How to negotiate assessment centre exercises

Along with an interview, workshops and some kind of networking event, the open day usually includes various assessments, tests and exercises. These will differ from firm to firm, and may be requested before the open day itself as part of the pre-selection process.

This article covers three of the main assessments: the in-tray exercise, the psychometric tests and the presentation.

The in-tray exercise

The in-tray exercise may be done online, with a virtual inbox provided to each applicant – or it may take the traditional paper-based format, with each applicant provided with a number of items in their “in-tray” and asked to sort through them in a certain amount of time. As the applicant begins the task, more items come in, requiring priorities to be reshuffled and plans to be reorganised.

The aim of the task is often not to finish everything, but to review everything – to understand what each task requires and when it is required by, and to prioritise it accordingly. It’s sometimes helpful to think of things in three categories:

  1. Urgent and important things;
  2. Urgent but not important things; and
  3. Not urgent but important things.

Urgent and important things should obviously be addressed first, but make sure that you only get stuck into a task once you know what else is on your to-do list, and you’ve made sure your list is in the right order. Urgent but not important things can be addressed next, but should be reshuffled as things develop. Not urgent but important things should be reviewed and scheduled to take place later.

Top tip: In this task, organisation, time-management and perspective are key. Stay on top of things and avoid letting tasks build up. Don’t forget to keep an eye on the clock at the same time!

The psychometric tests

Recruitment teams use a variety of psychometric tests – the most frequently encountered by lawyers are the critical thinking test (often the ‘Watson Glaser’ test or similar), situational judgment (providing instinctive responses to hypothetical scenarios) and verbal reasoning (grammar, language and analytical skills). Numerical reasoning and spatial reasoning occasionally make an appearance, but are more likely to be encountered during accounting or banking assessments.

The great thing about these tests is that they can be practiced and performance can be improved. There are a huge variety of resources online and in print – a quick Google search will give you a wide range of options. If you’re at university, check in with your careers service to see if they offer mock psychometrics.

Top tip: The best way to overcome a fear of psychometric tests is to throw yourself in – but avoid doing this for the first time on the day of your assessment! Practice the tests in your own time first, and dedicate time to working through any mistakes in order to see improvements.

The presentation

Advocacy and presentation skills are daily requirements of a lawyer’s life – even as a trainee, you’ll be expected to present your views, findings or arguments on a particular subject. During the assessment process, you may be allocated a topic on which to present, or you may be asked to present on a topic of interest (it’s a good idea to have a few familiar commercial topics to hand for this purpose).

The key to a great presentation is often a combination of structure, advocacy ability and an awareness of your audience. Make sure that you know what your points are and aim to get them across to your audience as quickly as possible (you’ll usually only be given 10-15 minutes to shine, so make clarity your main goal). Begin with your conclusion (you’ll remember that advice from university essays) and keep driving the messages home throughout.

In terms of advocacy, work on presentation skills in the run-up to an assessment day. Practicing speaking on a topic out loud gives you an idea of how to keep your thoughts within a time-limit, even if no one else is listening. In your daily life, take any opportunity to strengthen your presentation abilities – at university, part-time work or during other jobs or hobbies.

Knowing your audience is crucial – are they looking for an overview or a display of technical knowledge? How can you tailor your presentation to make it directly relevant to the people sitting in front of you? As you present, keep an eye on your audience – are they following what you’re saying, or do you need to recap and re-engage? Staying in touch with the recipients of your presentation makes sure that you’re still on the right track.

One of the biggest open day challenges can be pulling together a presentation with others, especially if you don’t know them and you’ve only been given half an hour to deliver the final product. The best thing you can do in this situation is divide up – each person presents for an equal proportion of the time and questions are split between team members.

Top tip: When presenting in groups, respect the right of other team members to have their moment to speak, and try not to vocalise the points of others without giving them credit – after all, these could be your future colleagues, so try to come out with both dignity and collegiality intact.

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

Navigating a law firm open day