Guest Author: Connor Griffith is the Joint Editor-in-Chief of KeepCalmTalkLaw, the online legal journal that provides in-depth analysis and commentary on current legal issues. You can view his LinkedIn here.

Anyone that has attempted to acquire a training contract at a law firm will know just how brutally competitive the process can be. Beyond the application forms, psychometric tests, interviews and – with many larger firms – vacation schemes, nowhere is this difficulty and pressure more apparent than at the assessment centre. Comprising a full-day championship in which applicants endure a number of tasks – ranging from group negotiations to partner interviews, written assessments to presentations – assessment centres are hardly for the faint of heart.

‘…prevent contradiction and appearing forgetful or, worse, dishonest in the interview.’

Retrace your steps

It is vital that you save a copy of the initial application form you submitted to the firm. Doing so will ensure that you are able to remember exactly what you have said about each experience you have had and, just as importantly, how you answered the longer questions contained within the questionnaire. This has two functions.

Firstly, if there is another interview at the assessment centre – which is absolutely possible – it’s likely that the interviewer will have read your application form and will want to dive deeper into something that you wrote. This will either be due to them wanting to evaluate your knowledge on a subject you mentioned, or because they’re genuinely curious about the experience you have undertaken. By knowing what you have written before, you won’t be caught off-guard when they launch in-depth questions about your application.

Secondly, and more importantly, it will ensure that you don’t contradict yourself. Of course, you should never lie in an application form, but it is entirely possible that in the heat of the moment in the interview you might forget about a charity you briefly worked for two years ago, or forget the details of the vacation scheme you undertook over Christmas. Better to know in detail what you have said and done, in order to prevent contradiction and appearing forgetful or, worse, dishonest in the interview.

‘If you refuse to cooperate or communicate with them, assessors will notice this and it will work against you.’

No-nonsense attitude? No thank you.

The legal profession can be tough – as such, it can be all too tempting to adopt a no-nonsense, cut-throat attitude when attending the assessment centre in order to show your assessors that you ‘mean business’. Personally, I would advise against this.

While there will undoubtedly be some assessors that prefer applicants channelling their inner Sherlock-esque personas, I think it is fair to assume that the vast majority are looking for someone that is both brilliant and personable. If you are unable to connect with people on a personal level as well as professional level, your avenues in life – particularly in the legal profession – will narrow considerably: it’s about EQ (emotional intelligence) just as much as IQ.

Perhaps the best way to demonstrate your ability to charm the people around you is to befriend the other assessment centre attendees. Yes, you are technically competing against them for a finite number of roles, but this does not automatically mean they are your enemies. If you refuse to cooperate or communicate with them, assessors will notice this and it will work against you. On the other hand, if you can form a connection with those around you, you will undoubtedly appear more natural and enthusiastic during the group tasks you will have to undertake.

For example, at one of my assessment centres I was one of the last applicants to arrive (hooray for public transport). When I turned up, I was directed to join the rest of the applicants, who were sitting in silence in the waiting area of the firm. While waiting, I made my best effort to strike up conversation with those around me – I felt rather awkward while doing so, and I’m sure a fair few of those around me were hoping I would just give up my futile attempts at small-talk, but I persisted. During the interview that afternoon, however, I was actually told that the receptionist had noticed that I was making an effort with the others, and I was commended for my attempts at doing so. 

Ultimately, those assessing you are looking for someone they will want to sit next to in an office and will feel comfortable letting communicate with clients; this will not be you if you have no interests beyond the pages of your tax law textbook.

‘Ultimately, this is the point of the group task…’

Don’t try to be the best person there

This piece of advice may seem a little questionable to some, but I firmly believe in it. If you are going to the assessment centre determined to outshine everyone else there and make the assessors remember your name, you are – in my opinion – adopting a self-destructive attitude. I believe this will make you stand out in a bad way: you will appear insincere, dominating, arrogant, and perhaps even desperate.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t make an effort! Assessment centres are tough and if you just sit and let others do the work you don’t stand a chance of advancing. But you need to be able to demonstrate that you can hold your own whilst feeling confident in the abilities of those around you to allow them to take the wheel sometimes.

In the group task, don’t try to put forward every single idea – get your idea across, ask if anyone else has any other ideas, and genuinely listen to those ideas. Commend the idea, delicately put across any issues you might see and try to think with everyone else whether you can come up with a solution that would improve the overall idea.

By adopting a team-first attitude, you will appear more genuine. Ultimately, this is the point of the group task; the assessors want to observe how you operate in a team. Leave the demonstrations of superior individual skill to the solo tasks. The group task is the time to display, once again, that you are someone the partners and associates at the firm should want to work with.

‘…you’re making a huge mistake.’

Don’t worry if you don’t know something

Finally, it’s important to remember the stage you are at in your legal career: you haven’t even started. As such, don’t put too much pressure on yourself to remember every little thing you have learned throughout your law degree, GDL or even A-Level in Law. When preparing for an assessment centre, your focus should be on the firm itself, general news in the areas of law that you’ve indicated an interest in, and the wider commercial world. If you’re pouring through your tort law textbook the night before the assessment centre, you’re making a huge mistake.

Far more important is that you share what information you have in response to a task or question, and then openly acknowledge that there is more you’re uncertain of and engage those around you in a discussion on that, so that you can leave the experience having learned something. This will look infinitely better than you blabbering on to the other members of your group – using up what is already very valuable time in the group tasks, as they are usually very time pressured – or giving completely incorrect advice to the partner that is pretending to a be a client. Know your shortcomings if they arise – only then can you acknowledge and overcome them with grace.

Speaking from experience, in a presentation to a partner about an investment strategy for a hypothetical client, one of the options available was franchising. Having not undertaken any commercial law study at the point of the assessment centre, I knew little beyond the basic definition of what a franchise is, least of all how they are set up and maintained. I openly acknowledged this in the presentation, and then went up to the partner during the social lunch break and asked if they would mind explaining to me how a franchise agreement worked. In doing so, I demonstrated that I was keen to learn, and my initial lack of knowledge ultimately benefited my application.