If you've got any pupillage interviews coming up this spring you are likely to face a topical legal-ethical problem question. Here's our advice on how to deal with them.
What is a legal problem question?
So you're looking sharp in your new three-piece suit, you've given some solid examples of 'when you have shown good advocacy skills' and you've even managed to chuck in a few palatable jokes – the pupillage interview is going well. But then you're hit with a curve ball: the unprepareable, there's-not-only-one-answer legal-ethical problem question. As you can see from the list below, these questions – many of which cropped up in the interviews of pupils we spoke to in 2017 – can range from simple political or philosophical questions to more legally orientated topics.
In a pupillage interview you may also be asked to handle a mock case or interpret a statute, contract, policy or judgment, but here we thought we'd focus on the more quirky “not super serious or legal” questions – things you may not have covered on your BPTC, GDL or LLB. Such questions may also crop up in interviews for training contracts, but they're much more likely to feature in pupillage interview, as a test of advocacy skills.
Chambers recruiters tell us the intention behind these questions is not to test the extent of a candidate's legal (or political) knowledge, but to examine their reasoning skills beyond the confines of a legal textbook. “It's more of a personality test,” revealed one recruiter – a skill every barrister needs is to be able to approach an unexpected problem or puzzle calmly and logically. Even if you're the Rain Man of law, you need to be able address real-world issues too.
The legal-ethical problem question is also an opportunity to demonstrate original thinking, show off a bit of intellectual flair and distinguish yourself from the competition. It's one of the moments in which interviewers will get a measure of your character and intellect so it's important to make a good impression. To help give you the edge, we've collected advice from pupils and interviewers at a dozen sets.
How to tackle the problem
“We don't expect them to cite detailed case law,” one recruiter began. This is not the part of the interview for that. Interviewees shouldn't try to impress by regurgitating years worth of legal knowledge and clumsily forcing it into an answer somewhere. “It would be a bit worrying if they were more knowledgeable than us!” one pupil supervisor joked.
So what are interviewers looking for? “What we want is a concise argument backed up by three or four points,” one QC told us, “but you can adjust your position based on how the conversation progresses.” Another source weighed in: “There's no right answer to the problem, but I like to see people defend their initial position. I think the best candidates have a good analysis and their answer is logical and well structured.” Considering both sides of an argument isn't a bad idea, but the advice we heard is that candidates should show a degree of conviction rather than sitting on the fence, even if this means playing devil's advocate. This will better enable candidates to argue a point and respond to further questioning.
“Don't waffle,” was another obvious piece of advice that many of our sources dispensed. Easier said than done perhaps, especially if the topic is controversial or complex. Concision is key: sometimes very short clear answers can work well. Overly long responses run the risk of losing clarity and direction so don't feel the pressure to address every possible argument and interpretation in one fell swoop. A dialogue with your interviewers is a far more effective way of dissecting the question than a long monologue. “Listen to the points being made by the panel,” one source advises. “It's more impressive to hear someone respond sensibly to a counterpoint than to staunchly continue with a rubbish argument.”
In addition, strive to remain politically objective. If you're asked for your thoughts on cuts to legal aid, going on a rant about the Conservative Party hating poor people isn't going to go down too well. Why? Because that argument is a political rather than a logical one. Being a barrister demands a level of impartiality so keeping personal opinions and personal convictions out of the argument is imperative. Something that goes along with this is that you should try not to be too serious. As one pupil recalled: “I got the feeling the interview panel were enjoying the exercise.” Despite the nature of some of the questions this is not the most serious part of the interview.
As many of the topics you may be asked about are highly topical and current, keeping up to date with the news is a must. Look out for topics which touch on the world of law (especially on areas the sets you're targeting work in) and present clear and thorny dilemmas.
This feature was first published in March 2018.