Preparing for applications and interviews

Preparing for applications and interviews

We pick up the story of an aspiring trainee solicitor who gives their advice on how to deal with application forms, video interviews and assessment days.


For part one of the story of this aspiring trainee solicitor, read the feature
How to choose a legal career.

It's March. I've now been in the working world for a year and a half after completing my GDL. Following an unsuccessful attempt to directly apply for a training contract in 2015, I decided to apply for some 2016 vacation schemes with a view to getting a training contract off the back of one of those starting in 2018.

Firms often use fairly similar – if not identical – processes to pick vacation scheme and training contract candidates. I've provided my own personal account of what it was like to apply for vac schemes and what you can expect from interviews in the hope this will help you navigate applications and interviews successfully.

Application forms

The first stage for all these things is the application form. These do vary from firm to firm but the permutations are reasonably limited – there are certain boxes recruiters are looking for you to tick, so most questions are fairly standard.

Every application form will contain a section on past work experience. I spent a great deal of time working on descriptions of my work experience which could be adapted to fit a variety of similar sections on different forms. I chose a word limit of 100 words or so for each – some forms will allow for more but it saves time if you are able to use the same description repeatedly; if you're feeling productive it might even be a good idea to save multiple versions, using 50, 100 and 150-word limits.

You will need referees for some application forms, usually from an academic and/or professional connection. This can take time to sort out so make sure you get going early. The good news is that the firm research burden for this stage isn't too heavy. You just have to know the basics: what does the firm specialise in; what important cases or deals has it recently been involved in; is it big or small; and what are the main reasons previous trainees had for joining. There are various sources you can use to find this out – the firm's website, the legal press, networking events etc. But most of these issues are also addressed in the Chambers Student Guide's True Picture reviews of firms.

Applications may require a cover letter. Sometimes the information you need to include in the letter is stipulated but it isn't always. If there are no specified directions, the basic things I include are: my motivation for wanting to be a lawyer generally; the areas of practice that interest me and why; my reasons for applying to this firm in particular; and what I think I can bring to the firm.

Don't be afraid to emphasise things which might seem like run-of-the-mill achievements.

Some firms will include a couple of specific commercial, legal or longer-form questions. These will differ in complexity, theme and word count. There is no real rule of thumb for these and the only thing I can say with certainty is that you will be doing yourself a disservice if you copy and paste your answers. Take your time to craft a well-thought-out answer because this is one of the main ways you can make your application stand out. I made sure I was concise and linked everything back to my positive attributes and what the firm was likely to be looking for.

Remember that the recruiter reading your application form will have limited time, so structure your narrative in a clear way – this matters just as much as content. One useful exercise is to pick a number of key adjectives to describe yourself and then demonstrate them by thinking of ways to link each answer back to one or more of the adjectives. If you're struggling to choose a relevant scenario to demonstrate you have a particular skill, don't be afraid to emphasise things which might seem like run-of-the-mill achievements. When you take the time to look at things from someone else's perspective you may be surprised what can seem impressive. I found it helpful to pose application form questions to people who knew me well and see what they came up with. Call it crowdsourcing if you will.

Video interviews and online tests

Assuming the application bit goes well there are a few different things that might come your way next. The most common for me was a video interview. These are not 'live' – not conducted over Skype or anything like that – but rather recorded online. I didn't really know what to expect when I sat down to the first one. What I was confronted with was a fixed number of pre-set questions. Each question flashed up on screen and a timer began counting down ominously, giving me a small amount of time – maybe 45 or 60 seconds – to think up my answer. Then the system automatically began recording and I had a set amount of time to respond – perhaps one or two minutes. (Though quite often I'd skip to the next question before the time was up.)

I reasoned that firms couldn't possibly expect perfection from these interviews if you only got one chance.

There was no chance to re-record answers, so I'm not afraid to admit the whole thing had me sweating – it was pretty nerve-wracking. At the same time, I reasoned that firms couldn't possibly expect perfection from these interviews if you only got one chance at each question; I was nervous and a bit intimated but I still managed to get through every video interview without loosing my nerve, even though I did stumble through one or two of my answers.

