Training contract interviews made easy

The good news is you've been invited to a training contract interview. The bad news is that might sound quite daunting! Don't panic. This article explores what you should be doing in preparation and how best to present yourself on the day.

If you're a would-be barrister and looking for tips on pupillage interview technique, click here.

You've submitted your training contract applications and - hooray! - you've been invited to an interview. After five minutes of patting yourself on the back, the associated fears start to surface. What if I become a gibbering wreck? What do I wear? What sorts of question are they going to ask? All of sudden you realise you're being asked to prove yourself in person rather than on paper. But we're here to help.

There are two stages to a successful interview. First is the preparation and second is the technique you demonstrate at the interview itself. By taking some time to consider both stages you can confidently approach the law firm you're destined to work in, knowing that you're about to deliver a fine interview.

Preparation

One of the most common reasons for failure at interview is where a candidate is ill-prepared so spending some time on this could make all the difference. Remember that an interview is a two-way process. It is an opportunity for the firm to find out more about you and for you to find out whether this is a firm you want to work for. Start with what they might want from you.

Remember that an interview is a two-way process

Your application has obviously aroused their interest, so be sure to refresh your memory about what you wrote. Analyse it in the three main areas: academic life, work experience and extracurricular activity. Ask yourself why you made the choices you did, what you have gained from your experiences in terms of skills and personal development, and whether you would have done anything differently with the benefit of hindsight. An interviewer will almost certainly want to discuss in more depth what aroused their interest in the application.

If you have an academic result that seems out of step with other results, or you have some other issue like illness or bereavement, think about how you want to present that to the interviewer in a way that won't make you anxious or upset. They will almost certainly ask you to explain and gaps or discrepancies, so it helps to have thought about it in advance. Honesty is certainly the best policy here - if less than impressive grades were a result of things going temporarily astray, you should state this, but explain that things are now back on track.

Spend some time looking for clues to questions in your application. If you have been a keen and committed player of a sports team, or a member of a rather off-the-wall club or society, or have travelled during a gap year, then you might reasonably expect the interviewer to pick up on those points. Even if you feel that you haven't done anything wildly exciting, clearly something made them interested enough to invite you to interview, so what was it? You can have an informed go at predicting some of the questions you might be asked and think about how you might answer them.

One of the things you can confidently expect them to want to know is why you have decided on a career in law and what made you choose the area of law in which they practise. If you are going to be convincing about this you need to be able to demonstrate that you understand what a solicitor actually does and you have considered the different practise areas. For example, if you are applying to a commercial law firm, do you know what the role of the solicitor is in business and can you show that you are commercially aware? Know what's going on in the legal press and keep an eye on the sorts of thing we are covering in our Commercial Question section.

If you are trying to convince an interviewer that you are genuinely interested in a career in law, it is important that you take time over the summer to read the newspapers, particularly the law sections, to keep up with current events in your chosen field. No interviewer will ever go for anything too obscure, but they might reasonably expect you to be interested enough to follow major stories in the press. If you are interested in commercial law, you should read the business sections as well. In any event, take an interest in current affairs and consider some of the issues.

The firm will also of course ask why you chose to apply, so be ready to explain what attracted you. You need to be looking at the firm's own website, with particular focus on the 'About Us', 'News' and 'Recent Deals' sections. It may also be useful to do a search on some of the legal press websites to see what comes up in relation to that particular firm - at the very least, you can ask some intelligent questions about what the firm has most recently been involved in.

So that's their agenda. Now what's yours? If you are trying to find out whether this is a firm you want to work for, there will be questions you want to ask and they will expect you to ask them. You might want to know more about choice of training seats, or you might want to know what percentage of trainees are retained by the firm after qualification. Think about this before the interview rather than during it! Firms will be more than a little surprised if you have no questions at all.

The final part of your preparation should be to give some thought to what you are going to wear. You don't need to rush out to Armani, but you do need to be recognisable as a future solicitor, so go for business attire and play it safe! According to the recruiters we have spoken to, inappropriate dress still lets some candidates down every year.

Interview technique

If you have prepared thoroughly for an interview, it shouldn't be too nerve-wracking when you get to the interview itself. Everyone feels nervous but this can work in your favour, for when the adrenalin is pumping it can make you that little bit sharper and quicker. You should be feeling reasonably confident anyway as you now know that they found your application interesting enough to want to see you. If you suffer badly from interview nerves it can ruin your chances, so if you think you might have a problem with this, get some advice from a careers adviser on techniques for overcoming the problem.

Throughout an interview, your interviewer will be trying to assess how good you will be with clients. Will you make a client confident in your ability as a lawyer or will you leave your client feeling unconvinced and in need of reassurance? This is a key issue in any law firm and it is therefore very important that you demonstrate an appropriate level of confidence at your interview. Make eye contact, smile and listen carefully to what is being said. Make sure that you sit comfortably so that you are not perched on the edge of your chair or slouched down. Your body language will say a lot about your confidence. One word of warning though: there is a fine line between confidence and arrogance - don't cross it!

Remember that this is a two-way process so it is important to have a conversation with your interviewer. The interviewer will set the course of that conversation but don't make it hard work for them. Monosyllabic answers are not going to work. It is also important not to get so carried away that the interviewer finds it hard to get a word in. Be enthusiastic about what you have achieved and be interesting to talk to. Be prepared to express an opinion in a discussion but don't defend it to the death - show instead that you can listen to the views of others. And don't end up interviewing them!

Be enthusiastic about what you have achieved and be interesting to talk to

Many people worry about how to deal with difficult or unexpected questions. It is OK to take a minute to consider your answer to a question, but don't allow long silences to develop. If you really don't know how to answer a question it is better to say so with a smile and allow the interview to move on. Don't try to bluff your way through or make something up - you can end up getting badly caught out.

Every interviewer has their own style of interviewing and you may find that all your careful preparation has been for nothing. It has been known for a keen rugby fan to spend the entire interview discussing rugby with a candidate who has listed rugby as their main interest, or for an interviewer to pick on one topic for discussion and to base the whole interview on it. The key is not to panic and feel cut adrift simply because the interview is not what you expected. Be prepared to think on your feet and give it your best shot.

Allow plenty of time to get to your interview and aim to get there at least 15 minutes before so that you have time to gather your thoughts. There is nothing more likely to cause panic and anxiety than the fear that you are going to be late. This will also give you a chance to go to the bathroom and check your appearance - spinach in your teeth or newsprint all over your forehead (true story!) can be distracting for an interviewer, and take away from all the interesting things you might have to say.

Don't forget - you should remember that you are being assessed constantly from the time you arrive at reception to the time you leave so it is important not to let your guard down. If you are being shown around by a current trainee, it is not wise to confide in them things you would not say to the interviewer. If you are offered lunch with other candidates and trainees, be careful what you say and avoid any alcohol that might be offered. You need a clear head to be successful. Having said that, don't feel you have to be someone you're not. We know this may be easier said than done, but do try and relax and be yourself as much as possible. The interview is for both you and the firm to get to know each other better.

Lastly, a top student tip on training contract interviews - if you are given coffee, don't eat the chocolate biscuits. The chocolate melts a little as it rests on the saucer against the cup and you can guarantee that someone will want to shake your hand just as you realise you have chocolate all over your fingers! Good luck!

For more on good interview technique, read our specific advice on partner interviews and this Oracle on interview attire.

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