Many candidates do not prepare for “scenario-based” interviews. Some think that the interview only comes up at a minority of firms. Others think that it “cannot be prepared for”. Nevertheless, this interview is more common than you might think and can be a stumbling block for even the most intelligent candidates. This blog article aims to show you how you can prepare for scenario-based interviews, and how you can use them to differentiate yourself from other candidates.
This article will cover:
- What scenario-based interviews are and what they aim to test
- How you can prepare in advance for a scenario-based interview
- Key tips and tricks to use during your interview to outperform other candidates
What Are Law Firms' Scenario-Based Interviews?
Do not confuse a “scenario-based” interview with a traditional case study/presentation exercise. This is a wholly distinct kind of assessment. A scenario-based interview can take two forms:
- Real world example - You have a 30-60 minute interview with a partner who begins by introducing to you a real deal that they have done. They will talk through this deal and some of the problems the firm or their client faced. They will also ask you questions along the way.
- Fictional scenario - You have a 30-60 minute interview with a partner and/or an associate who begins by introducing to you a fictional deal or scenario relating to a (fictional) company. They may talk through some basic details of the scenario before addressing you directly. They may ask some questions, listen to your answers, and then give you more information about the scenario and ask follow-up questions.
The real-world scenario
Though the difference between the two may seem superficial, it impacts how the interview will progress. In the first scenario, you are discussing a real deal. Naturally, you can expect your interviewer to be an expert on the facts and proud of their work on the matter. Your discussion is likely to focus on the practical implications of the facts provided.
For example, the partner may stop to ask you, “so, what do you think was going through our [the team at the firm’s] heads at that moment?”. They may also present you with a choice and ask you “which one do you think we picked?”. Although only one answer is the correct one, they will also be looking for your reasons and justifications for your choice. As this is a real deal, your answers are expected to be pragmatic and carefully consider the commercial context of the advice provided to the client.
The fictional scenario
In the second scenario, the content provided by the law firm is fictional. Although you should be aware of the real-world practicalities that might surround this kind of scenario, the focus of the interview will be more on your technical knowledge.
For example, your interviewing law firm may tell you that some investors have come together to purchase a coffee business that turns raw coffee beans into nice, branded bags of ground coffee that are sold in supermarkets. You may then be asked, as an introductory question, “imagine these investors come to us – what legal departments do you think would potentially be engaged in this transaction?”.
There’s many potential roles for a full-service law firm in a typical deal; it could involve general corporate, finance, employment, intellectual property, etc. It is unlikely that the law firm wants an exhaustive list, but they are testing your knowledge of the firm and of your understanding of what the main departments in a firm do and why.
While your interviewer will have read the facts for the fictional scenario in advance, they are unlikely to know its content as well as a deal which they worked on themselves for several weeks or months.
Some law firms like to use fictional scenarios because they consider it more fair to put every candidate through the same example. In theory, this allows them to objectively compare performance across candidates. However, there is a risk that candidates share information about the assessment online after their interview, which is the main reason why other law firms prefer to use a variety of real world examples.
Similarities and differences
From these overviews, you can observe that in the first kind of interview, the focus is more on practical legal knowledge and the ability to think realistically in a business context. For the second kind of interview, the focus is more on your technical knowledge regarding what commercial solicitors do, some academic understanding of the law, and your commercial awareness.
However, you should not assume that the kinds of interviews share nothing in common. Above, we have described the general pattern. Nevertheless, the best candidates will prepare for both kinds of interviews. This is because the interviewer could ask more technical interview questions in the first kind of scenario-based interview or a practical question in the second kind.
Scenario-based interviews are flexible and this is a chance for the interview to figure out your strengths and weaknesses. Your interviewer could go off the beaten track and challenge you - be prepared!
