The Partner Interview: part 1

Anna Williams - The Partner Interview: part 1

The training contract interview and assessment season has begun. Perhaps the most daunting element is the partner interview, but need it be? To help you understand what to expect and how to best approach one, I sought advice from two partners who regularly conduct interviews with trainee hopefuls. Simon Branigan is one of Linklaters' graduate recruitment partners and he has been involved in the trainee interview process for six years. Hilary O'Connor completed a stint as graduate recruitment partner at SJ Berwin and was fresh from the interview room when we spoke. Each has clear views on what good candidates achieve during this part of the recruitment process.

Naturally the precise format of partner interviews varies between firms according to the structure of the wider process. Typically, at SJ Berwin candidates will have undertaken a vacation scheme and so the interview is seen as an opportunity to further examine a person who has already demonstrated desired qualities. Each is provided with a case study 15 minutes before a two-partner interview (usually about a potential investment opportunity). After a short chat to break the ice, the candidate will present the pros and cons of the investment.  The case study is used to establish whether a candidate has the requisite level of commerciality. The partners each role-play representatives of a client, with the candidate stepping into the shoes of their adviser. "At certain points in the discussion, we ask the candidate to exercise their judgement," Hilary explains. "It shouldn't matter whether they are a law or non-law student as the questioning is not designed to test legal knowledge. It mostly boils down to common sense; for example, we're looking to see how they might negotiate their client's way out of a problem, as opposed to pursuing a purely legalistic approach."

Within the framework of Linklaters' one-partner, one-managing associate interview, to establish someone's ability to think commercially, Simon likes to focus on key stories from the press. "It's not a case of them picking up the FT the day before," he warns, adding that interest in and enthusiasm for the wider commercial world must be genuine. "Anyone can develop and demonstrate authentic interest," Simon notes, as there is a wealth of information available. Given the accessibility of information today, Simon warns that it can be frustrating when people do not use this.  "A really strong candidate understands how a story might affect our clients and could, for example, talk about the Eurozone crisis in this context."

In part two of this blog, I will discuss some of the other ways in which candidates have really impressed these two interviewers and how you can perform at your best. First, let's consider some of the least desirable mistakes people make and how to stop an interview unravelling.

Inability to communicate why you want to be a solicitor

If you have completed a vacation scheme, you will have been exposed to the reality of commercial legal practice and this shouldn't be a problem. An insight into the nature of the job and the challenges faced by clients is central to understanding your own motivation, and this is why partners commonly use the experience as a vehicle for questioning. "I like it when candidates remember that we are a client-focused business," Hilary says. "Even prior to a vacation scheme you can begin to learn about this aspect of the job by listening to lawyers speaking about their work. Referring to occasions when you have sought out this kind of information can be powerful."

Not knowing enough about the firm/failing to communicate adequate interest

Simon emphasises that he's looking for evidence of a candidate's determination to join Linklaters in particular. "I want to know that they understand that there's a difference between us and Freshfields, Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance or Slaughter and May. They should be able to explain what differentiates us." Naturally this will involve detailed research but on this point, Simon cautions against "simply regurgitating things from our website". You may want to mention specific transactions that the firm has worked on but if you do, it will be important not to be blagging as you might unwittingly be "quoting one of my own transactions at me. It's a risky strategy!".

Hilary, too, prefers honesty to stock phrases. "Don't tell me you want to come to SJ Berwin because "it's an entrepreneurial firm". I want to believe your answer is absolutely genuine - not merely regurgitating our brochure. Someone the other day admitted to me that they were in two minds about our firm until they'd been on the vacation scheme, and that spending time with us allowed him to develop a gut feel that he would fit in."

I, RoboLawyer/rabbit caught in the headlights

Your demeanour can make or break your chances of success. Hilary and Simon agree that the ideal candidate is neither arrogant nor timid but something in between. "Don't be a robot, or look like you're about to go into the dentist's chair," Simon says. "We appreciate that you'll likely have a few nerves: it shows that you really want the job." He assures me that "there's nothing designed to catch people out, no right or wrong answers. It is important to show a bit of warmth and your personality. We are all human and so are clients".

Hilary agrees wholeheartedly. "We don't do good cop, bad cop; we genuinely want to put candidates at ease to get the best out of them. If needed, we will give pointers during questioning to help them along the way." And if an answer starts to go horribly wrong or a candidate suffers brain freeze? "Even bright people can make howlers, and if this happens then we want to see that they can pick things back up and carry on, in other words, react well under pressure."

My top takeaways

You will need to demonstrate a sufficiently commercial approach in your answers so play the long game and get into good habits with the business press. You must also develop a very good understanding of the firm you are hoping to join and what being a practising solicitor there entails. And finally, for today, you need to get into the right frame of mind for the interview and aim to enjoy the experience.

Check back next Tuesday when I'll consider more of what really impresses our two partners.

Anna Williams is a careers and pro bono adviser at Kaplan Law School.

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