Legal Cheek editor Alex Aldridge gets the lowdown from Norton Rose Fulbright on what it takes to emerge victorious from a training contract assessment centre
Less than a fortnight after the 31 July training contract application deadline and the City’s mega firms are already beginning their notoriously gruelling assessment centres.
Wannabe lawyers who impress will go on to all expenses-paid Legal Practice Courses (LPC) and lavishly-remunerated training contracts; for those who miss out it’s back to square one. Naturally, it pays to prepare. But it’s also a good idea to think hard about your tactics on the day.
To that end, we’ve conducted a case study of the assessment centre at top ten outfit Norton Rose Fulbright. Of course, there are differences between firms, but with a bit of common sense most of the advice that follows can be applied widely.
1. Don’t worry about early nerves
Most students begin assessment days in a fairly jittery state. Which is why firms spend the first hour or so intentionally trying to help them relax so that they can show their potential. Accordingly, the welcome session and follow-up discussion about commercial awareness with Norton Rose Fulbright trainee recruitment partner Duncan Batchelor should be understood as the assessment day equivalent of a warm-up for a big match.
“How candidates perform at this stage doesn’t make or break it for them, but we do expect them to be well-informed and we are keen for them to participate,” says the firm’s trainee recruitment manager Caroline Lindner.
2. Contribute and have an opinion
The commercial awareness discussion is one of two sessions on the Norton Rose Fulbright assessment centre that require candidates to participate as part of a group. The other is a negotiation task that assesses, among other things, a candidate’s ability to work effectively in a team environment. The most common errors committed by hopefuls at this stage, according to Lindner, are “not contributing enough” or “not demonstrating sound commercial judgement”.
3. Remember you are in the commercial world now — not academia
With academic essays and exams the default mode for students, there is a tendency to respond to the written exercises that feature in assessment days in an overly academic style.
“We want you to order your thoughts and respond concisely in a way that has practical use in a commercial environment. We don’t want academic reflections and flowery language,” explains Lindner.
4. Legal exercises test more than your knowledge of the law
The Norton Rose Fulbright drafting exercise, which takes place after lunch on the 9:30am-4:30pm day, is a way for the firm to assess candidates’ ability to construct legal arguments. But, with the response required to be short and precise, it also has the function of making sure that future lawyers at the practice have a high command of grammar and spelling. “Application forms can be spell-checked to death. This can’t,” says Lindner.
5. Put yourself in the partners’ shoes
Assessment centres typically build up to an hour-long interview which takes place mid-afternoon. In common with other firms, the interview panel at Norton Rose Fulbright features two partners, although sometimes a senior member of the trainee recruitment team or a senior associate fills one of the slots.
When approaching this key part of the day, it helps to take some time to consider things from the interviewers’ perspective. The starting point, says Lindner, is to remember that the partners own the practice and want to recruit individuals who will contribute to its future success. What that means in practical terms when hiring a trainee is answering these two questions:
“Can I work with this person?”
“Does this person want to learn?”
The next thing to take into account is that partners spend their lives representing clients who pay a lot of money for their time. Which means, continues Lindner, that this question is never far from their thoughts:
“Will this candidate be good with a client?”
6. Be bold enough to go beyond stock answers
Being well-prepared at interviews is a pre-requisite for getting a training contract. But it’s only a starting point. Law firms want candidates who are confident enough in themselves to go beyond the stock answers that they may have practiced and show their mental agility.
Accordingly, Lindner says that partners’ questioning technique is deliberately unpredictable. “They want to see how you think, which may mean moving the conversation quickly from the academic to the commercial, or by disagreeing with you. Be ready to go ‘off-piste’,” she advises.
7. Always ask questions
Writing on Legal Cheek Careers recently, Hardwicke barrister Colm Nugent advised pupillage hopefuls not to feel pressure to ask any questions at the end of an interview. “That’s actually our signal that the interview is over and it’s time to exit,” he confided. But conventions among solicitors are different.
“We expect questions,” says Lindner, adding that the last ten minutes of the hour long partner interview is set aside for candidate questions. She advises wannabes to prepare some in advance.
8. One final thought
Contrary to popular myth, the best firms aren’t all that keen on empty vessels who they can fill with their ideas and then mould into identikit lawyer form. “We don’t want to fix you or shape you. We’re in the business of recruiting individuals with lots of potential,” says Lindner.