Training contract: The Interview
Updated: Oct 12, 2020
The application process rollercoaster
At the risk of giving away my age, I applied for my training contract nearly two decades ago. I did not have the benefit of any insider know-how on the legal sector. There was a plethora of law firms to sift through. I narrowed it down to law firms with international offices in places that I would like to explore. Having grown up in the Middle East and studied Arabic I was drawn to the region. So, I applied to 12 firms. I was lucky enough to receive six invitations to interview.
To put this into context, before applying for a place at law school or a training contract; I applied to over 40 graduate jobs. They were in various professions from banking, management consultancy, the oil industry to journalism. I didn’t receive a single offer to interview. A particular low was receiving a rejection within 12 hours of submitting my online application. That was an application to Arthur Andersen (remember them? https://qrius.com/arthur-anderson-fall-americas-oldest-accounting-behemoth/), as it later turned out, it was shortly before their ultimate demise. I think I dodged a bullet with that application. Well, that it is how I console myself.
I learnt a lot from those initial failures. I became more determined and focussed. The repeated rejection letters were demoralising but ultimately gave me the strength to accept the failure. They compelled me to reassess where I should apply my efforts. I critically took stock of my strengths and weakness. I assessed where my skill set might be best applied. The more I considered my options, the more I found myself gravitating towards pursuing a career in law. More importantly, the failures made me appreciate my eventual success even more.
The invitation to interview and preparation
In terms of law firms, I had my eye on a particular one (which shall remain nameless). They were at the top of my wish list. When the letter arrived in my pigeonhole at my university halls of residence; I was buzzing. I had been invited to an interview at the London offices. The interview would be preceded by some written exercises. The second phase of the interview would be a more traditional run through my CV.
I was chatting to my mate, Jack. I mentioned that I had an interview coming up. I explained that as part of the process I would need to write an essay in 30 minutes. As I was not studying law at the time, the questions would likely be on general knowledge or current affairs. Jack was sure that they would include a question about the merits of the UK joining the European single currency. It was a hot topic in the news at the time. Jack was studying economics and gave me an example essay on the subject. Jack and I were both geeks, we would regularly talk about politics, economics but mainly football and college life.
On the train into London for my interview, as a typical leftie-student, I bought a copy of The Guardian. Sure enough, there was an article about the merits of the UK joining the European single currency. I read the article a couple of times and re-read my draft essay.
Part 1: arrival and written assessment
I arrived at London's King's Cross and made my way to the tube station near the firm’s offices. In the melee of London commuters and tourists, I spotted a familiar face. I recognized someone from my university halls of residence, Tom. Tom was a London lad. He saw me and immediately gave me some abuse for my unauthorised visit to his manor. We laughed, exchanged news and I explained I was there for an interview. I had lost my bearings but Tom being a London boy, knew that part of town, pointed me in the right direction and wished me luck.
I reached the office building, nervous as hell but impressed by the plush meeting rooms with incredible views over the London skyline and delicious biscuits. I was shown to a meeting room with the materials for my written exercises.
I sat down and looked through the six essay questions on the exercise sheet. There it was. Question number two: “outline the pros and cons of the UK joining the European single currency”. I could have kissed Jack! That bloody legend. I smashed the essay out of the park. I even added a quote from the article I read "in today's Guardian" for extra brownie points. #Geek
Part 2: The heads of terms
I had to review draft heads of terms for a share sale. This blew my mind. As a humanities undergraduate, I had never reviewed anything remotely legal. I started to panic; the words were jumbling together on the page. I tried to calm down, drank some water and re-read the heads of terms a few times.
The interview panel arrived. We made our introductions and dived into the exercises. They wanted to drill down into the pros and cons of the share sale. The goal was to test my critical thinking. They wanted to establish whether I could understand the potential risks to the client. I felt hopeless at the analysis. I made some common-sense observations which went down well. However, I missed some of the bigger legal points. On balance, as a non-law undergraduate, they seemed to be happy with my responses. That, or they were just being very English, and politely smiling at my ineptitude.
Part 3: The main interview
To my surprise, it went well for the most part. However, the head of HR seemed to enjoy asking trickier questions to spice things up. At one point, he had a satisfied grin on his face. I knew he was about to turn up the heat. He saw I was studying politics at university and asked: "how would you solve the Middle East peace process?".
The cheeky sod, I thought he was just trying to trip me up at this stage. I was in my early 20s, still at university and could just about tie my shoelaces. I was hardly the person to rely on to solve the world's problems. Although, in some respects, I suppose I do have something in common with Jared Kushner in that regard. I never thought I would write that sentence.
My first reaction was a nervous laugh. I explained that was an extremely broad and complex question; one that would make a good university dissertation topic. They liked that I was not outwardly flummoxed by the question. I was buying myself time to gather my thoughts. Then, with the clear-eyed conviction and naivety of a twenty-something-year-old, I set out to answer the question as best as I could. Yasir Arafat was the head of the PLO at the time. In my view, for both sides to move forward there would need to be a change of leadership for both parties. I talked about the stagnation in the peace process and the main challenges of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Jerusalem question, the right of return of refugees and making a viable Palestinian state. They all nodded. I was not sure if I said the right things or if I had lost them at this stage.
The interview ended and I was then introduced to a trainee to take me on a tour of the office. She was very welcoming and possibly the poshest person I had ever met. She introduced me to a few other trainees. They all seemed friendly and down to earth. I felt a good vibe about the place.
In the letter, they emphasised that the tour did not form part of the assessment. I knew this was complete rubbish, so I was on my best behaviour. I had a long chat with the trainee towards the end of the tour which was helpful. She suggested that we pass by HR to collect the refund for my train fare. The trainee went into the office first. The head of graduate recruitment was by her desk but did not realise I was outside. She said: "what did you think? He was lovely."
The trainee went bright red at this stage and mentioned I was outside the door. At this, the head of graduate recruitment also went bright red and came out laughing: "Sorry, you really are not being assessed during the office tour!". Sure, of course not, I thought. I found the situation very amusing.
Well, that was my interview. I received the offer for my training contract two weeks later. I was over the moon. Back then, I had given myself a target to secure a training contract offer by May that year. Otherwise, I would rescind my place at law school as I could not afford the tuition fees. The offer arrived in March, two months ahead of my self-imposed deadline. The firm would pay all my law school tuition fees and give me an allowance.
And that, as they say, was that...some things are just meant to be... I have held onto that letter to this day.