Dressing for training contract interviews

So many graduates with great CVs let themselves down by not looking right at interview. Paris Smith training partner Sarah Passemard runs through the mistakes she sees all the time. 

lazy unkempt untidy scruffy

The interview season has been in full swing over the last few weeks. I have just finished my fifteenth year of interviewing potential trainees for training contracts with Paris Smith. If you have been successful in getting a training contract, congratulations.

If you have not, despite making serious attempts, then you need to look at every aspect of your application as objectively and critically as possible – although preferably this exercise won’t end in such low self esteem that you never apply for anything, ever again. If you won’t be applying yet, now is the time to make sure you are properly prepared.

This blog focuses on your appearance at interview. You can have a great CV, a brilliant application, impressive grades – and then it all goes wrong as you walk into the interview room.

First, take a look in the mirror wearing what you intend to wear to the interview. If you are applying for a training contract, you are entering a profession that relies on being trusted by clients. You need to project an image of trustworthiness, reliability, taking yourself and others seriously. You have to show that you are aware that as a trainee, you will be representing the firm to the outside world. Your appearance needs to fit with the image that the firm wants to project.

You need to enter a room and be able to convince an interviewer that you look like a solicitor, not a student. This doesn’t mean being white, male, middle aged and balding. It means wearing a suit in a dark colour: black, dark grey, or navy. I would not go for even light grey or brown. Express your personality by your stunning answers to interview questions, not your clothes.

Either a trouser suit or a skirt suit is fine for women. Go for clean lines, nothing fussy to distract from you. A definite no-no is either a very short skirt (minimum length just above the knee) or cleavage on show. Don’t wear sky-high heels, or open-toed sandals. Always closed toes and tights – never bare legs, even if you do have an amazing tan from your holiday.

If you are going to wear heels, ensure that you can walk in them without wobbling. No client will take you seriously if you are teetering on high heels, nor will an interviewer. I personally think heels are smarter than flats. Don’t bring an enormous handbag – it looks unprofessional. If you have one at all bring a small one, and ensure it is closed before you enter the interview room – it doesn’t look good to see your lipstick, hairspray, and copy of Heat magazine spilling on to the floor.

Wearing jewellery makes it look as though you have made an effort, but it should be simple and not too bling. Go for discreet and classy (the same applies to makeup). If you are the type that tends to fiddle with your earrings or bracelets when nervous – don’t wear them. It doesn’t matter whether your nails have polish or not but they should not have any bright varnish, or patterns. If you have visible piercings other than one hole in each earlobe, my advice is to take them out.

Your hair should be tidy, and not obviously dyed. Again, when deciding whether to wear it up or down, think about the image you are projecting. You may have beautiful hair but you are not applying for a job as a John Frieda model. When a client is deciding whether or not to instruct you they will do so on whether they trust you. My personal view is that you look more professional if your hair is off the shoulders. If you look really young for your age, try wearing it up. Hair must always be tidy.

For men, the same colour rules apply. If you have facial hair, ensure that it looks really neat. If you can’t make it neat, maybe you should consider shaving. Designer stubble is not a good call, save it for when Storm model agency calls you. Your shirt should be ironed and not too loud – the same goes for ties and socks. It is unlikely that you would be rejected for a training contract only on the basis of wearing socks with Homer Simpson on them. On the other hand, why take the risk? Never, never wear a tie, socks, or watch with a cartoon character or any kind of joke aspect. Think of other, better ways to show that you have a sense of humour.

Of you have visible piercings, take them out. You are trying to project an image of a solicitor, not a student, and male solicitors in general don’t have piercings. Your hair should be tidy and conventional. If you favoured the Harry Styles marmoset look at university, now may be the time for a change.

For both sexes

One of the best pieces of advice I ever had was to dress at the level above where you are. If you want to be a trainee, dress as a solicitor. If possible, find a suit that fits you well – you will feel more confident and act more confident as a result.

Points which should be obvious but aren’t always – nails should be clean, shoes polished, shirts ironed. If you have tattoos, ensure they are covered. I can’t imagine that Cheryl Cole will ever join the legal profession, but even as an entertainer she may find it hard to be taken seriously.

You may well find that once you are working in a firm, that the dress code is much more relaxed when you are not in contact with clients. Until then – always err on the conventional side.

I would suggest asking someone older to give you their honest opinion on whether you look appropriate. Don’t ask your mum, she’ll just burst into tears with pride at the sight of you in any suit. Ideally, ask someone in the legal profession or in a similarly conventional profession – accountants, actuaries. Look on a firm’s website and take note of how the solicitors that appear on it are dressed if in doubt.

It is a good idea to have a list of questions that you might want to ask, but don’t have it on a scruffy bit of paper. Type it out, and have it in a slim file. Try to leave your coat in the waiting room so that you walk into the interview room looking – and feeling – like a solicitor.

Why all these rules? Because that is how the clients, and therefore interviewers, expect you to look. Once you are an established member of the legal profession, you can change it from the inside. Until then – welcome to the legal profession.

Sarah Passemard is the training partner at Paris Smith.

Interviews: prepare to succeed