Interviews: prepare to succeed
23 May 2012
How do you make the most of that coveted law firm interview? Our expert panel provides some valuable pointers
Interviews come in many forms, but are there certain preparations that can boost a candidate’s chance of success? Lawyer 2B asked a panel of experts drawn from those conducting the interviews, planning them, advising candidates on what to expect and who have recently been through the process, what they think candidates should be prepared for in law firm interviews, and how to stand out for all the right reasons.
What sort of knowledge are you expected to have at an interview?
Flora McLean, partner and member of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer’s interview panel: We expect candidates to be familiar with their application form and to be able to speak fluently and in detail about the information and examples they have provided. Candidates should be able to demonstrate an interest in commercial law as well as commercial awareness more generally. We don’t expect students to be experts, but they should be able to discuss issues in a commercial light.
Candidates should also have researched the firm (although we are not impressed by folk who simply recite details of our deals, learnt from the website) and have an understanding of how Freshfields differs from other magic circle firms.
Kali Butler, graduate resourcing manager, RPC: First, you need to be able to talk about yourself in a fluid, authentic way. You’d be surprised how many candidates aren’t able to talk concisely about their own experiences. You need to have done research so you can talk confidently about the firm’s key strengths and why you want to work there.
At RPC we look at how motivated a candidate is towards the firm by how effectively they answer questions about who we are and what we do. So, for example, we’d expect you to know our areas of expertise, the fact we’d recently opened in Asia and Bristol, and that we’d won an insurance team award this year.
Helen Lovegrove, careers consultant, The Careers Group, University of London: What the firm does, how it differentiates itself from others, what its strategy is and the pressures facing law firms. There are lots of clues out there in the legal press, including firm rankings. The ranking in itself is nowhere near enough, but it can inform your questions. Go beyond the firm’s graduate recruitment webpages and read about the firm as a business. If stuck, consider the legal market from a number of standpoints – is it clear which markets the firm is in and why? How does its financial performance compare with other firms and what are the reasons behind this? How broad-based are its practice areas and how much does this matter? That said, you do not need to know every aspect of every deal the firm has ever done.
A practical understanding of what a lawyer really does day-to-day in the type of firm applied to is under-explored. There’s no substitute for talking to lawyers before you apply. Don’t forget that dealing with clients is key too.
It’s pat on the back time. Yes, know what you are good at and be prepared to talk about it. You have to find the middle way between diffidence and arrogance. An evidence-based approach to detailing your attributes will make this easy.
Ismat Abidi, trainee solicitor, Eversheds: Interviewers don’t expect a huge amount of specific technical legal knowledge from a training contract candidate. Applicants are at different stages of education, with legal
and non-legal backgrounds. What’s more important is awareness of recent developments in the legal sector, business and government decisions affecting the legal market, general commercial knowledge and a familiarity with the firm that you have applied to.
Find out what the largest or most profitable legal areas of the firm are and focus on a few key developments in those areas. Also, ensure you’re aware of major trends affecting the legal industry nationally and internationally. Ensure you don’t simply read the headlines but that you understand the stories behind them. The interviewer will usually ask ‘how?’’ or ‘why?’, or for your perspective on an issue.
This demonstrates preparation (which is always a good quality to have), industry awareness (essential for the role) and interest in the law firm (show this as much as possible).
How can a candidate stand out?
Flora McLean: At the basic level, a firm handshake, a smile and eye contact go a long way towards making a positive first impression. Candidates who are able to provide evidence to back up their claims, demonstrate a degree of self-awareness (their strengths and weakness, and how these would suit a career in commercial law) and who are able to defend their points of view when challenged, always stand out for me. A sense of humour helps too.
Kali Butler: Preparation. You can tell quickly if a candidate has prepared. The best have a range of examples – including academic, work and extra-curricular – from which they can pick the most appropriate answer.
The ability to build rapport is also key in displaying confidence and good communication skills. Try not to let nerves get the better of you. Engage in conversation with the interviewer, but also with anyone else you meet at the firm. You never know who could be asked for their opinion.
Helen Lovegrove: Be yourself and be enthusiastic. Law firms will love it if you act like you want to be there. The person with no enthusiasm won’t be taken on, but neither will the person with so much enthusiasm they are swinging from the roof. So let your good qualities shine through – appropriately. People recruit people they like and who understand how to behave in a professional environment.
Ismat Abidi: It’s safe to assume that all candidates that have been called for an interview have a certain level of education and experience suited to the field they are applying for. It’s also safe to assume that your application has already stood out if you have been selected as a candidate worth interviewing. If you’re unsure as to why, ask family, friends or colleagues why they think you stand out – chances are that their answer will be the reason you have been invited for an interview.
It’s important as a candidate that you provide a rounded account of yourself. For example, if you are asked to describe a time when you have demonstrated a particular skill or behaviour, don’t be afraid to use a mix of examples from your academic or employment history, hobbies and interests. The more in-depth account you can give, the better.
What’s the most common mistake to make and how can it be avoided?
Flora McLean: We frequently see candidates who say they are passionate about a career in commercial law, but are unable to articulate why. We want to know why you’re interested in a career as a solicitor in a commercial law firm and, more specifically, at Freshfields.
We also find that candidates read too much into a question; they should answer what is asked and avoid trying to find a hidden meaning. We don’t ask trick questions, but we do want to know you’re able to think logically and articulate your thoughts concisely.
