If there were such a thing as a typical interview for a training contract it would be relatively easy to prepare for, but in practice selection formats are just as disparate as the firms and their respective cultures.
Some practices use psychometric testing in the selection process – often as a means of preliminary filtering – while others conduct group discussions aimed at assessing candidates' basic aptitude for the law. Many, however, stick to the traditional interview approach, relying on personal judgement and gut feeling. This is something that many personnel professionals would frown upon but which, for a profession in which personal chemistry remains a vital aspect of success, still results in the recruitment of high quality trainees.
Interview styles are just as varied. Some firms adopt an overly aggressive approach to test how candidates cope with pressure. (I have heard of firms having one of the interview team sit behind the candidate, firing questions at unexpected moments, which may be fun for the interviewer but establishes very little about the candidate.)
Others adopt a laid-back approach, the idea being to relax the candidate sufficiently to be able to judge the "real person". Some will ask questions to test legal knowledge while others make no reference to the law at all. Some will fire staccato questions, in contrast to others who will allow those candidates who do not like silences to ramble on to their heart's content.
Of course, in one respect this may be very helpful: the bright applicant will have worked out that the interview is not only the means by which the firm can assess the merits of the candidate, but also a useful method by which the candidate can judge the firm, see through the recruitment brochure's claims and begin to make valid comparisons between practices.
But even if interview styles are widely different, it is still possible to set out a few general pointers for basic preparation beyond recommending combing your hair and cleaning your shoes (which not all candidates manage).
Do not make extravagant claims in your initial application. In general, the role of the CV or application form is limited to achieving an interview, but the interviewer may home in on any out-of-the-ordinary claims, sometimes to the candidate's embarrassment. The applicant who claimed that "allotment gardening has enabled me to develop a number of transferable skills in planning, design, anticipation, prioritisation and corrective action" was put to the test and found wanting, as was the candidate who said that the study of politics had enabled him to understand the forces at work in contemporary society. (We were unable to test the claims of the candidate who said she was the seventh generation descendant of a Chinese princess and a Sulawesian warrior, so we gave her the benefit of the doubt.)
Come prepared to demonstrate that you understand the dynamics of the profession you wish to join, and how it is likely to develop, the opportunities which the firms you are applying to are likely to be presented with and the threats they are likely to face. A candidate who can demonstrate that he or she has given thought to the future of the profession they wish to join (or has at least kept abreast of the legal press) is likely to create a good impression.
If you are asked a question to which you do not know the answer, admit it and do not flannel. And bear in mind that interviewers often ask questions to which the candidate is not expected to know the answer, or to which there is no one correct response.
Find out about your interviewers: who they are and, by looking at the biographies in the Legal 500 and Chambers, as much as you can about them. The candidate who told me she contemplated wearing her Ipswich Town shirt for the interview won full marks for preparation, if rather fewer for colour co-ordination.
Find out as much as you can about the firm and how it distinguishes itself from the others to which you are applying. A good way of doing this is to ask to visit the firm and speak to existing trainees before your interview, perhaps even before you apply. It will help your research and shows initiative.
Come prepared with questions for the interviewers. Most interviewers allow time for questions from the candidate; indeed, some interviews turn out to be rather short if the candidate does not have much to ask. But it is important that the questions are thoughtful and cannot be answered simply by looking through the firm's recruitment literature.
Do not try to project an image that does not represent you; although perhaps if you are an arrogant individual who thinks the world owes you a living, in which case it may be better to adopt a different image, if you can. Most of all, be honest and expect the unexpected.