So what does this look like practice? Imagine you are having the first kind of interview: a scenario that actually happened has been presented to you by a partner who is also your interviewer. The partner has just asked you, “so, what do you think we asked the counterparty for?”. You have just replied with an answer that could be summarised as some particular “warranties and indemnities” (you will have to be specific, of course!). The partner smiles and replies, “Good! And could you summarise what their differences are?”.
You should see that whilst the beginning of the conversation revolved around the practicalities of the transaction and what the firm did, the second half of the conversation investigates your more technical understanding of law and business.
How Do I Prepare for Law Firm Scenario-Based Interviews?
This may all seem rather intimidating. How could you prepare for an interview in which you have no idea what scenario is going to be brought up? Does it not all depend on the interviewer I get?
Yes, the scenario will depend on your interviewing partner. Some people may get a disputes partner and be expected to talk about a deal gone wrong. Others may get a banking partner could discuss the financing of a particular project. And if you have a fictional scenario then any topic could be raised. Although this adds some volatility to the process, this does not mean that you cannot prepare for these interviews!
Develop your commercial awareness
First, you should be sure to brush up on your commercial awareness and technical legal and commercial knowledge. Irrespective of whether your scenario is real or fictional, you will need to have a strong understanding of what commercial lawyers do, what the main departments of a firm do in a transaction or a dispute, and the appropriate legal and commercial fundamentals. You should have a look at our case study/presentation assessments blog article for information about how to build this knowledge (contained in the latter half).
If you are a law or a non-law student, your interviewer will expect you to have this knowledge. Typical undergraduate law degrees do not cover the main knowledge you need to showcase in these interviews. Yes, some knowledge of company law may be useful; however, you need to refocus your efforts on understanding things like warranties, indemnities, sale and purchase agreements, exclusivity agreements, and so on.
In addition to the blog article linked above, studying the Anatomy of a Deal video will give you a good idea of the areas you need to be researching and build additional knowledge about. This video is designed to point you in particular directions, it will be up to you to do the requisite studying!
Ask the “so what” question
Second, you should practice asking “why?”. This may sound strange but many candidates fail to demonstrate their critical thinking ability in an interview. Having commercial and/or legal knowledge is not enough. You need to show the interviewer that you can put this knowledge into practice.
The best way to learn how to do this (other than being a paralegal or a lawyer already) is to read up on some deals and disputes. However, you should not read them passively. You should read these deals with the aim of asking “why?” at every turn.
A press report by a law firm might say that they helped their client raise £500,000 in debt to facilitate the purchase of a target company. Ask yourself, “why? Why did they choose to raise the money via debt and not via equity?”. You may already know the pros and cons of debt and equity finance in abstraction, but now consider them in practice. What was it about the scenario that accentuated some of the advantages of debt finance or the disadvantages of equity finance?
If you feel flummoxed by some of these notions, you can download our bespoke mock case study where our walkthrough explains these fundamentals and applies them in a fictional context.
It is worth bearing in mind that you should expect your interviewer to push you. Even if you have done lots of research and brushed up on your answers, you should expect to face more challenging interview questions. This may seem self-defeating: is it really the case that the more you know, the harder your interview questions will be? Technically, yes. But this is a good thing. If you can demonstrate that you are worthy of the "harder" interview questions, you're almost certainly doing well.
All the interviewer wants to see at that point is how you think and how you can reason your way to some kind of appropriate solution. So, don't skimp out on your preparation in the hope that the law firm will give you easier interview questions - ask yourself "so what?" and push yourself before the interview!
Practice interview questions
Third, you should practice with a trusted friend or family member. If you would prefer (or do not have a partner who will work with you), you can do this by yourself! Ask them (or do it yourself) to invent a potential deal or have a look in the news for some rumoured transactions or disputes. Talk them through the transaction or dispute highlighting where the lawyers would have to be careful and where they may receive push-back.
Try to encourage your partner to ask difficult questions or to imagine challenging scenarios to which you need to posit potential solutions. This process will encourage you to get inside the head of an interviewer and see where your own weaknesses lie.
