How to succeed at interviews and assessment days

Interview competencies

Interviews and assessment days are to be celebrated, not dreaded. You’ll send out tons of application forms and get blanked by many firms. So when you do get an interview, give it your all.

Telephone and video interviews

If you impress on your application form, small and mid-size firms will likely invite you in for a face-to-face interview straight off the bat (see below). Larger firms usually introduce an extra stage first to filter down the large number of trainee-hopefuls they are able to meet.

Traditionally firms have often used telephone interviews as this initial stage. These are usually pretty short – ten to 15 minutes – but still require good preparation. Expect a conversation with HR/recruitment with a few short questions on commercial awareness, competencies and why you're interested in the firm. Telephone interviews may also be carried out over Skype – if you are appearing on camera do make sure you're in a private room and dress smartly in a suit or smart blouse/shirt. And you might want to remove that Iron Maiden poster from the wall too – just so it doesn't distract the interviewer, you understand. 

Recently, many firms have replaced telephone interviews with video interviews.

Recently, many firms – including DWF, Eversheds and White & Case – have replaced telephone interviews with video interviews. These involve a candidate recording answers to questions online and then submitting them. Questions may be posed on screen or in a video. One example we heard about gives candidates 45 seconds (!) to read a question on screen and then a minute to answer it on camera. And that seven times in succession. Questions included 'Why do you want to work for this firm?' and 'Give an example of a time you used your initiative'. There may be some practice questions first, but you'll usually only have one chance to answer each question for realsies.

According to Christina Churchman, head of graduate development at White & Case, video interviewing “gives candidates an opportunity to bring their application to life and show us more of their personality.” An applicant who recently (successfully) completed a video interview told us: “It was very nerve-racking – I was sweating!” Remember that video interviews are testing your ability to perform when under pressure and to communicate clearly and succinctly – both crucial lawyer skills.

Face-to-face interviews

Well done on bagging an interview. That may have been hard work, but it's no guarantee that you've got the job. Now it’s time to ratchet things up another notch. Turn on the charm, stand up straight, dress smartly and be thorough with your homework.

Before the interview 

  1. Read and think about your application form. Interviewers will pick up on what you wrote and question you on it. A lot of the time, they’ll discuss your application form as an icebreaker. It’s your chance to speak about things that interest you and to build up rapport. Chat, be expansive, maybe even flash the pearly whites. If you fibbed on your application form, this is when you’ll be found out, so don't lie.
  2. Research the firm. A stock question is ‘Why do you want to work for this firm?’ Recruiters tell us this is where many people trip up. Make sure you’ve got something good, innovative and non-generic to say. Read our True Picture reports and find out about the firm’s strengths, its history and what is being said about it in the legal press. Ideally you will find a topic or two that can be developed into a reason why you and the firm are a perfect match.
  3. Research the lawyers who are interviewing you. Know your enemy. Practice areas, precedent-setting cases they’ve won, previous firms they’ve worked at, their favourite sport – all of this is gold, and firm websites often contain such details. Don’t quote it all back at them though… that’s creepy.
  4. Have a finger on the pulse of legal news and current affairs. The Lawyer, Legal Week and Law Society Gazette are all good reading fodder, as is The Brief from The Times which you can get emailed to you daily. And have you signed up to Chambers Student’s commercial awareness mailings? Be ready to see the connections between law and the real world of politics, society and business.
  5. Practise answers, but not too much. It’s not hard to guess what sort of questions you’re going to get; something along the lines of ‘Why do you want to be a lawyer?’ is a bona fide cert. It is wise to rehearse a little to collect your thoughts, but you’ve got to be ready to deviate from the script. Speaking off the cuff makes you sound more interesting and often a classic question will be slightly altered so you need to be ready to adapt. Almost no firm will directly ask questions about black-letter law, although some do favour enquiries about lawyerly ethics or client confidentiality designed to be appropriate for graduates of all fields.
  6. Think about what skills you can offer. Expect to be asked a number of competency-based questions. Common examples include 'Give an example of a time you successfully achieved a set goal'; 'Tell me about how you've dealt with a difficult person in a team'; and 'What do you think constitutes excellent client or customer service?' Before an interview think about how the skills you've acquired in your work and life experiences can benefit the law firm you're interviewing with.
  7. Expect the unexpected. Some firms are known for asking quirky questions: 'What invention do you wish you had invented and why?' or 'What animal would you be if you could be any animal?' are just two examples. Ideally, your answer should say something about your personality or at least show that you're quick-witted. Interviewers may also challenge your views or hit you with an unexpected question. If you encounter this, the best strategy is usually to stand your ground and explain the reasoning behind what you've said.

