Law firm group exercises – an assessment centre event for vacation schemes or training contracts that most candidates dread. Although many law firms may try and paint out this exercise as “a bit of fun”, you should not be fooled. It’s a fundamental part of winning a vacation scheme or training contract offer. This assessment method can lead to you being rejected for seemingly no concrete reason.
The trick to succeeding in group exercises is that there are a set of unspoken rules that you need to follow. You can think of it like a formula. We do not pretend that following this formula will guarantee you success – you will still need to perform well. But these rules will help to maximise your chances of success.
What to expect
This blog article will cover:
- what a group exercise may look like;
- what you are being assessed on during the exercise;
- our top tips and tricks to succeed; and
- how to deal with difficult candidates during the exercise.
What is a Group Exercise at a Law Firm Assessment Centre?
Types of exercises
Group exercises can take many forms but they typically fall into three categories:
- A leaderless group exercise focused on discussion and some negotiation.
- A role-play exercise, which is likely to involve a significant degree of negotiation.
- A physical, practical exercise, such as working as a team to build the most stable tower out of assorted materials.
This blog article will focus on the first kind of exercise as that is arguably the most common group exercise you will face.
A leaderless group exercise
A leaderless, discussion-focused group exercise typically involves a group of candidates being set a specific task. For example, the group may be told that they are members of an organisation with a particular budget. The members of the group must negotiate how to spend their budget and present their final agreement (complete with explanations) to the assessors.
The twist is that each person might be given a personal objective or particular role. You may be given specific seats with personal briefing packs that set out your specific objectives. For instance, the packs may tell each candidate that they are responsible for a particular department in the organisation. For example,, the candidate who was put in charge of the “marketing” department will want to advocate for more of the budget spent on their department.
The specific scenario will vary from law firm to law firm but the general structure of these assessments is:
- 30 – 60 minutes of group discussion time; followed by
- a group presentation; or
- the conclusion of the assessment.
If you would like a glimpse of what a group exercise’s materials may look like, Baker McKenzie’s example group exercise gives a good idea of what to expect.
You should note that your group discussion will be overseen by one or more assessors from the law firm. These may be members of HR, trainees or qualified lawyers. If you do have a presentation at the end, this is more of a formality – the bulk of your assessment is the group discussion.
Assessment Criteria for Group Exercises for Vacation Schemes or Training Contracts
Group exercises at law firms are designed to test your competencies in action. There is nowhere to hide in these assessments. Although you may have prepared your competency-based answers to do with teamwork, organisation and so on, this assessment is designed to test whether you actually have such skills in practice.
The following key competencies are typically assessed during these kinds of exercises:
- Teamwork and collaboration
- Problem-solving and critical thinking skills
- Communication skills
- Organisation and time management skills
- Attention to detail
- Leadership skills
- Ability to work under pressure
In addition to these competencies, you will be assessed on the quality of your contributions. You should bear in mind that whilst you do need to adapt to the assessment rubric, you must ensure that you make valuable contributions and help to tackle the problem at hand. The assessors will notice if you are all talk!
How to Succeed in this Assessment Centre Group Exercises
Why do law firms want to hire candidates with extra-curricular interests? It’s because these experiences help you to develop the skills that they seek in the trainees.
For example, if you join the committee of a university society, you will have the opportunity to practice communicating your ideas with clarity to your peers, debating the best way forward and actively listening to other people’s points of view. You will also be used to dealing with difficult people and using your problem-solving skills in a social context. By practising these core interpersonal skills in advance, you are more likely to succeed at group exercises in law firm assessment centres. You will have more experience at these types of skills than other candidates and have a better ability to work in a law firm.
Offer to Act as the Timekeeper
Our first tip is to wear a watch and try to be the timekeeper if possible. Demonstrating leadership during these kinds of exercises is challenging. On the one hand, you do not want to dominate the group but on the other hand, you need to show that you can take on responsibility and guide the group. By being the timekeeper you strike this balance. At the beginning of the assessment, you can politely ask the group whether they would like you to keep track of the time and give time checks. This is a useful thing for the group to have as the last thing they want is to run out of time. Other members of the group will also be unlikely to refuse your ask – it would be ridiculous and count against them if they openly said no!
Of course, if multiple people offer to act as time-keeper, it’s fine to graciously allow another candidate to take on this role and focus on succeeding through other means.
If you are the timekeeper, you should look to adopt this structure and give the following checks:
- at 50% of the time used;
- with 15 minutes remaining;
- with 10 minutes remaining;
- with 5 minutes remaining; and
- with 1 minute remaining.
If you have a short amount of time some of the checks might overlap so adjust this as you see fit.
Example of timekeeping
You should be aware that being the timekeeper comes with responsibility. If you do not notify the group of how much time is remaining at appropriate intervals, the assessors will penalise you as you took on a responsibility that you did not fulfil. To ensure that you stay on top of your time note down the key times at which you need to give the time checks on the top of your notepad. Here is an example of what that structure, as noted down, might look like:
- 14:01 – Start
- 14:31 – 50%
- 14:46 – 15 mins
- 14:51 – 10 mins
- 14:56 – 5 mins
- 15:00 – 1 min
- 15:01 – End
You can then check your watch and immediately know if you need to give a time check.
The rule of three
Our second tip is to be prepared to make three significant contributions throughout the exercise. Think of the assessment as split into thirds. For example, if your assessment is 60 minutes long, you want to make a significant contribution in the first 20 minutes, the middle 20 minutes, and the final 20 minutes. By significant contribution, we mean a moment where you are talking for an extended period, perhaps a minute to two minutes, where you are setting out your ideas. You might think that a minute or two minutes of talking time is not that much but talking for three to six whole minutes during the exercise means that the spotlight has solely been on you for at least 5-10% of the time. You can adjust this as necessary depending on the size of your group.
