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 it be for a training contract or a pupillage. Regardless of whether you’re preparing for a traditional interview or some sort of variation of it—such as a video interview or an assessment centre—there's an etiquette to bear in mind!
When you’ve reached the interview stage, you can be confident that on paper you’re a potential appointee. Now you’ll have to prove yourself at the interview. Whatever position you’re applying for in the legal profession, you'll need to demonstrate the ability to analyse complex information and communicate with people at all levels—and there are some key ways you can prove this in an interview.
1. Identify competencies
While 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 likely be set out as a list of desirable and essential capabilities. It is even more likely that the bulk of the interview will be focused 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 your employer is likely to be looking for.
2. Provide evidence
Think back to any relevant experience (such as part-time jobs, voluntary work, coursework or extracurricular activities). Then, you should match the best of these examples with the competencies you have identified, for example:
Person specification: “You will be a skillful and tactful communicator.”
Possible interview question: "Can you give me an example of a time you’ve had to deal with a difficult person?"
All you have to do is to brainstorm your experiences handling difficult people or situations and then have your top two examples in mind to answer this or a similarly-phrased question.
3. Research the firm and the profession
Once you’ve done your homework preparing evidence for each of the competencies, you should be prepared to answer questions about commercial awareness. Commercial awareness questions will often look like this:
"What can you tell me about our competitors?"
"What are the current issues affecting law firms?"
Commercial awareness is a key graduate attribute. You might want to ask yourself: “Once I start the job, how might I contribute to making the firm more competitive?” To do that you need to have up-to-date knowledge of the legal field, the firm you are applying to and their competitors.
Be aware that everyone will have access to a basic level of information using the internet, so any research you can do beyond that will make you a stronger candidate. This might include speaking to representatives at law firms or reaching out to anyone you might know who’s worked or trained there.
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. However, it is natural to feel nervous in a job interview and recruiters will be aware that nerves can affect your ability to communicate clearly.
Practise giving evidence of your 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. Compare the following answers:
"I did some work experience at a couple of law firms during my university holidays."
"I did a paid placement at an international law firm employing about 60 people in the summer vacation of my second year. I also did a shadowing placement at a solicitors firm employing four people during the Easter holiday of my first year."
The second example provides much more detailed information that can give recruiters a better understanding of your professional background.
5. “What is your biggest weakness?”
Questions of this kind frequently crop up in graduate job interviews, and it’s important to consider why the question is being asked. No one is absolutely perfect at every part of their job. If you are aware of your weaknesses, however, you can begin to look into how you might improve and ideally formulate a strategy or action plan to that end.
What the recruiter wants to test with this question is whether you are self-aware enough to recognise your areas of weakness and whether you’re proactive enough to address them.
It helps if you have already started to tackle your area of weakness and are able to provide some valuable evidence. It’s likely that you’ll 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 situations under pressure and keep calm. For example, you might be asked 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 four people (some households will have no cars, but others more than one), that would be approximately 15 million cars requiring a tax disc each year.
It’s the same principle when it comes to estimating the number of baked beans eaten per week, or anything else that might be thrown your way—what’s crucial is that you provide your reasoning.
7. What if they put the pressure on?
It’s important that you don’t assume your interviewers 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 find enough evidence to meet or—ideally—exceed the competence in question. Make their job easier 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!
As well as testing whether you can do the job, recruiters will also want to know your motivation for choosing the job.
Employers will sometimes ask you about your motivation directly. They might also assess how you transmit your enthusiasm in other ways during the interview. Your non-verbal communication can give a lot away about how enthusiastic you are about the position, so make sure you’re not giving the wrong signals.
Ask yourself why you want to work for this firm specifically, how you want your career to progress, what it is that you love about law and the ways in which you’d like to make a professional contribution to the field. Be prepared to answer questions about this and convey your enthusiasm to recruiters.
9. Your questions for your employer
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 a genuine air 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 you should ask questions that also concern you in some way. For example, you might ask about training or opportunities to contribute to and develop the role that you are applying for.
10. On the day
The night before, you should get a good night’s sleep and try to relax. Re-read your written application and think about the evidence that you will use to answer competency-based questions, but don’t overdo the preparation the night before. Make sure you’ve got clean and formal clothes to wear.
Work out your travel arrangements beforehand, and give yourself plenty of time to get there. Don't arrive too early, and if you’re unavoidably delayed try to let them know as soon as you can and apologise on your arrival.
Finally, it’s important that you make a good first impression. Remember that anyone you come into contact with may be involved in the recruitment process, so make eye contact and smile!
Next article: Interview questions