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Husnara Begum, editor & careers consultant

Vacation scheme and training contract interview questions are typically designed to test candidates on their motivations for pursuing a legal career, ability to do the job (this ranges from competencies, strengths and future behaviour) and commercial awareness. Though it’s impossible to predict precisely what questions might get fired at you, our editor and careers consultant Husnara Begum has set out below some of the most common ones, together with suggestions on how to tackle them.

Why commercial law?

On the face of it, this question might sound simple. However, loads of students work up a cold sweat when asked why they’ve applied for the job before saying something predictable such as “I’m just passionate about commercial law”, “I find commercial law interesting” or worse still “Ever since I was a child, I’ve dreamt of becoming a commercial lawyer”. Such responses will get you noticed but sadly for the wrong reasons.

Stronger answers consider a range of factors, taking into account the nature of the work and industry, matching a legal career to your personal skills and interests, and dropping in any relevant work experience that has provided you with an insight into the realities of corporate life. In other words rather than simply saying you find something interesting, explain why!

Why our firm?

Even if you don’t get asked this directly, it’s imperative to mention at some point exactly what it is about a particular firm that makes it uniquely attractive to you. The trick here is to tailor your answers to such questions for every single interview – even if you’re meeting with a range of firms that are broadly similar in make-up and range of practice areas. This is why attending recruitment events will make a world of difference when trying to differentiate between firms.

Also, thoroughly research firms on the internet to develop a solid understanding of their strategy, priority sectors, geographic reach, size of trainee intake and structure of training contract etc. Know who each firm’s competitors are and be able to justify why they’re not your preferred choice; read up on firms’ recent deals / cases and try to understand their culture. If your training contract interview takes place at the end of a vacation scheme, round off your answer by expressing how your initial impressions have been shaped by your experiences with the people you met during the placement.

For more tips on how to tell firms apart and determine if they’re a good match for you check out this blog.

Which commercial news story or event have you been following recently?

It’s almost inevitable that large business law firm interviews will at some point focus on the commercial world. “Commercial awareness” may be addressed directly, but if not, consider how you might weave examples drawn from your research on a firm and / or relevant work experience to demonstrate your understanding.

For example, if you’re asked for your opinion on rising inflation or the supply chain crisis, give your opinion – but make sure to tie it back to the impact on the firm’s clients, how the nature of the firm’s business might change, and the challenges or indeed opportunities that might lie ahead. Lawyers don’t operate in a vacuum and showing you understand the bigger picture earns you essential brownie points during the interview process.

Tell us about a time when you demonstrated teamwork

Competency-based questions are usually encountered at some point during a law firm interview. Typical lawyer-related competencies you’re likely to get tested on include commercial awareness (see above), time and project management or teamwork. The interviewers may also ask how you manage in high-pressure environments or how you deal with failure or setbacks.

The key to answering competency-based questions is to use ‘specific’ and memorable examples and then break down what you say into three parts – context, action (ie your contribution) and result.

Good examples of demonstrating commercial awareness include any task you’ve completed that had a “bigger picture” element to it: think about part-time jobs or projects where you had to deliver a service to a customer. Time or project management is easily demonstrated through your academic studies or extra-curricular achievements. Indeed, the balance of the two is often a great example of project-management in action.

A good answer to the ‘failure’ question is to talk about something that didn’t go brilliantly – but with a focus on lessons learned, how you bounced back and the way you’ll tackle a similar situation differently next time.

For more tips on how to survive competency-based interviews check out this blog.

Which of your personal skills do you think make you well-suited to life as a commercial lawyer?

Classic examples include organisation, commitment, motivation, analytical skills, attention to detail, time-management, teamwork, and an ability to see things in their commercial context. Other examples could include people-skills, reading/writing abilities, or problem-solving. Again, try to back up every skill you refer to with specific examples of how you put each one into practice and avoid making sweeping generalisations.

How do you see the future of the legal profession developing?

Globalisation, technology, green investments, new ways of billing and fierce competition are areas I’d recommend developing a good understanding of in advance of your interview. But remember put your answer into context for the individual firms you’re interviewing with because each theme will have a different impact.

Do you have any questions for us?

Avoid saying no to this one. It might sound like the interviewer is wrapping things up, but this is your final chance to show the depth of your interest in the firm. It’s also a great opportunity to chuck in anything you wanted to mention during the interview that you haven’t had a chance to say yet.

Good options include questions about the firm’s recent development, strategy, and structure. If you know your interviewer’s name in advance, look them up on the internet to get an idea of their career history and what area of law they specialise in so you can tailor questions accordingly. If your interviewer happens to focus on an area that genuinely interests you, ask for recommended reading or for their opinion on a particular topic. Interviewers love talking about themselves so you can’t go wrong here.

Bad options include questions on pay, holiday entitlement, required working hours or anything you could have found out by quickly flicking through the firm’s graduate recruitment materials.

And finally…

Work on the essentials: the handshake, introductions, and the exit (always thank your interviewer, even if it’s been the worst hour of your life to date). And finally – remember to attempt a smile!