7 training contract interview questions and how to tackle them

The interview may be the only chance you’ll get during the assessment process to engage one-to-one with a senior lawyer (often a partner). Questions can range from the bizarre to the predictable, and it’s good to go into an interview with an idea of what might be thrown your way. Below are some of the most common interview questions, together with an idea of how to tackle them.

Why do you want to be a commercial lawyer?

First things first: why are you actually applying for the job? Often, you’ll know the answer to this question but may not have practised putting it into words. Don’t make this mistake – if you know you’re likely to be asked something, make sure to prepare for it.

Common answers include: “I’m just passionate about commercial law” (bear in mind that this can come across as unconvincing) or “Ever since I was a child, I’ve wanted to be a commercial lawyer” (again, probably best to avoid this one unless it’s genuinely true). Better answers consider a range of factors, taking into account the nature of the work and the industry, matching the job to your personal skills and interests, and dropping in any relevant work experience which has provided you with an insight into the realities of corporate life.

Why this firm over our competitors?

Even if you don’t get asked this directly, it’s crucial to mention at some point exactly what it is about this particular firm that makes it uniquely appealing to you. The challenge is to tailor your answer in every single interview you have – even if you are applying to a huge number of firms.

Do your research: scan the website for the sections where the firm sets out what makes it different from similar firms. Know who the firm’s competitors are and be able to justify why they’re not your preferred choice; read up on the firm’s recent deals and try to understand the culture of the place. Often, interviews take place at the end of an open day, so round off your answer by expressing how your initial impressions have been shaped by your experiences with the people you’ve met on the day.

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

It’s pretty inevitable that corporate law interviews will at some point focus on the commercial world. “Commercial awareness” (put simply, the awareness of what’s going on in the commercial/business environment and how this impacts interactions with clients) may be addressed explicitly, but if not, it’s your role to infuse each answer with a demonstration of your understanding.

For example, if you’re asked for your opinion on the EU referendum, 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 the firm might face. Lawyers don’t operate in a vacuum, and showing that you understand this bigger picture earns you essential points during the interview process.

Tell us about a time when you demonstrated team work…

Competency-based questions are usually encountered at some point during a law firm interview. The typical lawyer-related competencies include commercial awareness (see above), time and project management or team work. You may also be asked how you deal with high-pressure environments or how you deal with failure.

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 (in fact, 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 great – but with a focus on what you learned, how you came back from it and the way you’ll do things differently next time.

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, team-work and an ability to see things in their commercial context. Other examples could include people-skills, reading/writing abilities or problem-solving talents. Try to back up every skill with an example of how you’ve put it into practice.

How do you see the future of the profession developing?

Globalisation, technology, individualised services, new ways of billing and fierce competition are all factors to consider. Put this answer into context for the individual firm you are applying for: the impact of each aspect will be different for different types of firm.

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 chance to show the depth of your interest in the firm (and throw 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, do a quick Google search to see which department they’re from and tailor your questions accordingly. If your interviewer happens to work in an area that interests you, ask for recommended reading or for their opinion on a particular topic.

Bad options include questions on pay, holiday entitlement, required working hours or anything you could have found out from a quick flick through a graduate recruitment brochure.

And finally…

Work on the essentials: the handshake, the introduction 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!

Eloise Skinner is a trainee at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton.