It doesn't matter what stage of your legal career you're at - you're going to find yourself in an interview situation sooner or later, whether for your training contract or pupillage. Thanks to the wonders of technology and the ever-expanding world of law work experience, you can expect some variations on the traditional interview too - such as video interviews or assessment centres. Whichever exciting variety of interview you're preparing for, there's an etiquette to bear in mind!
So you've got through to the interview stage. You can be confident that on paper you are a potential appointee. Now for round two: the interview. Whatever your field in the legal profession, you'll need to demonstrate the ability to analyse complex information and communicate with people at all levels.
Here are our top ten tips on how to excel at a job interview.
1. Identify competencies…
Whilst you can't predict exactly what questions you will be asked, you will usually have enough information to be able to identify the competencies being assessed.
If you've been provided with a person specification it will most probably be set out as a list of desirable and essential capabilities. It is even more likely that the bulk of the interview will be focussed on assessing these competencies.
Even if you don’t have a person specification, the job description or some research into similar roles, will give you a good idea of the competencies likely to be addressed.
2. Provide evidence…
Your next task is to think back to any relevant experience (part-time jobs, voluntary work, course work, extra-curricular activities, etc) and match the best of these examples with the competencies you have identified, e.g.:
Person specification: 'You will be a skilful and tactful communicator.'
Interview question: "Can you give me an example of when you’ve had to deal with a difficult person?"
All you have to do is to brainstorm your experiences of handling difficult people
and then have your top two examples in mind to answer this or a similarly phrased question.
3. Research the firm & the profession…
So, you have done your homework on preparing evidence for each of the competencies. But how about answering these two questions?
"What can you tell me about our competitors?"
"What are the current significant issues affecting law firms?"
Commercial awareness is a key graduate attribute. You might want to ask yourself, “Once I’ve got the job, how might I contribute to sharpening the firm's competitive edge?” To do that you need to have up-to-date knowledge of the legal field, the firm you are applying to, their competitors and so on.
Be aware that everyone will have access to a basic level of information using the internet, so any research you can do over and above that will make you a stronger candidate.
4. Be specific, be succinct, give adequate information… and try not to ramble!
Being able to communicate clearly and concisely while under pressure is an essential quality of any good lawyer. It is quite natural to feel nervous in a job interview, however, and recruiters will be aware that nerves can affect your ability to communicate clearly.
Practise giving evidence of your key transferable skills with a friend, being as concise as you possibly can but including all the essential details. If you find yourself beginning to waffle, just remind yourself of exactly what you are trying to communicate and get yourself back on track. Be specific. Consider:
"I did some work experience in a couple of law firms during my university holidays."
Compare this to:
"I did a paid placement at an international law firm employing around 60 people in the summer vacation of my second year; and a shadowing placement in a firm of solicitors with a staff of four people, during the Easter vacation of my first year."
The second example gives a much clearer picture.
5. “What is your biggest weakness?”
Questions of this kind frequently crop up in graduate job interviews, so let’s think about why they are asking the question. We all have aspects of our work where we could perform better. If you are aware of these, you can start to look at how you might improve and ideally formulate a strategy or action plan to that end.
What the recruiter wants to test by this question is: are you self-aware enough to recognise your areas of weakness and are you sufficiently proactive to do what is necessary to address the issues?
It helps if you have already started to tackle your area of weakness as this can provide some valuable evidence. You will most likely have several areas that could be improved. If this is the case, select the one that best demonstrates your ability to improve.
6. Be prepared for ‘off the wall’ questions…
These are designed to assess how well you can think on your feet, analyse and keep calm. For example, they might ask something like: “How many car road tax discs are issued each year in the UK?” Focus on what you know rather than what you don’t. There is no absolute right or wrong answer. They are interested more in how you approach the task than your final estimate.
You will probably know that the UK population is approximately 60 million. If you were to estimate one car per household of 4 people (some households will have no cars, but others more than one), that would be, let's say 1.5 million cars requiring a tax disc each year.
It is the same principle for estimating the number of baked beans eaten per week!
7. What if they put the pressure on?
The most important thing is not to assume that that they are being critical or that your performance is lacking. Keep calm and take it one step at a time. They may simply be drilling down to elicit enough evidence to meet or, ideally, exceed the competence in question. Make their job easy by giving them as much detail as they require.
Even the most adept of candidates can find themselves with a mental block from time to time. If you need to you can ask them to repeat the question or to provide clarification. Remember, they will have been in your seat several times!
Thus far we have been looking at your ability to do the job. But as well as testing whether you can do the job, recruiters will also want to know your motivation for choosing the job.
This can sometimes be explicit, as in the question "why do you want to work for us?", or they may assess how you transmit your enthusiasm in other ways during the interview.
Key questions to ask yourself are:
- What do I want to get by working for this firm specifically?
- How do I want my career to progress?
- What it is about law that enthuses me?
- What satisfaction do I get from making a valuable professional contribution?
Put yourself in the recruiters’ shoes: how would you identify a motivated candidate?
9. Your questions…
This is your chance to find out more about working for the firm and an opportunity to re-emphasise your motivation.
It is important that your questions have an air of genuineness about them. Don't ask a question which you could have easily answered by looking at their website. Asking intelligent questions will make a good impression but ask questions that also concern you in some way. For example, you might ask about training or opportunities to contribute and develop the role that you are applying for.
10. On the day…
First impressions: remember that anyone you come into contact with may be involved in the recruitment process. Remember to make eye contact and smile.
Relax: don't overdo your preparation the night before. Ensure you get a good night's sleep. Some people find breathing exercises useful.
Review: re-read your written application and think about the evidence that you will use to answer competency-based questions.
Appearance (all the obvious ones!): shower, clean clothes, tidy hair, polished shoes, etc.
Arrival: work out your travel arrangements beforehand. Give yourself plenty of time to get there. Don't arrive too early. If you are unavoidably delayed try to let them know as soon as you can and apologise on your arrival.