Tips for Training Contract interviews

Tips for Training Contract interviews

Nottingham Law School

This blog is written by Dominic Simon, who recently undertook both his undergraduate law degree and LPC at Nottingham Law School and has now secured a training contract with Shakespeare Martineau. Not long ago he was in your position, applying for training contracts and preparing for interviews. Four interviews, three rejections and two assessment days later, he is now a trainee solicitor.  Dominic shares his experiences and tips with you.

Throughout the process, most of the firms I had interviews with asked me broadly similar questions.  The important thing is that you stay true to yourself, demonstrate your strengths and highlight and expand on relevant experience. However, knowing what sort of questions may be asked and understanding what your interviewer wants to know will greatly help you formulate your responses. Below are some of interview questions I have been faced with on a number of occasions and how I tackled them.

Why Law?

What they want to know: This is such a simple question, but something a lot of candidates struggle with. It is obvious that you need to be interested in the law, but what they really want to know is your ‘story’.

If you can, provide examples and be specific, as opposed to generic answers such as ”it’s just something I enjoy”. Think back to when you first made the decision to study it. What was your motive? What did you want to gain? Was there a time in any point of your life that you had to use the law to assert your rights and how did you feel afterwards? Did it work?

There may not have been a ‘trigger event’ that inspired you to pursue a career in law, you may simply possess certain traits that are often found in good lawyers, making a legal career the perfect choice for you.

How I tackled it: I began by explaining that I was simply curious about how this intangible thing called ‘the law’ applies to everything. I wanted to dig deep, to understand the dynamics and its application. I also gave an example about a time when a business refused to refund me on some faulty electrical goods, to which I used the Sales of Goods Act 1979 (which then applied to business-consumer relationships) to assert my legal rights and his legal duties. A small win, but a win nonetheless.

Bonus tip: You may also want to discuss why you want a career in law.

Why a career in law?/why do you want to be a solicitor?

What they want to know: That you know what a lawyer does and are not blindly jumping into a career. It is perhaps necessary that you research what the job entails beforehand and state what lawyerly skills you have.

Remember, law firms are businesses, and you should demonstrate some business acumen. There is a good article on that explains how commercial law firms work.

How I tackled it: I originally wanted to be a barrister but for the wrong reasons (mainly for the courtroom theatrics, if I’m honest). I spoke about this, as well as my work experience which led me to believe I’d be more suited as a solicitor (more direct client contact, team dynamics etc). Finally, I discussed which skills of mine would serve me well as a solicitor.

Why corporate law?

What they want to know: Since legal aid cuts and numerous other occurrences there has been a wave of law students wanting to go into more business orientated areas of law (although it has always been highly competitive). Law firms understand that some candidates want to go into corporate/commercial law because the salaries are (generally) higher. Firms want to know that you have a genuine interest in corporate law.

How I tackled it: I explained that academically I have always favored business orientated modules, and that I tended to excel in these.

Additionally, I explained that I view lawyers as the ‘’middle men of the economy’’. Whilst business builds the economy, lawyers ease the transitions that businesses make (whether it’s a merge or the drafting of a commercial contract).

You might not want to be a corporate lawyer, and your interviewer may instead ask why you want to go into the area you have stated. Do you want to be the one people go to when things hit the fan? Do you want to engage with creative clients and help maximize intellectual property protection? Whatever the area, and whatever the reason, be honest but be interesting.

Why did you apply to our Firm?

What they want to know: They want to know whether you are compatible with their ethos, culture and values. It is essential that you conduct research on the firm before you apply so that you can discuss why you applied.

How I tackled it: I applied to different firms for different reasons, although I generally looked for the following:

  • strong presence (preferably a top 50 firm)
  • well-known clients
  • a strong sense of community
  • high retention rates; and
  • career progression.

What do you think commercial awareness is?

What they want to know: There is no set answer to this question. After having explained what you think commercial awareness is, you should provide examples of how you are building it (this is what the question is really about).

How I tackled it: To me, commercially awareness is more than just reading news articles and being able to remember them. It’s about understanding the implications of those events, and understanding trends and patterns. It’s about being able to predict outcomes of macro-economic issues. Having explained this, I then provided examples of current affairs and how they are affecting (or may effect) the legal market.

Bonus tip: If you are not somebody that keeps up with the news and business affairs, you need to start filtering through news articles to bring yourself up to date with what is happening around you, because there is a lot. If you are at university, you may be signed up to resources such as Practical Law and Westlaw. Use these resources to read up on legal updates.

There are numerous books, magazines and websites dedicated to commercial issues, such as and Lawyer2b (which has a section dedicated to commercial awareness).

Bonus tip 2: If you have ever ran a business (no matter how small), this is something you should discuss.

What are your three biggest strengths?

What they want to know: That you will be worth the investment, and what departments you may suited to. However, you need to provide examples of times you demonstrated your strengths. You should also discuss why these strengths will serve you well in the legal profession. You may be asked what your single biggest strength is, but either way you should provide examples to demonstrate it. This is a good opportunity to talk about your experience, and what you can bring to the table.

What is your biggest weakness?

What they want to know: That you are self-aware but more importantly, that you are taking measures to improve. This may also be a test to see if you can think on your feet. The good news is, if you already have a well-thought answer to this question, you won’t even have to.

