updated on 24 October 2017
Video interviews are a widespread assessment tool among hiring employers, and there are some key differences between interviewing on camera and in person. Read on for expert advice on negotiating this stage of the process from Gemma Baker, head of employability at Aspiring Solicitors and former graduate recruitment head at two top firms.
Video interviews are now part of the application process at many top law firms and it is important to appreciate how different the medium is compared to talking with someone in person. Talking while looking into a camera changed the world forever during the 1960 US presidential election, which saw the first televised debate between candidates – John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Kennedy famously won the debate, which proved decisive in that election, not through the power of his arguments (the story goes that the smaller audience of radio listeners thought Nixon had won), but because he and his team appreciated and prepared for the special requirements of performing on screen, while Nixon thought it would be just another debate. Kennedy practised, prepared and then rested beforehand, while Nixon did little preparation and spent most of the day leading up to the debate campaigning hard, even though he was still recovering from an illness which had recently hospitalised him. Just before the debate started, Nixon paid little special attention to his clothes and refused make-up, and went on to look tired and drawn on people’s TV screens. Kennedy’s team, meanwhile, had paid close attention to every detail, one of their more well-known calls being the decision for Kennedy to wear a blue shirt because they believed that this would show up better on the grainy black and white TVs of the era. When the debate started, Kennedy appeared relaxed and confident, while Nixon, having not rehearsed as extensively, sweated and fidgeted uncomfortably under the glaring lights. The lesson is obvious – never be like Richard Nixon! Which in this case means, clearly, that it pays to prepare if a law firm invites you to complete a video assessment.
There are two types of video interview which employers use when hiring – a live, Skype interview with a recruiter or a recorded interview where you don’t converse directly with anyone, but instead answer pre-recorded questions and respond to prompts. The latter pre-recorded form is by far the most widely used type of video interview among law firms, so this is the one on which you should focus.
The preparation you do beforehand will determine whether your performance in the actual video interview is good or bad. It is crucial to take this stage seriously, as Gemma Baker, head of employability at Aspiring Solicitors and former graduate recruitment and development manager at top commercial firms Ashurst and Mayer Brown, explains: “The main reason that makes people fall down at the video or telephone interview stage is that they haven’t prepared enough. It can be tempting to think that you don’t have to do much research for a 10-minute interview, but it is important to remember that this is the point at which recruiters make a second ‘sift’ of their remaining applications, and you can only do well with proper preparation. A video interview is just as important as an interview in person.”
Your preparation should begin as soon as you know that you are going to be completing a video interview as part of your training contract or vacation scheme application. The first thing to do is to get into the habit of checking your ‘junk’ and other email folders daily, so that you don’t miss the invitation email which the firm will send to you, containing the crucial link to start the interview itself and information about the deadline by which you will have to complete your video. “Unfortunately, if you miss the deadline to submit your interview because you were not aware that the invitation had arrived in your junk folder, there is nothing you can do,” explains Gemma. “There is often a tight turnaround between the invitation being sent and the deadline, so check your email folders every day.”
If you are in a situation where you have been sent the link to complete the video interview, but are unable to do so within the timeframe given due to personal circumstances, email the firm immediately. “Recruiters will probably view your situation kindly if you have a genuine reason for not being able to do the video interview at that time, such as being out of the country with poor internet access,” says Gemma. “However, if you leave it until after the deadline to email, this is likely to be viewed as an excuse rather than a genuine reason.”
In terms of preparing your performance, Gemma’s main tip is to plan the structure of your answers and practise them out loud: “Don’t write out your answers and then recite what’s on the paper in front of you, and don’t stick post-it notes around your device’s screen to prompt you during the interview – it’s very obvious and looks bad on camera. Instead, practice speaking on your own – it’s essentially what you’re going to doing, after all – and make sure that the pace at which you talk is measured and clear, rather than rushed and mumbled; that you vary the tone of your voice to sound enthusiastic; and that your answers are well structured, so you have three good points to make in response to any ‘why law’ and ‘key skills’ questions.”
This also means taking timeframes into account. You should practise competency questions (eg, “What are your key skills?”) until you can fit your answer into one minute, while still speaking at a calm, measured pace. Remember that if you rush what you’re saying to fit a longer answer into that one minute, it will be much harder for the recruiter to hear you.
When the date of your interview has been set, you will need to make sure that the room and computer you are going to use are all set up well in advance. “Law firms are not really bothered about what is visible in the background or in the room you use,” explains Gemma. “What they do care about is whether you’re in a quiet environment where the interview is not going to be disrupted. So make sure that you do the interview at a time when your housemates are going to be out, or if they are particularly unreliable, go to a friend’s or relative’s house.”
You should also pay attention to your webcam setup. Place the webcam just above your eyeline if possible – the shot will look better, whereas shooting from below is what horror movie directors do when they want an actor to look creepy. Preparing beforehand will also allow you to adjust your posture and the room’s lighting to get a clear shot. And when the interview is about to start, make sure any distractions are out of the way – that means your phone on silent mode and your dog hanging out in another room until the interview is over.
It probably goes without saying, but it is important to dress the part as if you are going to an in-person interview. See this previous Oracle question for more advice on what to wear at interviews.
If a technical problem does occur (it happens to the best of us), the important thing to do is not panic. “If your Internet cuts out half-way through the interview, just send a calm email to the graduate recruitment team, who will reset the link and will know that a connection problem has occurred,” advises Gemma.
The first and most important thing to make sure that you do during the interview is to look directly into the camera when you are speaking. “A lot of students have told me that they are put off by seeing their reflections on the screen, which can be distracting,” says Gemma. “If this is the case, tape a piece of paper or card over the screen once you’re set up – this cuts off an unnecessary distraction and ensures that you are looking right into the camera.”
The other aspects of your body language are important, too. Try to stay still and not fidget when sitting in front of the webcam – it may not come naturally at first, but as JFK would probably tell you if you ever speak to him at a séance, practice makes perfect.
Opinion is divided on whether having notes or a ‘cheat sheet’ to hand during the interview is a good idea, but Gemma advises against it: “You won’t be able to take notes into an interview with a partner and the best of us can’t help trying to read our notes in the middle of the interview when we have them in front of us. If you feel you must, have one sheet of paper with some key words in front of you, but certainly don’t have your answers written out – it will be too tempting to just read from them.”
Finally, make sure to use all the time that you are given to answer each question. Just as law firms place word limits on questions at the application form stage to assess your written communication skills and whether you pay attention to instructions, they also give a certain amount of time to answer each question at the video interview stage because they want you to use it. This means striking the right balance between detail and waffle – where again, rehearsing is key.
Once you take the above information and advice on board, you will be all set for future video interviews. The key to success at this stage is twofold and very simple: taking it seriously enough to prepare beforehand, and staying calm. “A calm and measured approach to the whole process is the main thing to focus on, along with taking your preparation seriously beforehand and not leaving things until the last minute,” explains Gemma. “This way you can concentrate on what you’re going to say, and if anything does go wrong during the process, it will be rectifiable as you will have caught it in good time.”
Aspiring Solicitors, LCN’s diversity partner, offers weekly one to one mock interview and advice sessions throughout the year. This way to book an appointment.