinking.
Herbert Smith added two new exercises to its recruitment process, which include an online situational judgement test, which the candidate has to take when they first fill in their application form. A logical reasoning test has also been added to the existing verbal reasoning exam.
In some cases, you will be invited to complete written tests after the original application form, with law firms such as Clifford Chance asking students to complete a situational judgment test and online verbal reasoning test as the second and third stages of application prior to the assessment day. As with other law firms, tests of some sort remain a common component of the actual assessment day, with Clifford Chance requiring an additional Verbal Reasoning Test, which is paper-based.
Situational Judgment test
This is becoming more commonplace, with many law firms giving candidates a short questionnaire, which comprise a series of situations or scenarios similar to those you may encounter as a trainee. Some law firms put a twist on this, combining the questions into an interactive video of sorts, although this is often separate from applications and there to test your commercial awareness.
These tests frequently appear, asking questions along the lines of: would you most describe yourself as truthful, honest, loyal, helpful? First thing to remember is - there are no right or wrong answers. But despite it not being possible to practise these sort of tests with regard to improving your answers, the experience of simply sitting one can be of help.
SNR Denton, that recently introduced an Occupational Personality Questionnaire into its recruitment process, asks questions on whether the person thinks they are an optimist, whether they believe themselves to be good at generating ideas and if they are someone who is confident when meeting new people.
SNR graduate recruitment partner Jeremy Cape advises: “When answering each question be as discerning as possible by using a full range of possible responses. People seem to be reluctant to say that they ‘strongly agree’ or ‘strongly disagree’ with statements.”
“Also, try to respond from a work perspective. We’re not that interested in whether you are optimistic about the Ashes. A great tip is to reflect on your work style, before you even take the questionnaire.”
Most importantly, try not to second guess what the assessors are looking for, but be honest with your answers - Be warned: apparently testers can tell when someone has panicked or is not being consistent with the truth!
Despite its name, this is actually a written assessment, and requires you to read a passage of test and consider a series of multiple-choice answers or a statement made about it. Here you would have to decipher if:
* the statement is definitely true
* the statement is definitely untrue
* there is not enough information to say with certainty
Often you might have up to four questions for each passage of text - so it is important to learn to read the text quickly but thoroughly.
The good thing with this test, is that you can practice it. There is a wealth of information on the web, allowing you to familiarise yourself with it. There is a choice of resources, including AssessmentDay.co.uk, which was created by students for students, and Shldirect.com, which provides a range of practice tests and assessment advice.
Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal is arguably the most famous test, designed to measure an individual’s critical thinking skills. It is used to determine an individual’s ability to think critically and as a way of assessing their suitability for an organisation or a specific position within it.
It measures a candidate’s abilities in: drawing inferences. recognising assumptions, argument evaluation, deductive reasoning and logical interpretation.
Here are a couple of examples of the sort of questions you may be asked to say are true or false, which have been taken from a law firm graduate recruitment website are:
(1) Whether northerners have high incomes or low incomes makes no difference to the likelihood of their developing heart disease.
(2) People who have been educated in a free society will not make unwise decisions.
Top tips: Work out how much time you can spend on each question, be careful - the questions are normally designed to trick you and do not use any general knowledge when answering question, as everything you need to answer the question is included in the passage.
This part of the day can fill candidates with dread, but like any other part of the day, it is important to keep calm, and realise that the assessors do appreciate that people will be nervous.
Addleshaw Goddard Graduate Talent Advisor Tom Banham says: “It’s really important that they channel this energy into a positive and enjoy the experience. The best advice I would give it to be yourself, don’t dwell on bad performance and try not to be too competitive.”
Quite a few firms no longer require the candidates to do presentations, such as Addleshaws, but the ones that do usually give between three to ten minutes, and can generally be on a topic of your choice or chosen form a panel of options.
Role play tends to be undertaken with an applicant and members of the firm. It is an opportunity to prove you can retain and use information, negotiate and communicate successfully.
If images of The Apprentice start flitting around your head, as highlighted in the programme be aware that being a power hungry megalomaniac is not going to land you the job.
Eversheds advises on its graduate recruitment website that candidates should ‘consider your role within a team’ prior to the day.
Head of resourcing Nicky Bizzell advises: “Group tasks are all about balance. You need to give the assessors evidence that you are confident enough to share your ideas, but sensible enough to listen to others and ensure your ideas are well thought out before you speak.”
Indeed there are many roles to consider when doing such an exercise, requiring you to work as a team, be professional and demonstrate leadership skills without being controlling. How you work as a team is the most important aspect, rather than the misguided notion that it is the winning that counts.