Tips and Tricks to Employ During the Interview
Take a moment
This interview is as much about what you say as it is about your attitude. As we mentioned, scenario-based interviews are very flexible and are designed to examine how you process large volumes of information with very little time to sit and reflect.
Having said that, our first tip is to take a moment before answering your interview questions. You are likely to find the whole process overwhelming. Do not let the tone or speed of your interviewer push you into blurting out a lacklustre answer or inappropriate solution. You should also not let the environment of being in a law firm intimidate you. Focus your attention on the interview questions and try to avoid having your mind wander off. When you are asked something, you should take a moment to think before carefully stating your response.
Ask (some) questions
On a related note, our second tip is to ask appropriate follow-up or clarification questions. Law firms will not expect you to know absolutely everything, especially if you are discussing a real-world scenario. Therefore, you can always ask some questions during the interview if you are unsure about something or would like some additional information about a particular point.
Importantly, however, you should not interrupt the interviewer. Instead, you should ask these questions at the appropriate juncture. Do not backpedal too far and ensure that the question is relevant (do not ask questions just to show off!).
Use an organisation chart
Another trick is to draw an organisation chart. If a complex scenario is being described, it may be hard for you to keep track of all the parties and relationships in your head. Use a pen and paper (which law firms often provide to their interviewees) to note down an organisation chart that keeps track of the parties’ names, roles, and relations to each other.
If you are unsure what an organisation chart looks like take a look at HSBC’s simplified structure chart (do not worry, your one is unlikely to be that complicated!).
Don't forget your body language
Finally, your body language is key. If your interviewer is particularly passionate about the scenario, they may talk at length without asking you many questions. You must remain attentive and be absorbing all the information articulated. However, you should also be communicating your attentiveness and enthusiasm through your body language.
When you are unable to speak, your posture and facial expression must do the talking! Sit up straight, follow along with what they are saying, nod and smile. You may occasionally make an “mmm” sound in agreement or disagreement; however, do so sparingly as it can be annoying. Make eye contact with the interviewer but you should break such context when making notes or if the interview turns into a bizarre, uncomfortable staring contest. Law firms want human beings, not calculated robots!
Good, communicative body language is a subset of 'interpersonal skills' and is itself a hard skill to master. If you are determined to improve your body language, look at this Graduates First video, which also gives tips on practising good body language. You should never forget that a mirror or webcam is your best friend – you can practice your gestures in the reflection and see how you come across!
The article has covered how to succeed in a scenario-based interview. We have looked at what a scenario-based interview entails, how to prepare for one, and some of our top tips and tricks to use during the interview.
To summarise our advice:
- A scenario-based interview can either be about a real transaction or dispute that a partner has done, or a hypothetical, fictional scenario.
- These scenarios are unseen. You will be introduced to them in the interview itself. Your ability to think quickly on your feet is crucial here.
- A real-world scenario will focus more on the practicalities of the transaction or dispute whilst the fictional scenario is likely to be designed to test more of your technical knowledge. This is just the general pattern – anything can come up in your scenario interviews so be prepared with both your critical thinking skills and practical mindset, and your technical knowledge.
- You should prepare for these scenarios and follow-up interview questions by revising your technical knowledge and strengthening your commercial awareness.
- You can also prepare by reading about deals in the press and asking yourself “why?” to probe yourself on certain legal or commercial areas and to practice your critical thinking skills when presented with more challenging interview questions.
- Finally, you can do mock scenario-based interviews with a trusted family member or a friend.
- Our first tip is to take a moment to think before answering in your interview.
- Our second tip is to ask follow-up or clarificatory questions where appropriate. These will help you answer the interviewer’s questions to the best of your ability and demonstrate your interest in the subject matter.
- A trick to digest information about a complex dispute or transaction is to draw an organisation chart to keep track of parties’ names, roles, and the relationships between them.
- Our final trick is to use your body language to communicate your attentiveness and enthusiasm in the moments where you are not able to talk.
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