Although this question may make you uncomfortable, never try and turn a strength into a weakness (also known as a strength in disguise). It just doesn’t work, and they will see right through it. For example, do not say things like:

  • I work too hard and sometimes need to back off;
  • I am a bit of a perfectionist which can be a bit of a burden; or
  • Sometimes I become so engrossed in my work that I have little time for other things.

Why should we hire you?

What they want to know: Why they should hire you…

How I tackled it: I stated why they should hire me but also highlighted why they should choose me over other candidates. I spoke about my skills and my experiences, but most importantly, demonstrated passion. I also (subtly) highlighted what they would lose out on by not hiring me (if you do this just try not to sound arrogant).

What is the best team you have worked in?

What they want to know: Solicitors often have to work in teams to get jobs done. You will also be expected to work with other lawyers to achieve certain outcomes. You will be expected to work with paralegals, secretaries, other trainees, qualified solicitors, partners and other professionals. As a trainee, you will need to keep your supervisor informed at all times of where you are at on a particular task.

How I tackled it: I asked if I could provide two examples, but concluded that the best team I worked in was one that had the broadest range of skills, as this allowed for effective delegation and time management. I highlighted how we collaborated, contributed and successfully completed the project.

Bonus tip: Whatever it was you were working towards, state how your team successfully led to the outcome.

Two partners each come to you with a separate piece of work they need completed by today. Both deadlines conflict. What do you do?

What they want to know: That you can think on your feet and use your initiative, but more importantly that you can prioritise and manage your time.

How I tackled it:

Me: Firstly, I would assess whether they are hard or soft deadlines. That would allow me to assess which is most important. I would also assess what the outcome would be for the client if it doesn’t get done on time.

Interviewer: What if they are both hard deadlines?

*Awkward pause*

Me: If possible, I would delegate the easy, administrative elements of each task so that that is out of the way. That would allow me to focus on the legal stuff. Also, I have no problem staying late to get them both done.

Bonus tip: Just remember, that is how I answered it. There are a variety of ways you can answer this question. Be creative, but not at the expense of practicality or what is reasonably possible. If you have had a similar experience, talk about what you did. It doesn’t matter if it was in your retail job.

Tell me about a time you have had to make a difficult decision

What they want to know: That you can make difficult decisions when you need to.

How I tackled it: I told them about a time I told somebody he could no longer work with us on a project because he wouldn’t pull his weight and was slowing everything down. We were friends.

Bonus tip: Talk about times when you have had to manage tricky conflicts of interests (these will occur in your career) and how you dealt with them (whether they occurred in your job or not). Although lawyers are known to be risk averse, you may want to talk about risks you have taken that paid off, or decisions you have made that led to temporary suffering for the sake a greater long-term result.

What do you think exceptional client care looks like?

What they want to know: That you can ”add-value”, and go above and beyond the line of duty. Remember, law firms are also businesses, and businesses are in competition.

How I tackled it: The world is rapidly changing, and law firms no longer simply give advice on the black-letter law. Clients now expect industry knowledge and tailored advice. I spoke about how I added-value in previous roles.

If you could invite three famous people to dinner, dead or alive, who would you choose?

What they want to know: Who you are a person and what your values are. This question also assesses your ability to think on your feet. Ironically, this question is common.

How I tackled it: Robert Greene, Horace Greasley and Trevor McDonald. That’s my list and I gave my reasons for each individual.

Bonus tip: Try and be original, as many candidates will name the same individuals.

Give me an example of how you have responded to constructive criticism

What they want to know: A training contract is essentially an apprenticeship. The point of an apprenticeship is to train you, and to be trained, you need to know what needs training. This requires self-awareness, and an ability to act on constructive criticism. They want to know that you are ‘’trainable’’. If they do not think that you are, they will not think you are worth the investment.

How I tackled it: I spoke about a project in the NLS Legal Advice Centre where we had to deliver a webinar to start-ups, advising them on various business structures in England and Wales. Before that, we did other forms of ‘pro bono’ and were told that when delivering information to a non-legal audience it should be as ‘layman friendly’ as possible. Coming into that project, I therefore ensured that concepts such as ”limited liability” and ”separate legal personality” were explained in a manner that the target audience could understand. This was especially important considering that for some of them, English was not their first language.

Bonus tip: You may wish to highlight a way that you have improved a skill needed within the legal profession. That way you kill two birds with one stone!

Tell me about a recent news story of interest to you and why?

What they want to know: That you are plugged in to the world around you. This question may also help them assess what areas of law you are interested in, or how you think the particular development/event will affect them or their clients (this is the ’why?’).

Bonus tip: Somebody recently asked me on LinkedIn whether I would focus on a specific article or more of an ongoing issue. If you can, do both, but think about who the firm’s clients are.

Outside of law, what are your hobbies and interests?

What they want to know: That you are a human being, but also that you ‘’marketable’’.

How I tackled it: Well…I guess I just told them about my hobbies and interests.

Bonus tip: If you do have any hobbies or interests which involve team work, collaboration or problem solving, you definitely want to talk about them. If you are interested in or play any sports, talk about that too (especially if the firm has a sports club or regularly plays the particular sport).

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