Introduction to training contract assessment centres
Law firm assessment centres are daunting events, but they are the final hurdle that you need to clear to secure a vacation scheme or training contract.
This article explains how to prepare for the two most common assessment centre exercises at commercial law firms. We will cover:
- Competency / motivational interviews which focus on whether you have the right skills and attitude to succeed on your training contract
- Commercial case studies which test your ability to think logically and deal with common commercial topics
You may encounter additional tests which form part of the recruitment process at your assessment centre (e.g. group exercises, written exercises, psychometric tests or negotiation exercises). We plan to release other articles covering common topics like how to succeed in group exercises at assessment days shortly.
Competency / Motivational Interview
This interview is by far the most common kind of assessment you will face at law firm assessment centres. Although they vary in time, length and structure, most candidates will have to answer competency and motivational interview questions.
- Competency questions focus on your skills. These questions are open-ended (e.g. ‘tell me about a time when…’) and then state a situation or a particular skill. For example, ‘tell me about a time when you demonstrated good teamwork’.
- Motivational questions are questions which relate to your motivations or commitment towards a career in commercial law or the law firm you are interviewing at. Such questions may be phrased as follows: ‘why do you want to pursue a career in commercial law?’, or ‘why do you want to train at [insert firm here]?’.
Many candidates find these kinds of questions challenging. They are personal in nature and require preparation in advance. It’s unlikely that you can improvise an answer of sufficient quality on the spot. The aim is prepare so effectively that your answer ticks all of the boxes on your interviewer’s marking scheme while sounding completely natural.
It's worth over-indexing on preparation before your assessment day.
The first step is to prepare a table of competency/motivational questions: write down typical questions on the left-hand side and leave space for your answers in the right-hand column.
You should write out your answers in full. However, we would suggest putting a word limit of 400 words per answer. The average person speaks at approximately 150 words per minute. This means that a 400 word answer would take you just over 2.5 minutes to get through. It’s important to speak at a pace that is easy to follow, so a 2.5 minute answer should take about three minutes to deliver at interview.
By writing out your answers, you are able to formulate a strong, logical structure and provide yourself with a safety net should your mind suddenly go blank in the interview.
For illustrative purposes only, it may look something like this:
Naturally, your table will have far more rows that the one above. We would recommend that you prepare answers for the following basic competencies:
- Teamwork and leadership skills
- Organisation and time management
- Communication skills (including examples of dealing with difficult people/persuasion/negotiation)
- Dealing with a set-back/failure
After you have prepared your answers, you may then want to transition to flashcards. Write the question on one side, and a bullet point version of your answer on the other side. Mix up the cards and test yourself on them until you can confidently answer the questions with responses that range from one to three minutes long.
When you are in the real interview, it is unlikely that it will be a robotic question-and-answer process. Your interviewer is likely to adopt a conversational tone and expect that you do the same. Notwithstanding your thorough preparation, it is important that you deliver your answers in a natural manner
Once you know your answers off by heart, you should take some small liberties with the script you have prepared. This will allow your tone to be more natural and appear more spontaneous. This is an old actors’ trick: you must know your lines so well that you are able to act as though that they are coming to your head in the moment, just like the character in the scene would have happen to them.
Some interviewers will ask you direct questions, whilst some will amend the questions, which will force you to change your answer in the moment. However, so long as you have done your preparation, you need not worry – you already have the answers in your head. All you need to do is shuffle the content around to provide an appropriate response.
For example, your interviewer may ask you ‘tell me about a time when you have demonstrated strong organisational skills’. You may give your response, and the interviewer replies with, ‘that is great – but what about when that does not work out? How do you deal with that?’. This question is technically a follow-up question about your organisational skills but alludes to your ability to deal with set-backs and failure.
Consequently, you should answer with a response that transitions from your organisational answer to your set-backs answer. Again, if you have done your preparation, this will come naturally as you will not be trying to quickly make up a retort on the spot.
Case Study / Presentation Exercise
One of the most challenging assessments that candidates face at assessment centres is the case study/presentation exercise. This assessment is a test of your comprehension skills, commercial awareness and your application of technical knowledge. It differs to group exercises because it's usually 1-1, rather than alongside other candidates.
