True confessions of a training contract applicant - part 2
Part 2 of a recurring blog
Having successfully filled out and submitted as many online applications as humanly possible during September, October and November, I was soon confronted by the next hurdle in the application process.
An awful lot of commercial firms (especially City and national outfits) have now inserted a particularly soulless intermediate step between application and interview – the online test.
Who would have thought it was possible to test verbal reasoning without hearing you speak! And what actually is critical thinking? Sadly I'm not in a position to answer either of these questions with any certainty. But having successfully navigated both I can have a stab at explaining how I prepared for them.
Personally I find online tests the most frustrating stage of any application process. Essentially, they're a pass or fail exercise. And (despite the fact I'm convinced the computer knows instantly) you don't get to know how you've done for ages; you're usually left to sweat for at least a few days.
The good news is that some firms look at your application form and online test results as a whole. So a stellar CV can make up for an online test score that's slightly lower than that of other applicants.
Several of the firms I applied to required me to undertake a verbal reasoning test and a handful required a critical thinking test. For both, firms state that there's nothing you can do to prepare on the basis that if you don't instinctively think in the way required, you never will. While there may be a small grain of truth in this, I've found that practice does improve performance. Some firms get their psychometric tests from a company called SHL; its website provides a handful of free sample tests which I found useful for practising verbal reasoning.
A critical thinking test typically contains five different sections each testing a different way of analysing a passage. Linklaters has a quick-fire five-minute practice test on its website, while Hogan Lovells has a more detailed example.
Practising these tests is particularly useful because (at least in my experience) when you're doing a test for real the timer starts to run as soon as you start to read the instructions. Having done a few practices, you should already have a reasonable idea of what the instructions are, which should save you a valuable few seconds!
From what I've seen firms which opt not to use online tests use a telephone interview to whittle down the number of applicants before face-to-face interviews or assessments take place.
The first of my telephone interviews for vac schemes took place in November. (And this was for a firm which had a 31 January deadline!)
Personally, I find telephone interviews off-putting and far more stressful than normal interviews. I don't like not being able to see the interviewer's initial reactions to my replies. I have also realised that normally when I talk I tend to gesture with my hands and having to hold a phone in one hand makes this rather difficult! All this tends to make me tense up. A solution I found useful (for standard interviews too) is to go for a short, brisk walk beforehand to expend some nervous energy!
The advantage of telephone interviews is that you can have all your notes spread out in front of you. However, there's nothing worse than not learning your stuff properly and relying on notes, only for a vital piece of paper to blow off the desk just as you need it!
I've found it's best to prepare as if you're not going to have anything in front of you and to only use a few small fact sheets. I use ones which cover the nitty gritty: number of offices, key clients, recent financials. This way the majority of my answers remains fluid and natural but I don't have to spend valuable time memorising fiddly information.
The structure of the telephone interviews I've done has varied but they've tended to be largely competency based with a handful of motivation and commercial awareness questions thrown in. I've noticed that they tend to cover whatever the firm's application form omitted. For competency questions I used the same list of my experiences which helped me to address application form questions (see Part 1 of this blog).
To prepare for commercial awareness questions I always have a look through the 'news' section of a firm's website and pick out something interesting that I've heard of before. (Slightly less mainstream departments like media and sports are where I usually start. One look at a detailed blow-by-blow account of a restructuring or bond offering and I know I'm not going to be able to describe it intelligently under pressure!).
I also identified one major commercial story right at the beginning of the year which I knew would run and run. I've been keeping track of the news and watching out for new developments. As a result I've been able to update and advance my take on it as I've progressed through the application process.
After multiple-choice skirmishes with online tests and sweaty-palmed phone interviews, a nervous few weeks of waiting followed. Then I finally began receiving those exciting emails containing the words 'we're pleased to invite you to participate in ...'
I had made it through and was being asked to take part in the next stage of firms' gruelling application processes. The firms I applied to inconveniently scheduled those next stages very closely to one another in late January.
Of the firms I applied to a handful had just a single interview for vacation scheme places instead of a full formal assessment centre. The first-round interviews I have undertaken have all been conducted by members of HR teams or junior lawyers rather than partners. They mostly took place after Christmas as many firms have open days in late December which take up a lot of HR time. As with initial telephone interviews, the firms that conduct first-round interviews tend to have the briefest online application forms.
With this in mind I identified the questions which other firms had asked at the application stage and assumed I would be asked many of these in interview. For the majority of my interviews I was told in advance the area they would focus upon. Most involved competency-based questions, again supplemented by a few commercial and motivation questions.
I was also asked a handful of questions designed to test whether I understand the reality of life as a lawyer. These tend to highlight the reality of hours and the sometimes monotonous tasks required of a trainee.
By and large I prepared for face-to-face interviews in exactly the same way as for telephone interviews. I just had the comfort of knowing that I'd feel far more comfortable chatting to someone in person than over the phone! The only disconcerting thing is that interviewers are invariably very personable and it's impossible to tell if you're genuinely interesting them or whether they are simply being 'professionally nice'.
Assessment days are by far the most shattering step I have so far encountered during the vac scheme application process. At the same time they are a great opportunity to get a real sense of what a firm is really like. You get to meet people, see the office and get to know other candidates; it all makes the whole process more human and the final objective appear more attainable.
I have been invited to several assessment days over the last couple of years and each one is slightly different. Some are only half a day long with a few quick exercises and then off you go. Others are a full-day marathon with presentations, tours and quite often lunch as well.
Typically, at least in my experience, the simplest part of the day is a repeat of any online assessment under observation. Provided you actually took the test yourself (!) and had a quick practice to refresh this shouldn't be a problem.
The next relatively straightforward element is an interview. The interviews I have had at assessment centres have been far shorter than those which stood alone. They also tend to be conducted by partners. As a result – somewhat counter-intuitively perhaps – they are usually more relaxed and less formal and structured than HR interviews.
The toughest part of the day – and the real meat to most assessment centres – comes in the form of the group exercise. There really is no effective way of preparing for these except practice in the form of earlier assessments. They tend to take the form of a group discussion leading to a pitch or presentation. I always feel like I've performed badly in these; I have a tendency to talk far too much! From what I've gathered – and I'm certainly no expert – the trick is to make a sensible and useful contributions while at the same time drawing in other members of the group and getting them to participate.
Group discussions often involve reaching a decision without all the necessary information. This enables the assessors to ask unsettling and unexpected questions afterwards! But provided you can think on your feet and have managed to gain a reasonable understanding of the material these questions shouldn't be too hard to answer.
A handful of firms also require candidates to complete a written exercise. It's usually very time-pressured and involves understanding and making use of complex information to draft some form of advice. When doing a written test, I always just try to stay calm and plan my approach at the beginning. The few times I have dived straight in, I've ended up kicking myself halfway through as my writing started to contradict itself!
Several weeks of assessments and interviews have made for a stressful start to my new year. But at the same time getting invited to them tells me I've finally got the hang of how to deal with application forms.
And the best news of all is that I've managed to secure a handful of vacation scheme offers! I'm delighted and determined to treat the schemes as a prize in themselves as well as a necessary stepping stone on the route to a training contract. Hopefully I'll be blogging again soon about my experiences of applying for those!
This feature originally appeared in our February 2014 newsletter.