The preparation I did for the video interviews was roughly the same as what I did for the application form. In addition, I looked over the application form questions again, because I reckoned (rightly) that there was likely to be a similar theme. You can have notes around you during a video interview, so I prepared on paper for likely questions such as 'why do you want to work at this firm' and 'tell us about a news story which has interested you recently'. For a fuller list of typical questions there are plenty of forums on the subject which are just a Google away.

Something else you may find yourself faced with is an online test. In my experience these tended to complement an assessment day or interview rather than being a hurdle in and of themselves. I have done two of these now and I certainly encourage you to practise as many as you can until you feel comfortable with them. Verbal and mathematical reasoning have come up twice and pattern analysis once. You can't prep for specific questions but you can certainly get used to converting things into percentages or thinking like a verbal reasoner. There are plenty of free websites offering practice tests (for example, this one) and firms are likely to link you to one of these when they invite you to take the test.

Assessments days

The next stage of the process is an assessment day and/or interview. Assessment days are likely to include things like a group discussion, an individual presentation, a written exercise and (usually) an interview. The only element you can really prepare for is the interview and this is certainly where I hit peak preparation. My prep at this stage covered the same sort of stuff I'd looked at before but in more detail.

At least pretend you care about things that only only really become relevant to you once you get a job as a lawyer.

One key thing I delved into at this stage was current affairs. Actually – I didn't wait until this point to start following the news for stories relevant to the areas of law I was interested in. So: start checking the news regularly today. Collecting press clippings and news stories like a paranoid conspiracy theorist may not be your thing – it certainly isn't mine – but you have to do this in order to be able to at least pretend you care about things that only only really become relevant to you once you get a job as a lawyer. Ideally you'll be able to speak on topics in the news in a holistic way – put them in a broader commercial and legal context. A really useful resource for me was podcasts. For example, The Economist has a free weekly podcast and The Guardian offers a long-form journalism podcast called The audio long read. However you do it, the point is to get a regular dose of legal or commercial news into your diet at as early a stage as possible. I can tell you from personal experience that some interviewers will be so mean as to pick a particular news story and chastise you for not knowing about it. So it pays to be well informed. At the same time, interviewers are looking at how you react in these situations rather than your actual knowledge, so don't worry too much if you're not a walking encyclopedia.

My next port of call for interview research was always a firm's website. In an ideal world a firm you're researching will have a blog or news feed full of opinion pieces. You don't have to read all of these. I would suggest reading the most recent few and sifting through for older ones which are relevant to your areas of interest. This should allow you to talk about the firm, its work and its lawyers from a well-informed position. Being able to put forward an opinion rather than a fact is a good way to wow. Choose a particular case or deal the firm has handled in an area you're interested in and explore it in depth. It might not come up but if it does you will earn soooo many brownie points. One crucial thing to read up on is what areas of law the firm has expertise in – the Chambers UK rankings are great for this. At almost every single interview I've been to I've been asked a question along the lines of: 'How would you sell our services to a prospective client if they came to you with problem X?' Firms want you to have a good idea of what legal services they provide and how those offerings can combine and overlap.

All interviews will also include one or more competency-based question. In my experience, competency questions were often posed in the context of a real-life situation. For example: 'What would you do if you were left on your own and a client asked you to do X'. These questions are difficult to prepare for but there are some frequently asked about competencies – teamwork, leadership, professional ethics – which you should be preparing answers for. Once again Google is your friend when seeking out commonly asked questions. You can also expect to be asked some basic motivational questions (again) on why you want to be a lawyer and why you want to work for this firm. By this stage in the process these answers should come naturally to you, as you've probably dealt with them on the application form and in a first interview. But it's worth having another think about these questions and how you're going to adapt your answer to each particular firm.

The last thing to say on interviews is that you should prepare questions to ask your interviewers. For some reason I've never got the hang of this and have often found myself in the embarrassing position of not having anything to say when asked if I had any questions – and I was always asked. You don't need to prepare anything particularly insightful, but it's good to come up with something that's a good way of closing off the interview – it's another chance to make a smart impression.

It seems my thorough preparation paid off! After a lot of hard work I was eventually accepted onto three vac schemes which I'm undertaking in spring and summer 2016.

This feature was first published in March 2016