99 training contract interview tips

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By Shearman & Sterling on

With examples of the questions you need to know how to answer

If you want a training contract you are going to have to do at least one interview. For many candidates, interviews are the hardest part of the training contract application process.

At Shearman & Sterling, we find that some candidates deal with interviews exceptionally well, while others do not.

To help all those people who will be taking part in interviews, we’ve identified 99 training contract interview tips to help you succeed. We’ve covered all elements of the interview process including research, preparation, the interview itself and post-interview.

In no particular order, here are our tips:

1. Know practice areas

You don’t need to memorise every department in the firm, but have an idea of what areas of practice it does offer. Is it a full service firm? What are its key departments? How big are the teams? Shearman’s core departments are finance, project development & finance and M&A and correspondingly, that’s where our largest teams are. Professing aspirations to practise intellectual property or corporate real estate at interview when the firm doesn’t have those departments will make you appear unprepared.

2. Know deals

Take a look at the legal press for headline-making deals involving the firm. LegalWeek, LegalBusiness, Law360 and other legal publications can be searched for specific firm names and will list high-profile or notable deals that the firm has been involved in. If interesting content is behind a paywall, then look up the deal on the firm’s website for further details. You don’t need to understand the ins and outs of every aspect of the deal. Having an awareness of the firm’s work and why you find it interesting is a way to demonstrate your understanding. It can also be an opportunity to ask questions if you find yourself being interviewed by a team member who worked on a deal you researched.

3. Pick a commercial awareness topic

It’s an unrealistic and overwhelming task to try and have an awareness of everything going on in the world right now. Find topics that genuinely interest you to follow. Focusing on a few key topics will help you talk about your chosen area of interest in depth at interview, rather than talking about many at a superficial level that leaves you open to questions you won’t be able to answer.

4. Keep up to date with current affairs

Keeping an eye on the news has never been easier with the aid of the internet. See if your university offers a free Financial Times subscription to students — you can use your login credentials on the app and spend a couple of minutes a day browsing the main headlines, or even track areas of interest by flagging them using the MyFT function. Other services such as Finimize are completely free and will round up the main headlines every day in a quick email that explains their significance and what wider implications for markets they could have.

5. Review your application

Keep your application saved so that you can review it before the interview. Review what you wrote so that you can be prepared to answer questions about it. This will not just be limited to things about the firm — the purpose of an interview is also about getting to know applicants — so hobbies, interests and past work experience are all equally likely to come up at interview.

6. Expect training contract questions you can’t prepare for

Your interview is not an exam. Some of the questions that you will be asked may relate to what the interviewer wants to know about you as an individual. Don’t try to have a well-rehearsed line for every possible question as you will fall apart when asked something that you haven’t prepared for. Sometimes, being open, honest and engaging in a conversation will be the only way to go.

The last thing you should do is sound as if you’re reading from a script. Prepare answers for questions such as ‘What are your strengths/weaknesses?’ by having a few bullet points and knowing roughly what to say, but don’t try to memorise exactly what you will say.

7. Set the right tone as soon as you enter the room

Your interview doesn’t start when the first question is asked — it starts the second you cross the threshold. Smile, exchange pleasantries and maintain a professional manner from the start. There are no second first impressions — aim to knock it out of the park as soon as you arrive.

8. Prepare to be tested… it’s part of the process

Some questions will be hard, but you’ve faced hard questions before. This is your chance to show why you are better than the other candidates, how you prepared more and how you can think on your feet. Be ready, and don’t be fazed!

9. Get some water

Talking constantly is thirsty work! Save yourself the awkwardness of getting up mid-interview for water or suffering in silence throughout by getting a glass of water and offering one to your interviewer if they don’t already have one. Sip throughout in natural pauses, or even buy yourself time when you need to pause for thought to answer a question by having a quick drink.

10. Talk through your logic

A key part of the interview process is understanding how another person ticks. Make this job as easy as possible for your interviewer by explaining the thought process behind opinions that you express or conclusions that you draw. This will also benefit the flow of conversation, rather than making the atmosphere a stilted Q&A session.

11. Ask questions

Think of at least one question to ask your interviewer as they will inevitably ask whether you have any towards the end of your interview. Try to stay away from asking questions that are pointless — it’s a waste of a question to ask about the firm’s three key strengths when that is information that you should already know. Instead, think of something that you would genuinely like to know about the firm that isn’t readily available online.

12. …but not too many questions!

Ultimately, they are the interviewer and you are the interviewee. Don’t try to reverse the dynamic by bombarding them with questions as you are, ultimately, eating into the time that you have to demonstrate your qualities as a candidate. Don’t stifle genuine curiosity, but equally don’t waste time getting answers that you could find with a bit of research.

13. Admit if you don’t know something

No interviewer expects a candidate to have a full working knowledge of the world of law. Frame gaps in your knowledge as areas that you would like to learn more about, or opportunities for you to ask a question of your own. If you are being asked for your opinion on something, it is absolutely fine to acknowledge that you may not know enough about a topic to draw an informed conclusion.

14. Answer two-part questions

Every part of the question is important. Just as you wouldn’t leave an exam question unanswered, be sure to answer all parts of a question in an interview.

You may find that training contract scenario questions will be two-part questions. For example — ‘How have you managed opposing views in a team? What would you do differently next time?’

15. Motivation

Know why you want a training contract and a career in law. Interviewers know that this can often be a challenging job and they need to know why you’re interested. Think seriously about your motivations for applying, and be prepared to frame your answers in a way that will help interviewers understand you.

16. Wear what you feel comfortable in

The last thing you want is to be distracted during your interview because you are uncomfortable in what you are wearing. You should always dress smartly for an interview but wear something that feels natural to you.

17. Think about what the interviewer will want

Interviewers are looking for good trainees and for people who can be good associates once they qualify. Put yourself in their shoes and think about what they are looking for. Some of the things they are looking for can be quite straightforward, such as a sense of responsibility.

18. Answer questions honestly

Besides the fact that interviewers are smart and can see through candidates who are being less than honest, interviewers genuinely want to get to know you, your motivations and your skills. They also want to see if you will be a good fit for the firm. Be yourself, and be truthful.

19. ‘STAR’ technique

The ‘STAR’ technique is a way to answer situational interview questions by discussing the specific Situation, Task, Action, and the Result of the example you have chosen. If you find yourself struggling to answer questions such as ‘Tell me about a challenge you faced recently’, this technique will help you structure and frame your answers.

20. Be able to see two sides of an argument

It’s important to be able to have an opinion and to be able to defend it, but as a trainee you will inevitably act for different sides on a deal or case (e.g. borrower or lender, claimant or defendant) so you will need to be able to approach issues from different perspectives. For example, if a topic such as Brexit comes up, be open-minded and prepared to see it from alternative sides.

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