‘Describe Your Parents Relationship’: Law Firm’s Interview Question To Training Contract Candidate

EXCLUSIVE: You hear all sorts of stories about partners asking outrageous, Borat-style questions during TC interviews.

But because of wannabe lawyers’ refusal to name names (either theirs or the firm in question) out of fear of being traced and marked out as troublemakers, they almost always go unreported.

How to get round this problem?

In this case, we’ve got a respected legal academic (Queen Mary University London senior lecturer Jill Marshall) who taught the student making the allegation to go on the record as a kind of character reference.

If Marshall – who, having spent ten years at Herbert Smith and Freshfields, is no out-of-touch ivory tower dweller – didn’t believe what the student said, she wouldn’t have let us publish her name.

So here are the details…

Having recently graduated with a 2:1 in law from Queen Mary, the student went for an interview at a well-known media and commercial law firm based in the West End of London.

The interview was with two partners, one male and one female, both white.

The male partner asked most of the questions – including these two gems:

“What do your parents do for a living?”

“Describe your parents’ relationship.”

Now what, exactly, do either of those queries have to do with someone’s potential to become a good solicitor?

As Marshall puts it: “I think these are really inappropriate questions especially in times when the profession is supposed to be interested in non-discrimination and social mobility.”



I am fairly certain I also interviewed at this firm because I recall being asked exactly the same question in a similarly described West End firm. It did not strike me as having anything to do with social mobility. They also asked if I had siblings and were genuinely interested in what they were up to and how our relationship was. What I felt they were after was to find out about me as a person. Not one other firm has showed the same level of interest in my life outside of generic competency questions. It seems difficult to construe making an effort to recruit people who will fit into a firm and hold the same values as a negative.


I went for a tenancy interview at chambers and the especially HR compliant barrister-interviewer asked what my father did for a living (after he astutely observed, “You’re an *American*, aren’t you?”

When I said he was an US Air Force officer, my interviewer asked, “Did he shoot cruise missiles?”

I replied, “Not in this country”.

These clowns, and I use the term advisedly, are supposed to be more than “interested” in non-discrimination, they have a Code with which they are meant to comply.

I’m glad I was not desperate for that tenancy – and was old enough to decide that they’d lost their chance the second they made these idiotic comments.

Here’s what gets me, these are the guys who think their next revenue stream is Direct Access. If they cannot have an appropriate interview with a tenancy candidate, how on earth do they propose to relate to the over-stayer living in Hackney looking to sort out his visa?


Although I appreciate the comment from Anon that the question may have been asked in good faith, I do not think it is appropriate or relevant to a candidate’s ability to perform well in the role. Family circumstances can differ widely and be a sensitive subject for many reasons. It crosses that line between professional and personal and could be interpreted as discriminatory.


I think the only appropriate answer in this situation would have been to describe their relationship in the most graphic detail possible.

Jonathan Pearl

If you were offended then this probably isn’t the place for you. Not inappropriate. Interesting and unusual questions often lead to surprising and revealing responses. I often ask interviewees who they would be if they could be someone else (any time in history, either sex etc). I had one guy who gave a graphic description of why he wanted to be a Roman Senator. He had been doing quite well up ’til then but it creeped me out a bit. My answer to the same question is usually “Elvis” – but I was once reminded that he died sitting on the toilet!


Dear Jonathan

Please explain how a candidate’s parents’ relationship relates to the job.

Oh, you want to get to know “me”?

Then ask a question about me. Don’t try to fish what kind of background I come from with Oprah-esque questions about my parents’ relationship.

Jonathan Pearl

If you replied to this question in this way in the interview maybe it would lead to a serious discussion. It might also show you have some backbone. They may also show you the door. Either way it has to be better than…”where do you see yourself in 5 years time?”


I went to an interview recently at an American firm.

Instead of adopting your approach, they asked me to explain how my experience qualified me for the job.

That’s right. They wanted me to put forward a positive and substantive case of why I’d be their best choice.

What a difference that was to having to defend oneself.

No wonder this nation’s in a state.


The “backbone” approach I’d take for a how was my “parents’ relationship” question to ask – “how was yours?” – because I think it’s relevant to whether I want to work with you.


Questions such as who you would like to be, who you would invite to dinner, which fictional character you would be and why are all acceptable as they require the candidate to think on their feet and give reasoned answers and have an element of choice about them and can be fun for the candidate too. People who have parents that have split in unpleasant circumstances, come from a home where there is domestic violence, have grown up in care or foster homes, or father has killed their mother are just a few examples of people who may not wish to discuss this with close friends let alone an interviewer for a prospective employer. This is why I think it is not appropriate for an interview.


I once got asked what I deemed an inappropriate question at a law firm in Manchester. I politely told them I did not feel comfortable answering, explained why, and that was that.

Needless to say I did not get a TC and when asked for interview feedback my only negative was that I refused to answer one of their questions.

You really are caught between a rock and a hard place sometimes when it comes to answering questions at interview. Luckily for myself, I realised that the types of firms I was interviewing at I really didn’t want to work for. Now I am at a smaller law firm, where there is a better culture and everyone is more relaxed.


Jonathan Pearl, please describe your conduct record at the bar and any disciplinary hearings you attended in relation to your conduct, and complaints made against you.


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