By making these significant contributions, you will ensure that the assessors see that you are contributing in a meaningful way but are not dominating the conversation. Naturally, you can communicate outside of these moments but keep them relatively brief unless someone from the group is addressing you directly.
You should remember that this advice serves as a rough guide to treading that fine line between being overbearing and irrelevant. Part of the key skill that you will need to develop yourself is reading the room to figure out when you need to interject and when you need to take a step back.
Everyone has a name
Remember that everyone has a name. If you do not know everyone’s name or there are no name desk plates or name labels you can politely ask the group whether they would like to introduce themselves at the beginning of the assessment. As people say their names, you should sketch a quick diagram which sets out where everyone is sitting and what their names are. This is effectively a seating plan; it might look something like this. Make sure that you note down where you are sitting relative to everyone else – if you are going to use names, it’s better to use the right one!
You should then address people and thank people by their names. Whenever you are about to make a contribution where you will be talking for a decent amount of time or you are following on from someone from a presentation, you should thank the person who just spoke.
For example, you might say, “That’s an excellent point [insert name here]! And just to add to your idea, […]”. Similarly, when you are ending your contribution, you should make sure to hand the conversation off to someone. This can be achieved, for example, by saying, “But I’d love to get your thoughts on this too, [insert name here]”. When ending your part of a presentation, you can say something simple like, “And [insert name here] will discuss [insert topic here]”. You should notice that the example phrases have a positive tone to them. You must try to keep your tone positive throughout the exercise, especially when you address someone. You want everyone to feel good about the exercise – the better the candidates feel, the better the assessors feel and the better marks they will give out. And it goes without saying but everyone wants to be spoken nicely to!
As a bonus tip, you should try to hand off the conversation to someone who has not contributed much during the group discussions. This should be done with the aim of trying to involve them in the conversation. Not only is this a nice thing to do, but the assessors will also recognise what you are trying to do and you will gain extra marks! You should remember that the assessors want to see what you might look like as a trainee solicitor working with, say, a partner at the office. In effect, they want to see you demonstrate that you are personable, warm, friendly, and respectful!
No I in Team
Our final tip is that it is called a group exercise for a reason. Although each candidate may be given a personal objective (as discussed above), you will not pass this assessment if you secure that objective at the cost of upsetting the wider group. In most instances, it will be impossible for all the candidates to achieve their objectives outright. The assessors are hoping that you will negotiate and compromise with each other.
You should aim to achieve part of your objective but be courteous to others. You should aim to achieve not only part of your objective but also some of your peers’ objectives too. Your assessors will penalise you if you reserve your enthusiasm for only your own goals. When we have acted as assessors for group exercises at the law firms where we work, we have failed candidates who advance their own goals and then stop actively participating. They’re not team players. Make sure that you do not get tunnel-visioned on your own objectives. A success for the group is a success for you.
Dealing with Difficult Candidates
Focus on your behaviour
You can’t pick the other candidates at the group centre. Some of them may be difficult. Some will talk too much, whilst some will say almost nothing. Some individuals might be quite pushy, whilst others might be passive-aggressive.
No matter what kind of difficult candidate you are presented with, you should aim to rise above it. You are only in control of your behaviour. Ensure that you make valid contributions, use people's names act affably. The assessors are grading you as individuals, so focus on putting on a good show for them rather than getting wound up by a challenging candidate.
(Gently) take the wheel
In some instances, the difficult candidate may cause your group exercise to derail completely. In this instance you have another objective – try to get the group back on track to tackle the task at hand. You will have to do this tactfully and gently but ensure that you do make such an attempt. You should try to remind the group of the wider objective and present ways in which they can move towards that objective and complete the set task. If someone is dominating the spotlight you can try to break up their monologue by directly asking another candidate what their thoughts are on the subject. All of this is likely to be noted by your assessors with upside for you.
As a final note – keep calm. There may be a moment where someone else is particularly obnoxious or steamrolls over you. Do not rise to the provocation. You are being watched and so the assessors will be looking to see how you deal with this setback and persevere with the task. You should remain amiable and professional. Do your best to recover the situation without further escalating tensions! The difficult lawyer you may be dealing with in real-life might very well be your supervising partner - get used to dealing with challenging behaviour tactfully now because it will serve you well in the future!
This article has covered how to succeed in group exercises. Specifically, we have looked at what a group exercise entails, the typical assessment criteria, how to succeed in these assessments, and how to deal with difficult candidates.
To summarise our advice:
- If possible, act as the timekeeper. Do not miss any of your time checks. Give at least three time checks: a halfway warning, a five-minute warning, and a one-minute warning.
- Make at least three significant contributions spread out evenly across the exercise. You may also make more minor contributions but this general rule will help you strike a good balance between listening and talking.
- You should use other candidates’ respective names. If you do not know them, you may politely ask everyone to introduce themselves. You can then sketch out a seating plan which you can use to keep track of everyone and jog your memory.
- The best candidates will hand off the conversation to others who have not spoken as much. This act ensures that everyone is involved in the exercise and demonstrates good social skills.
- You must not become fixated on achieving your own objectives. You are participating in a group exercise, so everyone’s objectives are important. You must try to negotiate, compromise, and support others where appropriate. You must not allow yourself to be walked over but do not be so firm as to shut down other members unfairly.
- Difficult candidates are inevitable. You must focus on your own behaviour and rise above their challenging actions. In instances where they cause your group to be derailed, you should act as the voice of reason and be prepared to tactfully get the group back on track to tackle the task at hand.
- You need to remember that whilst you are being assessed in the context of a group, your assessment is individual. So long as you have a good grasp on your actions and contributions, you will be rewarded even if the group as a whole is unpleasant or unsuccessful.
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