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Assessment centres and interviews: What's it really like?

I remember missing the 3:30am alarm I’d set the morning of my assessment centre, running for (and missing) the bus I’d planned to take and having to call an Uber (at that time, such a novelty and extravagance I think I probably had to work out how to download and use the app that very morning) to the station. I remember the driver greeting me with a kind “you look much more put together than the people who usually need a taxi at this time” and rolling up to Sheffield train station just in time for me to grab my go-to travel luxuries of a gingerbread latte and a cinnamon roll and hop onto the ten carriages bound for London St Pancras (which, I have since learned, is not pronounced like the oblong organ by your stomach, you’re welcome).


I arrived at the office slightly out of breath but early and the receptionist helped me shed the various layers which were keeping me dry and warm on a murky autumnal midweek morning. I (not so slickly, I might add) switched my trainers for some black shiny court shoes which looked far more professional and took a seat. Ironically, I’ve worn nothing but trainers since I started my job whilst an array of vaguely more professional options gather dust beneath my desk.


The first person I spoke to, another applicant, immediately struck up a conversation about table tennis, extolling the virtues of the sport for anyone on the hunt for quads of steel. (Fast-forward five years and we’ve both qualified at the same firm and are probably due a catch-up. She turned out to be very normal, a gem actually, in spite of her initial overenthusiasm for sports which include an inordinate amount of squatting).


The day itself is (unhelpfully, I know) a bit of a blur. We did a paper version of the Watson Glaser, looked at a case study and I had two interviews that I recall. One was a recruitment interview (a kind of “why us, why law, tell me about a time…”) which opened:


Interviewer: “So, I see you studied Law with French Law, what made you want to study that?”


Kim: “Well, I knew I didn’t want to do a straight languages degree bu-”


Interviewer: “I did study French, so tread carefully here…”


Great. Fortunately, the interviewer was (and is!) very lovely – I don’t remember my exact response, but I do remember quipping something back and us having a good giggle before moving on.


I also had an interview with a partner, often the step which applicants are most nervous of. I only ever interviewed at one firm – one partner interview for my vacation scheme and a two-person interview with a partner and managing associate for my training contract. I can’t say this is a tried and tested industry-wide truth but… I actually really enjoyed all my interviews. Sad, I know. No-one tried to catch me out. No-one expected me to have all of the answers. No-one made me feel small or stupid or young or like I didn’t fit in. The case study interviews, I found, were simulations of real life, designed to test how I thought, not just what I knew already. I was asked to think critically and commercially to identify key issues, consider client values and priorities, and think through potential solutions whilst the senior lawyers nudged me along. I’m not promising you that you’ll have the same experience of interviews as I had, but, I will gladly offer some friendly tips:

  • Time, instructions and experience. Your work is a product of the time, instructions (in this case, interview questions and case study instructions) and experience you have. Fight for the time you need, within reason. Ask for clarifications if questions are unclear. Admit where your experience runs out, and consider whether you have enough knowledge or instinct to make some tentative steps in the right direction. Think of interview preparation as your opportunity to leverage others’ experience as you grow your own commercial awareness and instincts – read blogs, listen to podcasts, get some popcorn and watch The Big Short, The Smartest Guys in the Room and/or Barbarians at the Gate (you don’t want to hear it, but trust me, they’ll be more use to you than binging on Suits).

  • Don’t say anything you can’t explain. Jargon isn’t impressive and neither is spurting headlines, unless they mean something. If you use a technical term, be prepared to explain it. If you don’t know a technical term, describe your ideas in simple terms and let the interview(s) offer up a technical term if there is one, once you’ve said your piece.

  • Remember the basics. Spoiler alert, case studies usually involve companies. What do companies have? Start by thinking about employees, real estate, IP, tax obligations, debt, management, decision-making (e.g. is it a public or private company and what impact does this have on decision-making?), equity, pension plans, reporting obligations, contracts (perhaps with suppliers, customers, landlords, tenants, banks and employees). Then build on that. What does a specific business do and which of the above are most important as a result? Why and how might that impact a deal or business strategy or contract? Why might we need to include certain terms in a contract, or involve certain people, companies, government agencies in a deal?

  • Strike the right tone. An interview may be the only few minutes someone spends with you – what do you want their impression of you to be when they leave the room? Try to strike the right balance between humility and confidence, humour and professionalism, be yourself and don’t self-deprecate.

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