How to nail a TC or Vacation Scheme interview?
Suppose your application manages to catch the eye of the Graduate Recruitment team and they grant you an interview. Congratulations! You have probably beat 90% of the applicants. The competition heats up here as each candidate gets to make an impression at the firm. So how do you go on converting that interview into an offer?
First, calm down. The interview is about getting to know you and your interest in law. It is not supposed to be a grill (if you are prepared). Take it like you are attending a client meeting. Walk in with a bright smile and firm handshake. Seat down. And take a deep, deep breath. Studies show that deep breaths activate your parasympathetic nervous system, helping you to relax.
You may be nervous initially, but it will fade once the conversation is underway. Those who performed well will barely notice that it is an interview because they focused on connecting with their interviewers. Being nervous is the last thing you need because it prevents you from reacting naturally and thinking rationally.
You can never ever be fully prepared for a technical interview by a partner or senior associate. That is true even if you are fortunate enough to train in the firm: you will never know enough. What you are really tested for are: common sense, ability to think on your feet, teachability, and affability. So calm down, and breathe deep.
Second, know your unique selling point. Imagine that you are in the elevator with the recruitment partner and you have a minute to make your pitch. Confidence and authenticity is key. Besides your name, university, course, and extra-curricular activities, how would you differentiate yourself?
In my humble opinion, it is not so much WHAT you have done per se that is impressive but HOW you convey what you have done that seals the deal. There are plenty of club presidents or vice presidents applying for TC or Vacation Schemes – only a select few go on securing offers. I was one of those who never formally had any leadership position in school (because I was never interested in applying for them).
So here’s my pitch. I am a good team player and genuinely enjoy the activity, not so much of the administration. I am an outdoors person and use my time to travel widely and do things that genuinely interest me outside of school (e.g., running a small business, running a marathon, joining a Thai boxing camp). While I was not a leader in name, these activities imbued in me a natural ability to lead, influence, and support my community.
What makes me different, I’d often say, is that I am adventurous, reliable, and sincere. You’d realise that these are standard answers that anyone can say. But what made my answer stood out, I think, is HOW I came across and the stories I share.
Third, be commercially aware. This is how I went about commercial awareness. First, I developed a basic understanding of business jargon, e.g., debt, equity, private equity, M&A, insolvency, capital markets, bond etc. FT does not give me an UNDERSTANDING of those jargon; instead, they APPLY the jargon to contextualise their meaning. I relied on trusty Google, Practical Law, Wikipedia, Youtube and the like to build up a certain degree of technical understanding. Second, I researched deals by law firms and tried to understand their significance, going beyond the superficial (i.e., the deal value and award). Third, why the law firm, considering its size, expertise, and network, is particularly good in a specific area of commercial law, exemplified by certain deals you have identified. Notice the degree of specificity an applicant needs to be successful in the interviews. It may sound difficult but go through this exercise enough times and it will feel like second nature!
Last but not least, be personable and likeable. An interview is a two-way street. Save for having a short charismatic introduction, forget the script in your head. Adapt and respond to the questions asked. A natural sense of humour can even do you good. Be yourself. Ultimately, an interview is about getting to know you rather than your qualifications. It should not be a mere recitation of your resume.
Most candidates will understandably be nervous and, ergo, slightly more rigid than they would ordinarily be. But being so undercuts, your natural charisma. Hence, I believe the crux is in learning to control your nerves and to be as natural and authentic as you can be even under pressure. While it sounds counterintuitive to try to be natural, I believe it is a vital skill. Being calm, concerted, and unperturbed under stressful situations is a hallmark trait of a successful lawyer. Therefore, it goes back to the first point, calm down, and know that you’ve got what it takes do excel.
There are lots of tips out there about how to ace an interview. But if I could crystallise my advice into a few points, here they are: be prepared, calm down, be engaged, be natural, and smile.
The writer, Leon, is a First Class LLM graduate from King's College London and a future trainee solicitor at Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher UK LLP.