The exercise will usually involve you receiving a bundle of documents to review over the course of 30-45 minutes. You will probably receive some prompts and questions within the documents and, at the end of the allotted time, you will relay your findings to a partner over the course of a 5-15 minute presentation.
Like mock exam papers, the best way to prepare for a case study is to carry out practice tests before your assessment day. The NCL practice case study is our own custom case study that covers many of the areas that law firms will assess you on. By itself, though, that’s not enough – you need feedback on improvement points and visibility of what the best answers involve. Our case study therefore includes step-by-step commentary with a model answer and an explanation of the concepts employed.
Other than the NCL case study, there are some other ways to supplement your knowledge. Crucially, you should be looking to build your technical knowledge. By technical knowledge we mean your financial, commercial, and legal knowledge. This includes topics like:
- Acquisition structure (sale purchase or asset purchase).
- Acquisition financing (debt or equity).
- Representations, warranties and indemnities.
Alongside this, you will also need to have broader commercial acumen. You will be expected to analyse a situation and consider whether it makes good commercial sense. For example, you may be asked whether your client, an e-commerce business, should acquire a high-street retailer who only has bricks-and-mortar stores. If your client only wants to expand its online presence, the acquisition seems like a bad idea. Furthermore, bring in your knowledge of current affairs: the pandemic has accelerated the decline of the high-street. Hence, even if your client wants to have a physical presence, you may want to advise them on the risks of pursuing that objective.
Building your commercial awareness and technical knowledge is a staightforward but time-consuming process. We recommend the following actions:
- Listen to the Financial Times News Briefing podcast every morning. It's about 10 minutes long and gives an excellent summary of the most important commercial news stories
- Read the Financial Times or the Economist's business section as much as possible
- Read the same legal press that the law firm partners read. Legal Business is particularly insightful
- Watch one hour of Bloomberg TV a day (it is free for one hour each day). This is more advanced but will give you an excellent insight into financial matters and provide you with some top-level analysis
- Read some basic introductory books on commercial concepts (e.g. Stoakes’ ‘All you need to know about the City’)
- Use Investopedia to look up concepts you do not understand and to build some deeper knowledge
- Take online courses on commercial concepts (like private equity) on platforms like Coursera or edX
Once you have amassed a decent amount of knowledge, it is vital that you put it to the test in a practice case study/presentation exercise. Testing yourself against a practice case study exercise is the best way to know whether you at the appropriate level to succeed or if more work is required.
After you have used the practice case study materials, you will be able to identify gaps in your knowledge and thoroughly prepared for the actual assessment. Then, all that remains is to do the real thing!
This article has summarised the two main kinds of assessment you are likely to face at a law firm assessment centre. The first is the competency/motivational interview. To prepare for this, we recommend drafting a question-and-answer table, writing flashcards, and rehearsing answers.
The second assessment is the case study/presentation exercise. To prepare for this, we strongly recommend getting a hold of our practice case study exercise and practicing. We also recommend, in tandem, building your commercial awareness and technical knowledge by reading, listening, and watching a variety of media that is designed to educate you on a broad range of commercial and financial concepts.
Get your copy of case study/presentation assessment here. Remember, unlike others, our case study exercise comes with a detailed commentary which walks you through the exercise, provides model answers, and explains the relevant commercial concepts.
We hope you found this article useful – if you did, please share it with other candidates who might find it helpful!
You can learn more about how we can help you secure a training contract here.
- Our Application Database has >95 examples of successful applications for >70 different law firms for £14.99 each. Each application includes expert line-by-line commentary by our team of qualified solicitors from US, Magic Circle and Silver Circle firms to help you craft your own perfect application and secure a training contract.
- Our Practice Case Study will help you turn your assessment centre into a training contract offer. This realistic mock case study takes 45 minutes to complete. It includes >15 pages of expert feedback which will teach you vital commercial content that you need to know and help you to assess how strong your practice performance was. It costs just £19.99.