“You need to actively contribute to the task, but not to the detriment of other members of the team. Lastly, you need to show that you are commitment to achieving your goal, but emotionally intelligent enough to bring in all members of the group. Most importantly you need to be yourself, but on a really, really good day,” adds Bizzell.
This is the final ingredient to the recipe for landing a job, and all it requires is a good sprinkle of your most dazzling strengths, and a generous helping of positive spin on your weaknesses.
But that is not to say lie! Telling the truth is what SNR Denton’s Graduate Recruitment Partner Jeremy Cape advises, adding: “Don’t try to bluff because you’ll get found out. In fact we don’t want you to bluff because bluffing conceals the real person.”
‘If you fail to prepare, then you are preparing to fail’ - but remember you have got this far on your own merits, so be sure to only put yourself in the best light rather than inventing a new you.
Areas to prepare before the interview include:
* Your biography
* Why law - this firm and its competitors
* Work experience
* News and current affairs
* Your worst question
* Taking advice
Also make sure you have set out in your head what makes a good answer. Eversheds advises:
* Clear step-by-step approach describing a situation, your actions/behaviours and end result
* Research conducted to establish your motivations and suitability for the role and the firm
* In-depth understanding of global issues and there relevance and impact on the business and legal sectors
At an increasing number of firms, for instance CMS Cameron McKenna, the process is based on well-flagged competency criteria. As part of this overall process a candidate will have a one-to-one interview with a partner lasting approximately an hour.
In the interview, candidates will be told exactly which competency is being assessed for each question before the question is asked. The danger can be letting your example run away from you and not structuring it properly. CMS Camerons Graduate recruitment officer Lisa Wells, encourages applicants to really listen to the question that they are being asked before responding.
Wells recommends having a number of relevant examples to draw upon in the interview but for candidates to ensure that they adapt that response in order to answer the question effectively.
She says: “If you are asked about a time that you have organised an event, and how you ensured that the deadlines were met, talk about precisely that. You should not make the mistake of using a pre-prepared example if it doesn’t actually answer the question; whilst it may demonstrate that you can work well as part of a team, that the event was a success and that you were able to raise lots of money for charity it doesn’t tell the interviewer anything about the competency that they are assessing.. What the interviewer wants to see in this instance is that you have a structured and methodical approach to dealing with multiple tasks and working to deadlines when under pressure.”
The competency areas to expect include: communication, team working, planning and organising, problem solving, achievement orientation and commercial focus.
Wherever you are interviewed and whether or not these issues are sign-posted by the interviewer they are always worth keeping in mind when formulating your answers.
Know yourself. It may seem obvious now but the amount of people who stumble over the question “tell me about yourself”, and end up telling the interviewer about their extended family tree, or forget a key fact about their CV is strangely common.
Slaughter and May Graduate Recruitment Partner Robert Byk advises: “Read your CV and covering letter before the interview”.
Most importantly: BACK UP YOUR ANSWERS WITH EXAMPLES. There is no use in calling yourself ‘a team player’ and then not being able to recall a concrete example to back up your assertion.
Why law, this firm and it’s competitors?
Remember: If you cannot answer why you want to work in law, or begin to ramble about your love of Ally McBeal, then this may be the wrong career for you.
There is no one correct answer to this part of the question, and often will be personal to each candidate. But when it comes to the firm - without the necessary research, you may be left red-faced when a simple question about the firm gets thrown your way.
So, get your head in the books and research the firm, its competitors, the markets it operates in and any recent deals or cases it has been working on.
Slaughters’ Byk explains: “Candidates should, of course, have - and be able to demonstrate - a genuine interest in and commitment to the law and our firm. Research via the firm’s website, career guides and legal directories and websites. There’s a wealth of information available and it’s easier than it’s ever been before to be informed at a really high level.”
Being able to provide concrete examples that you can use to impress your interviewer is a necessity; so digging up relevant experiences from previous work placements will be the best boost to a discussion.
But, work placements don’t have to be legal - just something that has enabled you to develop skills, which would be useful for a career in law i.e. captaining a sport team or editing a student newspaper.
Your worst question
These can vary massively, from a random question about the news or current affairs, to an open-ended question simply posed to judge how you manage yourself.
If you are asked: If you could have dinner with anyone from history, who would it be, and why? The answer is not as important as the way you handle the weird question, and also, to an extent, the reason you give as to why i.e. don’t use a controversial person and then have no reason to back it up!
It is rare that anyone leaves an assessment day with no regrets, so don’t beat yourself up when you realise you have left out something key or wish you’d asked a different question.
Obviously the hardest part will always be the waiting, and hopefully you will get the response you are hoping for. But if not, don’t be too disheartened, but be proactive by being critical of yourself and trying to learn from your mistakes.