Kali Butler: Candidates who assume that by giving a brief overview of their role in a particular situation they will have answered the question effectively. For an interviewer to score a candidate well, we need specific details of what they did in that specific situation:
What did you do? What tools did you use? How did you interact with others? Many fail to demonstrate where they have taken initiative, instead talking generically about the team they were in, for example, ‘we then decided…’ rather than ‘I suggested that…’
Helen Lovegrove: I’ve got two favourites here: first, not knowing enough about the legal market as a whole and not being able to place the firm within that market. Second, saying ‘I want to be a lawyer because I expect it to be challenging’. So what? Please say more than this. Ask yourself – challenging in what way, with whom, about what? This way we can observe that you can think by having analysed the challenges and, just as importantly, that you have the attributes to rise to them.
Ismat Abidi: Long periods of silence should be avoided at all costs during interviews. It gives the interviewer the impression that the candidate is unprepared. A minute can feel like five minutes, the interviewer may mistake your nervousness for lack of preparation and the silence can make the interviewee feel awkward, running the risk of ruining the
rest of the interview. If you’re unsure about what the interviewer is asking always ask for the question to be repeated or rephrased. Alternatively, if you need a moment to think through your answer, take a sip of water. If you find yourself completely lost for words, say you can’t think of the answer right now but will be happy to go back to it.
What’s the best question for a candidate to ask the interviewer?
Flora McLean: Again, there’s no single question that is better than another, but candidates should avoid asking questions that can be answered by the website or brochure. Use this opportunity to ask genuine questions rather than asking a question for the sake of it. You should leave the interview with a deeper understanding of the role and the firm.
Kali Butler: Something that shows you have done research about the firm and that you want to further your knowledge. Be commercial in the questions you ask, showing you understand how law relates to the business of clients. Avoid asking questions that can be answered easily by our website, such as trainee numbers.
Helen Lovegrove: ‘Can you tell me more about the firm’s approach to (insert something the firm does or is a topic of interest for all law firms)?’ Or, ‘tell me about the best trainee you’ve worked with’. Anything that allows you to show a genuine interest in the firm, the clients and the people with whom you’ll be working.
Ismat Abidi: Any question that taps into a passion of the interviewer or their expertise is usually a good topic. Whether it’s a question about the interviewer’s line of work, the future of the team the interviewer is in, legal developments in the field they work in or a shared passion of theirs you’ve discovered during the course of the interview. This will end the interview on a positive note from the perspective of the interviewer.
What sets a law firm interview apart from other interviews?
Flora McLean: Regardless of the organisation, the purpose of an interview is to build a more complete picture of the candidate. All industries are looking for candidates who are personable, motivated, strong communicators, good team-workers and are passionate about the industry. Law firms, as well as those qualities, are assessing whether a candidate is commercially aware, has strong analytical ability and has thought about what being a trainee will be like.
Kali Butler: All sectors will be looking for candidates with similar skills and competencies. Where law differs is that we focus on several core skills such as resilience, leadership and emotional intelligence.
You should already be aware the profession is tough and that you will have setbacks, so good candidates will be able to give evidence of where they have overcome setbacks and faced challenges while motivating themselves and others. By researching properly you should get a good idea of the skills one firm majors in over another.
Helen Lovegrove: Candidate terror! As a lawyer you will often be put on the spot so expect to be in the interview too. For example, ‘who’s the best candidate for London mayor?’ or, ‘was quantitative easing a mistake?’ Such questions are opportunities to be grabbed, not sidestepped. ‘I’d vote for Ken’ is not an answer with a rationale. Yet, if asked the same questions down the pub with your friends you probably wouldn’t hesitate to come up with some compelling arguments, would you? You do not need in-depth knowledge, just a logical approach to exploring the issue with your interviewer.
Ismat Abidi: Interviews are not designed to reflect real-life business conversations, they are designed to make you think on your feet.
What sets a law firm interview apart is that it’s a profession with a long-term view of a career path (such as the road to partnership). While there are signs of this model changing in a generation or two it’s still a traditional profession with a relatively straightforward qualification and promotional route.
With tradition comes convention and, while it may be tempting to make yourself stand out by using creative methods or talking about your plan to run your own business in five years’ time, firms generally look for professional and commercially astute individuals who will fit in with the firm’s strategy, rather than independent entrepreneurs.
Sponsor’s comment: Victoria Wisson, graduate recruitment adviser, Weil Gotshal & Manges
There’s some really helpful hints and tips from the panellists here.
Usefully there is some repetition of certain themes including: the need to understand the legal market and how firms differ, plus the importance of preparation prior to interview.
Thinking of examples for competency-based questions does take time and these are hours well spent prior to interview (and even prior to completing the application form, to ensure you showcase yourself at your very best).
With the emphasis on well-rounded applicants, take the time to think of a list of key attributes or skills that you think the perfect lawyer has, and then follow this up by trying to find three examples of each skill. One should be from your work experience, one from your academic world and one from your ‘extra-curricular’ activities such as societies, volunteering, pro bono or sports.
You’ll find that some of the examples can be manipulated and re-used to fit more than one competency, as these skills aren’t standalone ideas. You’ll also feel more confident as you have a host of examples to draw on – very useful when the interviewer asks for a second example when they have already heard the one you’re giving as it’s cited on your application form.
The other core advice revolves around understanding the market, the firms, and being commercially minded. It’s completely up to the candidate to research the market to understand how the firms fit together and what differentiates them from each other. This can be hard (and daunting!) at first but persist and go deeper than just the firm brochures and websites. There’s no real substitute for meeting people, though, so do take every opportunity to meet the people at your short-listed firms through open days, workshops and fairs.
Above all, never forget that law firms are businesses too.
So try to identify individual firm strategies and ask yourself what the reasons are, commercially, for them adopting this route.