“If you've made it to the interview stage, on paper you're a good candidate. The thing that tends to elevate people is confidence.”

Getting to know a firm

The default setting when going into an interview is to want to be liked, but remember that the interview is a crucial opportunity for you to figure out whether you like the firm back. This means that you should have a couple of questions prepared to ask them too. There are so many things you could ask, so pick something that isn't already covered in the firm's own literature. You could find out what your interviewers like about the firm or ask them about when they trained. Or you could ask what the firm is doing in reaction to a major development in the legal or business world.  

Some general interview tips 

  • Arrive early. Have a contact number ready in case some cruel act of divine vengeance makes you late.
  • Dress appropriately.
  • Be polite to everyone, including receptionists and support staff.
  • Shake hands firmly (but avoid the 'bone crusher' handshake) and make eye contact. Smile non-menacingly.
  • Speak to everyone on the panel, ensuring you make eye contact with all present.
  • Don’t fidget or sit awkwardly. Don’t allow your body to tense.
  • Do mock interviews beforehand and get feedback from whoever tests you. Even family members and friends can be surprisingly good at this if you explain what sort of questions you want them to ask. They may identify an annoying verbal tic. Do what you can to eradicate any rogue erms and umms.
  • Listen carefully to questions so you can establish what it is the interviewer seeks. Don’t just shoehorn in pre-packaged answers. “Recruiters really don't like it if people are too polished and give standard answers,” a trainee told us.
  • Finally, be yourself. The interview process is “about showing your personality, showing yourself as you are normally,” one graduate recruiter told us. “There's nothing worse than seeing someone trying to be what they think we want them to be.”

Assessment days

Even though you might have an LPC distinction, a first-class degree, five A*s at A level, 29 GCSEs and a gold star from Mrs Haslem’s nursery class, many firms will want to see you in action and test you out with their own assessments. In their arsenal, firms have multiple written and negotiation exercises, personality profiling, research tasks, group tasks, in-tray exercises and presentations. Often, an assessment day will also include a panel interview. Different firms prefer different methods. On our website the 'Get Hired' features alongside each True Picture, we detail the hoops you’ll need to leap through at each firm.

In their arsenal, firms have written and negotiation exercises, personality profiling, research tasks, group tasks, in-tray exercises and presentations.

“I felt the assessments were pitched at testing social confidence and whether you are a friendly person,” recalled one trainee at a City firm. Most group tasks and exercises are serious in tone: examples include mock client meetings, an email inbox full of correspondence to deal with, or a feedback session with a partner and an associate. Advertising pitches to faux clients and pretend mini-transactions are also common, but be warned that firms frequently change the make-up of their assessment days.

A (decreasing) number use more unusual methods: over the years we've heard of scenarios where groups of candidates were asked to build Lego towers, determine the allocations of eggs to different parts of a country, and debate who should be allowed to leave a hypothetical cave first. 

Remember: however out of the ordinary an assessment, it is still aimed at testing business skills, and your attitude should at all times remain professional and aimed at showcasing your competencies. Recruiters are especially keen to see whether you can work in a team. Be careful not to dominate group tasks too much or fade into the background.

Recruiters are especially keen to see whether you can work in a team. Be careful not to dominate group tasks too much or fade into the background.

Don’t relax too much if there’s a social event as these are often just as important when it comes to making a good impression. Some firms have lunches where you sit round with three or four partners and a handful of other applicants and make small talk. Who will a prospective supervisor want to hire? The person who kept their eyes on the plate for the entire meal and whispered unintelligible answers to every question? The chap who drank too much and spent most of the meal calling him 'mate'? Or the nice young woman who made some pertinent observations about the consequences of Brexit and showed an interest in her rock-climbing hobby?

Verbal and numerical reasoning tests usually consist of multiple-choice questions with right and wrong answers.

Either as part of the assessment day or application process, you may be asked to complete one or more psychometric tests. Some look at verbal or numerical skills, while others test your judgement when confronted by certain scenarios. You can find examples of these types of tests online, or by asking your careers service.

Verbal and numerical reasoning tests usually consist of multiple-choice questions with right and wrong answers. Accuracy, intellectual rigour, efficiency and mental agility are imperative. Personality and situational judgement tests aim to find out whether you are a leader or a follower, a planner or impulsive, etc. In theory, these have no correct answers, but before you expose your soul to recruiters, it's worth thinking about why they have set this test and what they are looking for: profiling yourself as an emotionally fragile control freak isn’t going to help you.  

The sad fact is that for many people it could take a while to succeed. Don’t let rejection bring you down: ask recruiters why you didn't make the cut and learn from it. 

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