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Preparing for an interview in the legal sector

Written by: Sally Gardner, Marsden Legal
Published on: 13 Sep 2016

"Great news", your recruiter tells you, "You have an interview!''

Great news indeed but what now? How do you go about preparing for what could be one of the most important hours of your professional life?

A first interview is crucial in terms of making that invaluable 'first impression' and it is your opportunity to gain control of the process from the very start.  
Interviews can vary enormously depending on the organisation, the interviewer(s) and the role.

However the interview is structured, a key focus point for any interviewer is your legal/technical ability. An interviewer will also want to assess your soft skills to find out whether you will fit into the team and whether they like you enough to want to work with you!

Preparation is at least three quarters of the battle. Thorough preparation will help you feel more confident and assist you with how you present your answers. Prepare for an interview as if you were going into an exam and make sure you know all you can about, the firm, the market, the interviewers and, of course, your CV.

There is no way you can ever be over prepared for an interview but it is highly unimpressive when a candidate is under prepared.
What/how to prepare for an interview

Know your CV inside out! For each deal, case or project listed you should be able to discuss:

  • The legal issues – refresh yourself on the relevant law if necessary
  • The parties involved
  • Your role in the deal
  • The value or ruling (if significant)

Of the deals, cases or projects on your CV choose two that you want to showcase during your interview and be prepared  to discuss every intricate detail.

Think about the softer skills/behaviours that an employer will be seeking and prepare some scenarios and relevant examples to showcase your skills in areas such as leadership, team work, project management, organisation, adaptability, persuasiveness etc.

Practice these stories internally in your head and externally in front of a     mirror or to a friend until you are fluent and can adapt them to showcase a variety of skills. These ‘interview stories’ are essential to help you answer competency based interviews - see below.

Research the firm in as much depth as possible – go beyond law firm bios and LinkedIn profiles and Google the people who will be interviewing you to find out all you can.

Ensure that you extend your research to other members of the team so that you will be prepared should there be a last minute change  in the  interview panel.  Make sure you know the important deals the firm has worked on, the sectors they specialise in, rankings in Legal 500/Chambers, recent joiners and leavers and any other newsworthy items.

Ensure you have a detailed understanding of the position, practice group and the team environment – this will allow you to make positive comparisons with your current role and firm/company.

Put together a list of 5 key messages that you want to get across in interview – the above research exercises will help you develop these messages.

Prepare the questions you will ask during the interview – remember that an interview is a ‘two way street’ and the employer asks questions to ascertain whether you have the skills necessary for the job and you must learn by asking questions whether the company or firm can offer you the job and opportunities you seek.

What will you be asked?  

Technical questions…

Technical  interviews  are  the most  common  part  of  most  law  firms'  recruitment  processes and will usually involve a discussion centred on one of the matters which is outlined on your CV. Whilst the interviewer will test you on the facts and applicable legislation, they will also need you to demonstrate that you have a "bigger picture" understanding on why the law has been applied in a certain way and that you understand your client's objectives, commercial factors and legal strategy.

These issues will be drawn out through probing questions around applicable provisions of legislation,  documents you drafted and why they were drafted in a certain way, why a transaction was structured as it was or why a particular course of action was taken.

As mentioned above the best way to prepare is to ensure that you go through your resume and refresh yourself on the matters you have worked on as mentioned above. Preparing to demonstrate the depth of your knowledge, beyond just knowing the facts and issues, will leave you feeling confident and ready for anything the interviewers may ask, enabling you to set yourself apart from other applicants.

Behavioural or competency-based interviews…

Behavioural interviewing is based on the idea that past behaviour is the best indicator of future performance in a similar situation. The questions are designed to elicit details of your behaviour (competencies) in past circumstances (probably similar to circumstances you would encounter in the new position), which indicate the level to which you possess these competencies.

The behaviours that law firms are most likely to want to assess you on are as follows:

  • Critical thinking
  • Organizational abilities
  • Willingness to learn
  • Self-confidence
  • Leadership
  • Teamwork
  • Professionalism
  • Taking critisism
  • Project management
  • Persuasiveness/negotiation skills

The interviewer will ask specific questions, designed to establish whether you possesses the desired behaviours.

There are three steps to dealing with these questions successfully and these are to

(1) Describe the situation

(2) Explain what you did and how you did it

(3) What the outcome was. Where most candidates fall short is not their ability to answer the question but having to think of the best example on the spot

Typical questions used in a behavioural interview are:

Tell me about a situation where you have had competing deadlines to meet, and you could only achieve one within the timeframe. How did you manage the situation? 

Have you ever had to deal with a difficult client when you were unable to refer the problem to someone more senior/a partner? 

Team work is very important to us. What examples do you have that demonstrate you are a good team player? Give an example where you have demonstrated leadership skills 

Tell me about a situation where you have had to persuade a client or superior to follow your advice/approach? What was your approach?

