Training-contract interview process
Arriving at your training-contract interview is a huge milestone. You’ll have survived the application process, now all that remains is to impress the law firm’s recruitment team in person. Here’s your guide to surviving the training-contract interview process.
When will I have my interview?
The number of interviews you have at a firm and the point at which you’ll be invited to interview vary from firm to firm. You might have an interview as part of an assessment centre, or you might be invited to a final interview after the assessment centre. It might be a combination of both. Firms tend to keep their exact interview formats under wraps until they offer you an interview.
Who will be interviewing me?
You will most likely be interviewed by several people: a combination of graduate recruiters and partners. At most big law firms, there will be a partner (or a number of partners) with a keen involvement in graduate recruitment, who will be present at the interview and also at the assessment centre. You could do a bit of research in advance to find out who the graduate-recruitment team are, and which partners get involved in graduate recruitment. Head to the graduate recruitment website for your firm of interest, where you'll find an employee directory with the relevant person included.
How long will the interview last?
It varies—but given that this is the last stage of the process, you can expect to be in the hot seat for a while. Some interviews can last an hour, with a mix of competency-based and experience-based questions, as well as a presentation component in some cases.
Training contract interviews: what’s expected of me?
All of this can sound quite intimidating, but it’s important to keep a cool head and remember that your interviewers are human too.
Rob McKellar, an associate, says, “You have been invited in to talk to someone about yourself and maybe a bit about the firm and the business world. This person already thinks you must be quite good (or at the very least that you have an impressive CV), otherwise you wouldn't have been invited to interview. This person is likely to be very bored doing interviews all day and will relish anyone with whom they feel they can have a genuine conversation. If you think about an interview in that way, then many of your initial trepidations should (at least to an extent) be subdued.”
With this in mind, Rob—a former trainee who has already been through the interview process—offered the following tips on how to behave at a training-contract interview:
Don’t be too dry or overly serious. “Your interviewer wants to see that you're able to engage with clients and customers when the time arises. That being said, there’s a reasonably clear line as to what you should and shouldn’t say. There is a phrase which works called “Grandad acceptability”; if you think the topic of conversation would be suitable for a chat with your Grandad (sports, politics, current affairs, your studies, etc.) then it’s probably all right for an interview too.”
Back yourself. “One of the most common regrets from an interview is not getting the chance to mention something that you're particularly proud of, because it never came up. Rather than waiting for the interviewer to ask you about it, either direct the conversation that way or wait until they ask you if you have any questions and mention it then.”
Practice, practice, practice. “Ask other people to quiz you before your interview. Parents are usually a good route and can be an invaluable help if you butter them up correctly. If your parents aren’t from a managerial background, or any job in which they would have interviewed someone, then your fellow students are another good bet.” Heading to your university careers service is also a good idea: the careers advisers there will be able to help run through practice interview questions with you.
It’s also a good idea to look over your application, highlight your competencies and any commercial-awareness points you have made. More likely than not, the interviewer will ask you about these things—and may even try to engage you in debate. Make sure you’re in a position to present confidently a measured perspective.
Training contract interview questions
That covers what you will need to bring to the (interview) table—but what questions can you expect the interviewers to ask? As well as questions about your education, work background and reasons for wanting to apply to that particular law firm, the folks at Coventry University Careers Service have organised the general question types you might receive into the following three categories:
1. Technical legal questions
These are designed to test your technical knowledge of the area of law in which the firm specialises, so do your research! The interviewer will want to know a) you understand what their organisation does and b) you have a real interest in it. Technical questions might include:
• “Explain the difference between contract and tort.”
• “How is a merger or acquisition structured?”
• “How has the Human Rights Act affected law in this country?”
How to answer them
• Prepare in advance: if you have a good understanding of the organisation and their activities, you’ll be able to make an informed guess at the kind of technical questions they will ask, e.g. those that relate to their business.
• Take your time to think about your answer: you don’t need to launch into an explanation immediately, and it can be helpful to take a few seconds to organise your thoughts and structure a clear answer.
• If you don’t know the answer, be honest.
2. Hypothetical questions
These questions can be summed up as “what would you do if…?” The aim of the questions is to test how you might react under certain circumstances. Hypothetical questions might include:
• “You are by yourself in the office and you get a phone call from a client, asking for immediate advice. What would you do?”
• “Your client is determined to take a case to court, even though you think he has no chance of winning and you have advised him not to do so. What would you do?”
• “You have a large amount of work to complete to a tight deadline. A week before the deadline, your manager tells you it has been brought forward by three days. What would you do?”
How to answer them
• The interviewer is aware you may not have encountered this situation before, so probably won’t be able to give a perfect solution to the question. However, the aim of the question is to test your common sense, integrity and diplomacy skills.
• Think about how your behaviour in this situation will affect others (the impression it will give of the company to a client, how your actions will affect colleagues) and consider how your employers are likely to expect you to behave.
• It’s likely that a suitable solution will not necessarily be the easy one (e.g. you may have to tell the client you're not in a position to advise them over the phone. This might disappoint the client, but be the most sensible option). The interviewer wants to assess whether you'll take a sensible and ethical approach, rather than a quick solution.
3. Competency-based questions
Competency-based questions are designed to assess your “soft skills”, e.g. commercial awareness, leadership, decisiveness, etc. The interviewer will ask you to give an example of a situation in which you've demonstrated the skill in question. Competency-based questions might include:
• “Give an example of when you've worked as part of a team to solve a difficult problem.”
• “Give an example of a situation in which, on reflection, you wish you'd acted differently. What would you do differently next time?”
• “Give an example of when you have had to adapt to meet changing circumstances.”
How to answer them
• You'll have a reasonable idea of the sort of skills associated with the job you’re applying for (looking at the job description/person specification can give you some ideas), so you can do some preparation in advance.
• Think about what the employer is actually trying to find out. They may be asking about a situation in which you made a mistake, but they are really trying to assess your self-awareness. In this case, “I have never made a mistake” isn't an appropriate answer! Instead, think about an example of a situation in which, on reflection, you think you could have done things differently to get a better result.
Hopefully these questions will give you a brief idea of what to expect when heading off for your training-contract interview. However, don't take them as a word-for-word script. Your interviewer is looking for your take on the questions and on the situation: they will also be looking to check that you can think on your feet and adapt to some trickier questions. Good luck!
Next article: Training contract: choosing a law firm