I promised some thoughts about how to do well at interviews, so here goes. Much of what follows is specific to my own process (as described in my last post), but I offer it in the hope that wannabe lawyers will find it useful in their search for that elusive training contract.
1. Telephone interviews aren’t scary Well, they are a bit, obviously. But (for me at least) telephone interviews are more about getting a sense of the candidate’s personality, rather than technical or competence questions.
To the extent that there is any real questioning going on at this stage, it’s about how much you know about the company and the role. This works both ways, because it’s also our opportunity to explain the role to you and for you to decide if it’s the sort of thing that would suit you.
In other words, we want to find out if you know what you’d be letting yourself in for and if we’d like to work with you. Which means that, aside from a bit of forethought about the specific position, the traditional “just be yourself” advice is the only thing that really matters at this stage.
2. It’s ok to be nervous I don’t hold with the idea that an interview should be trial by ordeal, designed to weed out the wimps. Apart from anything else, good candidates are assessing the interviewer as much as the interviewer is them, so it’s counterproductive. And is ‘macho’ really the defining quality of a good lawyer?
So any decent interviewer knows that you’ll be nervous, and will make allowances for it. I know that we’re asking some difficult questions, and so I never mind if interviewees need to gather their thoughts before answering, or if they’re hesitant – the important thing is that they get there in the end.
3. But try to stay calm However nervous you are, there’s two things that you need to make sure of. First, slow down – it’s common for people to talk quickly in stressful situations, but in an interview it means that your answers can’t be heard properly.
Second (but related to the first) resist the temptation to jump in too quickly with answers and comments. You’ll end up talking over the interviewer, and, let’s face it, that’s going to come across as rude.
4. Every question has a purpose For example, I sometimes ask candidates what they would do if asked for urgent advice on a point that they don’t have any prior knowledge of. This tries to find out if the candidate has thought about the differences between in house and outhouse practice.
A candidate who answers “Ask a partner” to that question hasn’t picked up on its meaning. It’s ok to take a moment before answering (see point 3), so that you can work out how to fit your answer in the right context.
Preparation helps. Some questions come up a lot in interviews, so you can anticipate them – but prepare an answer that’s specific to the company and role. If you can show that you understand what makes them different from the standard, you’ll be well on the way to making the right kind of impression.
5. But you can be over-prepared I was pretty impressed with one of my recent candidates for anticipating that we were going to cover a particular technical issue. His initial answer was slightly off the point, but I’m always happy to chip in with a gentle nudge in the right direction – which he unfortunately ignored in favour of continuing with a recital of what he had memorised on the topic.
Interviews are (or should be) a conversation, which means that you need to listen to what the interviewer is saying to you, and respond to it. Don’t let the stuff that you’ve read up on crowd out the listening part of your brain.
6. Technical questions aren’t exams I can’t speak for other interviewers, but for me the point of technical questions is to find out if the candidate can have a meaningful discussion about a point of law. That’s far more important than knowing the right answer immediately – and in fact I try to choose questions that don’t have a clear right or wrong answer.
Usually I choose a practical issue that relates to the business that I work in. I can’t and don’t expect trainee candidates to be able to answer difficult technical questions off the top of their heads, so I’ll give some hints and signposts to lead them through the problem. As I said, it’s a conversation, and a good candidate will hear the hints and follow the signposts.
And that gets to the root of the matter. The interviewer wants to be able to visualise you in the role, so your ability to engage in that conversation is crucial – it’s what you’ll be doing every day if you get the job.
Obviously this isn’t comprehensive advice about how to approach an interview. In particular, I haven’t covered “competence-based” questions – in part because (as you’ll have gathered) I was more interested in finding out how candidates would approach in house work rather than how they performed their current role.
But hopefully it will be helpful, nonetheless. And either way, good wishes and good luck to any readers who are facing an interview, for a training contract or any other position.