The assessment centre is usually the most important stage of the vacation scheme/training contract application process. As a result, it’s important to understand the process to give you a better chance of succeeding.
Some firms like to set a written exercise in order to test candidates’ ability to convey information concisely. The task might also be designed to assess your ‘commercial awareness’. As a result, you might need to address a commercial decision or set out a business suggestion.
You’ll likely be given some background information which is might seem quite overwhelming. There may be more information than you’ll actually be able to address. However, the key skill is to assimilate the information and pick out the most relevant parts. You’ll need to understand which information should be given more weight than others.
In terms of setting out the writing, unless required to do so, do NOT write in full prose. I made the mistake of doing this in an assessment centre once. I not only ran out of time, but I also did not structure it particularly well. Instead, aim to make clear subheadings and make use of indents, bullet points, and numbered lists.
Assessment centres will often involve an interview with a partner or senior associate. From my experience, the interviews usually consisted of two halves. First, they wanted to test my commercial awareness. Second, they wanted to find out more about me as a person.
Commercial awareness is one of those buzzwords which is often thrown around in application advice. However, nobody ever seems to be able to pin down exactly what it entails.
From what I have gathered, it means that you have a good awareness of how a business works. You should understand how to identify the threats to a business as well as opportunities (See SWOT analysis). A general knowledge of how the economy works is useful, but I feel that it is more important to be able to work at a micro-economic level. You should know how a business thinks and what it considers in making business plans.
Importantly, you should always be aware of where the law plays a role in commercial situations. Go to the business section of the news and try to identify where law firms will be involved. Remember, a single business scenario is likely to involve several legal specialisms.
It might also be helpful to have a couple of specific case study/business examples which you can talk about in an interview. If there is a particular issue/business situation in the news, think about how the legal industry might be involved. Additionally, think about what that business could do to improve its position. How could a law firm help the business achieve its objectives? How might your specific law firm’s expertise be useful to this business in particular? Together, this will show that you understand both the client and legal sides of commercial awareness.
More about you
When your interviewer wants to get to know about you, the important thing is to be honest. Here, the interviewer wants to know whether they could imaging working with you as a colleague. Would they get along with you? Would you be able to face challenges at work? How would you cope with deadlines? How do you prioritise your work?
Be prepared to talk about your past experiences and use them to show off your key personalities. Perhaps something on your DofE hike shows off how you adapted in a difficult situation? What did you learn from a position of leadership? How did you handle a difficult work colleague?
These are just a few of the questions you could ask yourself to prepare for the interview. As with most interviews, it is likely that you’ll be asked why you’ve chosen the firm and a career in law. Above all, you need to be genuine with what you say. It’s quite obvious for interviewers when a candidate is lying and it will work against you if you do try to be someone you’re not.
At the end of the interview, there will likely be an opportunity to ask the interviewer(s) questions. You can use this as an opportunity to find out something new about the firm. Perhaps you’ve read that the firm is involved in a matter which you’d like to know a bit more about. You might wish to ask your interviewers about their experience of the firm and what they like about it. You can use these questions to show the interviewers that you’ve done your research and can ask intelligent questions.
Some firms might give you a legal document to read through, such as a commercial contract. After a set period of time, you might be put in a client/lawyer situation in which you must advise a ‘client’ on the contract.
Be aware that you will not need prior legal knowledge in order to do well in this task. Often, you will not be given sufficient time to read through the whole document in detail.
Therefore, you should skim through the document, taking note of the key headings and figures. Try to understand the purpose of the document. Key areas in the document might be how the contract is terminated, what penalties might be payable.
For this exercise, it’s important not to get bogged down by the details. When you’re being asked about the document, remember that you won’t be expected to have it all memorised! What you need to show is that you can refer back to the correct part of the document and understand how it applies to the client.
Group Exercise and Presentation
Assessment centres may include a group exercise to see how you interact with other candidates. In this task, you need to show off how you’re able to collaborate and put forward your ideas. At the same time, it’s important not to be that person who insists that they are right about everything and refuses to compromise.
The group exercise is likely to involve weighing up different opportunities for a business and deciding which opportunities to move forward with. Afterwards, you’ll likely need to present your decision to another group/some assessors. You’ll need to use your commercial awareness, collaborative and time management skills, along with presentation skills afterwards
Try to approach the task in a logical sequence, showing that you can prioritise. Be clear in addressing the advantages and disadvantages of certain points when speaking to other candidates. Additionally, make sure that someone in the group has an eye on the time. This is important as you’ll need to have enough time to prepare how the presentation will be organised between the group.
Commercial Awareness Exercise
Some firms might set you an independent commercial awareness exercise. You might be given a document to read, setting out a business situation which a potential client faces. You’ll be given some time to read the information and might have some questions which you need to be prepared to present to an assessor.
You might be asked ‘what would you advise the client in this scenario and why?’. What are the potential risks of the client taking such a decision? How can we mitigate the risks? How can our law firm help the client? What sort of legal advice might we be able to offer?
In answering the questions relating to the law firm, it’s a god idea to know the firm’s core practice areas. That way, you can try to link it’s expertise to the fictional client. This will show that you have an awareness of the firm which you’re applying to.
Assessment centres can be stressful, but there’s no reason to panic. If you make sure you do your research on the firm and understand the business, then the rest will come. Nerves on the day are inevitable, but remember, the experience is designed to bring out the best in you. You will find some parts of the day challenging, but that’s completely normal. Only by pushing you to your limits will the firm be able to see your true potential.
You’ve done very well to get this far; the firm is willing to organise a day to find out more about you. Just remember to try your hardest and success will eventually come!