Give an example of where you have provided a client a commercial solution when advising on a legal issue? Tell me about a situation where you received constructive criticism? How did you respond?

Other frequently asked questions…

Regardless of the question, it is essential to back up all your responses with examples and detail is key.

These are some FAQs that you should be prepared to answer:
Tell me a bit about yourself – this broad question is a great opportunity to discuss your work or the reasons why you want to work at that particular firm. Don’t regurgitate your CV, but go into detail on one of two key points – using the research suggested above.

What is your biggest weakness – this clichéd interview question is regularly asked. Be prepared to discuss a trait that used to be a weakness and explain how you overcame it. For example “When I finished law school, I was very nervous when it came to public speaking. After joining Toastmasters, I was able to get over the initial anxiety and improve my skills.”

What are your strengths – use this as an opportunity to highlight your strengths that are of particular relevance to the role. Structure your answer so that you are not listing everything that you are good at – you want to sell yourself but not to the extent that have nothing left to give further down the line.

Describe yourself in one word – another cliché question that can take you by surprise if you are not prepared for it. Try to avoid a cliché answer! Again be prepared to back up your answer with an example taken from your professional life.

What do you like most about your present job – an opportunity to highlight the positive aspects of your current role and firm/company without making it sound like you don’t want to leave. Consider the opportunities the role has given you and how you made the most of them.

Why do you want to leave – focus on the positives! Never denigrate your current firm, team or manager. Focus on moving forward and your aspirations i.e. you know that a promotion is not possible in the next two years due to business being predominantly ‘top-heavy’ and this doesn’t fit with your personal goals.

Why would you like to work for us – this is an opportunity to showcase your research and understanding of the business, clients, deals/projects, team and environment You should demonstrate a clear understanding of how you could fit into the existing structure and what you think the role and business could do in terms of helping you progress your career. Equally important is what you feel you can bring to the firm/company.

What are your career ambitions/aspirations – be realistic whilst indicating that you like a challenge. The level of ambition you want to display will depend on where you are interviewing and who with - temper/design your answer by taking into account the background and career track of your interviewers. This might also be asked in terms of short/medium/long-term goals.

What motivates you – the interviewer is essentially looking to understand how you will be successful in the role. This is not a repeat of your career goals; they want to know what you enjoy doing and what you value, as this will help them decide whether you will be a good fit for the team/business.

Do you have any questions…?

This is an important question to which the only possible answer is ‘Yes!’

Asking questions is a further opportunity to  demonstrate, indirectly, your professional experience/market knowledge as well as to show the research you have done on the role and firm.

It is obvious that the only questions you should pose are those to which you could not have researched the answers easily on the internet. Questions on fit and team culture, career progression, how the team interacts with other teams/offices across the firm network are all sensible questions which can be posed in a way to demonstrate your knowledge whilst gaining more insight into a position.

Part of your preparation must be to come up with a list of questions which you can tailor at the end of the interview based on the discussion.  Two or three questions should be sufficient.  
Key points to remember…
1.  Never denigrate your current firm/company and colleagues.
2.  Acknowledge a firm’s strengths and highlight why joining them would be a good career move.
3.  An interview is a sales pitch. It can be difficult to say “I’m the smartest lawyer in my practice group.” Not only is it hard to back up with an example, it can come across as arrogant or conceited. A softer way into this type of discussion is to talk about what other people have said about you in the past i.e. in performance appraisals or client feedback.

Further tips…the obvious

  • Know the exact place and time of the interview, the interviewer’s full name and how to pronounce it
  • Appearance and body language are important. Ensure that you are dressed conservatively and appropriately. Make eye contact with the interviewers
  • Smile. Be personable but avoid being overly friendly. Act as if you are speaking to a client, not your best friend
  • Always have some form of photo ID with you in case security request it
  • Be on time; being 5-10 minutes early will give you time to organise and compose yourself
  • Be courteous to the receptionist/anyone else you meet
  • Remember to eat before the interview - a rumbling stomach can be off putting

And finally...

Keep in mind that an interview is a two way process with both parties having a need; they will want to make a good impression on you just as much as you want to impress them.  

On the whole, interviews are not confrontational but are a dialogue between professionals. It is rare that an interviewer will try to trip someone up. Having invited you for an interview, they are looking for reasons to like you, not dislike you.  

Good luck!

Sally Gardner is a Senior Consultant in our London office. She has extensive knowledge of the London and Asia markets.

Marsden Group is a leading international legal recruitment firm, with offices in London, Australia, and Canada. Our London office has a high end practice dealing with leading law firms, corporations and financial institutions. 

Our consultants are trained in interviewing techniques, and are constantly briefing and debriefing candidates both prior to and following interviews. We are well-versed in the sorts of questions you might be asked and the effect your responses may have.

These examples are intended to assist you in the preparation and interview process. Please feel free to contact one of our consultants for more hints and tips on successful interviewing practices.

View the latest jobs from Marsden Group here.