updated on 23 July 2013
Following on from last week’s blog on partner interviews, today's post covers more advice on this crucial stage of the recruitment process from Linklaters' Simon Branigan and SJ Berwin's Hilary O'Connor. Each has experience in the graduate recruitment partner role.
As any senior lawyer will tell you, one of the fundamentals for success is a candidate's ability to pass what is variously described as the aeroplane test, the elevator test, the smell test and the dinner party test. As Simon explains, this involves asking the questions "can I see them sitting in my office as a trainee and can I put this person in front of a client?". A candidate's capacity to both engage their interviewer and allow them to enjoy the exchange becomes evident during the course of the meeting. Keep this goal in mind and it may help you to relax and enjoy the process yourself. While likeability is a tricky thing to define, it will relate to your disposition towards teamwork, which other phases of the recruitment process will almost certainly test. A good way to put your interviewer at ease is to show your personality. For Hilary, a candidate's ability to engage her (and therefore her clients) is the acid test: "In all honesty, in good interviews the time flies, but some can feel like the longest hour of your life."
On this point Hilary has reassuring advice. "Some people try to be what they think you want rather than being themselves. This can take the form of blagging instead of admitting that they don't know the answer to something, or it can sound like it's their parents speaking. Allow the real you to emerge during the interview. I'd also say that you should never belittle your experiences. Things like bar work and waitressing teach you life experiences and social skills; and most people interviewing you will have done these same things at some stage."
Being over-rehearsed can also stifle your capacity to show enthusiasm and hunger for the firm and the position you're applying for. These are on Simon's list of the top things he's looking for. Another is the ability to be imaginative in your answers, which in turn demonstrates a capacity for creativity and problem solving, all important in a career that requires so much more than an ability to navigate black letter law.
Being under-prepared is the flipside, of course. "Preparation, preparation, preparation - this is really important and it clearly shows if you have not prepared yourself for interview," Simon emphasises. He recommends you treat a looming interview like one of your final exams, pointing out how competitive the process is and noting the huge investment by the firm into the interview process.
Lack of preparation is a bugbear for Hilary too. As is the case at Linklaters, she and her colleagues complete a detailed post-mortem after each interview. "We feedback our comments against criteria such as: ability to analyse a complicated scenario; ability to articulate; self-confidence without arrogance; do they show a genuine interest in the law and in SJ Berwin; and are they commercial. Then there's that important 'acid test': would we want to introduce them to the client?"
You will undoubtedly be asked to talk about aspects of your CV or application form, and in some cases this might require you to explain a poor grade. If you have made it to a partner interview then a firm is evidently open to hearing you out. "In some cases it will relate to a period of illness or family difficulties," Hilary explains, "but I've occasionally had a frank conversation with a candidate who has been refreshingly honest that they messed around in their first year at university and realised they would have to knuckle down if they wanted to achieve the results. I quite liked this, as to me it showed the candidate's self-awareness and tenacity."
Interviewers use the information on your application form to anchor parts of their questioning, so be prepared to talk about all aspects and your studies in some detail. And what of the dreaded question requiring you to admit to your weaknesses? Hilary hates it when candidates suggest that it's their "perfectionist tendencies": "I think it's OK to admit that you're a work in progress; I'm looking for a degree of self-awareness."
Each phase of the recruitment process is designed to achieve different things, from the written application to the work experience, from the competency based exercises to the interview room. Both Simon and Hilary emphasise that they need to see the real person in the interview chair. If you can engage with your interviewer on a human level then you give them confidence in your ability to represent them and their firm in a client-facing situation. This, as you will find throughout your career, is just as important as your technical skills.
Good luck to all LC.N users!
Anna Williams is a careers and pro bono adviser at Kaplan Law School.