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Training contract assessment centres: everything you need to know

updated on 11 February 2020

Many law firms use assessment centres as part of the selection process for vacation scheme and training contract candidates. So how do you prepare for an assessment centre, what can you expect on the day and what are firms looking for? Read on for LawCareers.Net’s expert advice.

The thought of attending a law assessment centre can seem daunting, but if you go in prepared and with the right attitude, it will be a much better experience than you think. Below we bring together the advice that we have gathered from graduate recruiters over the years, to let you know what to expect and give you a solid grounding ahead of the day.

How to prepare for an assessment centre

The assessment centre will involve some exercises that you can’t fully prepare for, as recruiters want to see how you perform under pressure and think on your feet. However, there are things you can do so that you feel more prepared. First off, read the information provided by the firm about the assessment day so you know exactly what the day will involve and what will be expected of you. Take note of where it is being held and what time it starts. Also make sure to read and fully understand any materials you are sent in advance.

Next, really get to grips with what the firm is about: its offices, culture, structure, practice areas, clients and so on. You should re-familiarise yourself with the research into the firm you undertook during the application process and then delve deeper - what recent deals has the firm been involved in? How does it differ from its competitors? What’s being said about the firm in the legal press?

A general awareness of what is going on in the business world is crucial - although you should not wait until being invited to an assessment day to start boosting your commercial awareness. This is something you need to work on from day one - read this blog on five ways to boost your commercial awareness by LCN’s Bethany Wren. Keep up to date not only with what is happening in the legal and business worlds, but also how current national and global issues could affect law firms and business.

Finally, try to practise the type of exercises you may encounter at the assessment centre. See what tests are available online (eg, practice Watson Glaser tests), attend skills workshops, practise with careers advisers and use any other resources available to you at your university.

What to expect

Each firm’s assessment day will be structured differently, but they tend to contain similar elements such as:

  • group exercises;
  • individual written exercise;
  • presentation;
  • psychometric tests; and
  • interview.

Group exercise

Many group exercises take the form of a negotiation exercise based on a commercial scenario. The exercise may not necessarily have much legal content, as the firm could be assessing law and non-law candidates at the same time. The scenario is likely to be based on something the firm has worked on in the past (but don’t waste time trying to pinpoint the deal!). For example, at a Norton Rose Fulbright assessment centre, it may be an internationally-based commercial scenario, as Norton Rose Fulbright is an international firm. During the exercise, the assessors want to see that you can get the best out of colleagues, work together as a team to reach a consensus and ultimately find the best solution for the client within the right time frame and costing the right amount of money.

Written exercise

The most commonly used written exercise is drafting a letter to a client. Whatever the exercise, make sure to read the brief very carefully before starting out and pay attention to the word count. Firms are not looking for a flowery essay. They want you to get the basics down and be concise – these are skills you will need as a lawyer. They are also looking for perfect spelling and grammar, and attention to detail. To improve your writing skills, read LCN’s guide to application and CV writing.

Presentation

The assessment centre may include a presentation. You may be given a brief in advance so that you can prepare at home, or it may be something that you see for the first time on the day and have only a limited time frame to prepare for. The firm wants to check that you can apply the information you have been given, communicate this clearly to others and deliver an intelligent and confident presentation.

Psychometric tests

You may encounter psychometric tests, such as verbal or numerical reasoning tests. These tests put the candidates in a position where they have a limited time period in which to draw logical conclusions about data presented to them in two formats – verbal and numerical. These are things that you will have to do on a constant basis working as lawyer. The tests can be useful for a firm to make a judgement on a person who they maybe feel they haven’t seen enough of during the rest of the assessment day. To help you be better informed about psychometric tests, watch our Spotlight on: psychometric testing conducted by law firms video.

Interview

Some assessment days include an interview toward the end of the day, possibly with a partner. Getting to this point may be on the condition of ‘passing’ the rest of the day. If your assessment day does include an interview, you should make sure that you are fully prepared. Read our feature, Training contract interviews made easy.

How to present yourself

The phrase you’ll hear over and over again is 'be yourself', but it may be more helpful to phrase this as, 'be yourself in a work/commercial situation'. You should aim to be: assertive, but not overconfident or domineering; friendly and welcoming to fellow attendees, but not over familiar with them or the assessors; respectful of others' opinions, but willing to put your own point across; and involved and not sitting back quietly. Remember that this is a selection process and the firm wants to see you rise to the challenge of the day.

When asked what puts them off a candidate, the recruiters mentioned several points.

  • Appearance/presentation – the assessor is thinking, "Could I put this person in front of a client?" so make sure that you dress smartly (ie, exactly how you would for an interview).
  • Domineering conduct in group exercises - everyone wants their chance to shine, but you need to respect the other candidates (as you would future colleagues). The firm wants to see leadership skills, but also someone who is a team player.
  • Disrespectful behaviour toward firm staff – this should be obvious, but be kind and polite to everyone you meet at the firm, not just your assessors. Any rudeness will be fed back.
  • Poor response to rejection - try to be gracious when things do not go according to plan, for example, if you are not selected for the afternoon session. If a firm offers instant feedback, listen and take their advice. Do not tell the recruiter that he or she has made the wrong decision - this would in fact underline why you have not been selected!

What the firm wants to see

The aim of the assessment centre is for the firm to see beyond your application form and to establish how you perform under pressure over a variety of exercises covering different skills. The exercises are structured so that you can display a variety of skills, for example:

  • communication skills;
  • team working;
  • leadership;
  • commercial awareness;
  • negotiation;
  • time management;
  • spelling and grammar;
  • attention to detail;
  • analytical skills;
  • problem solving skills;
  • ability to work under pressure;
  • resilience; and
  • desire to learn.

Ultimately the assessors want to get a glimpse of what you might look like working in their business, with their lawyers and with their clients. The assessors appreciate that no one is perfect and they do not expect you to be. What they are looking for is your potential - they want to feel confident that they can train you and develop you into a first-rate lawyer.

Find out more about assessment centres and what top firms are looking for at LawCareersNetLIVE, which in 2020 is coming to Manchester on 27 November, Bristol on 1 December and London on 4 December.