On the interview merry-go-round

Towards the end of his training contract, the author decided to transfer to the Bar. He also applied for newly-qualified positions as a solicitor. He describes a Summer of over 60 interviews, comparing chambers’ interviews with those conducted by City law firms

Towards the end of my training contract at a “magic circle” firm, I decided to pursue my long-held ambition to transfer to the Bar. So began the quest for one of the 460 pupillages contested by over 4,000 applicants. With these statistics and the current job market in mind, I also applied for newly-qualified (“NQ”) litigation positions in City law firms, making it clear that I was also applying for pupillage and, if offered a position, I could only work for a year before starting pupillage.



The interview process

Chambers


I applied to 19 common law, 3 commercial and 2 Chancery sets of chambers. Of the 24, I attended 22 first round interviews. These usually consisted of a general, CV based discussion with 3-5 members of chambers with one legal/debate/topical question posed to all candidates at the end. I attended 17 second round interviews which were more legally based. Some chambers give you pre-prepared material but most give you a legal problem to solve under time conditions (often in a noisy waiting room) before presenting it to a larger panel usually chaired by a Silk.


Law firms

My NQ interviews were arranged through recruiters. There were two rounds: the first usually with two senior litigation partners, the second with another partner and associates from your potential team. Both interviews were general, CV based discussions with occasional probing of trainee experience and the odd technical question, such as how to advise a client asking for an injunction or disclosure requirements.


The outcome

Pupillage

The pupillage process can end rather dramatically. If you get a second round interview, chambers will not usually tell you, either way, of the outcome until a fixed date – usually in early August. This means an “exam results day” with offers flying around.

You may also have to wait on other candidates to see if reserve offers come good. I noticed the same people kept appearing at interviews, suggesting that the same handful of candidates end up holding offers at several different chambers. This can produce a deadlock situation where a candidate with a reserve offer wants the chambers you are holding a firm offer from and vice versa.
Some chambers are more gracious than others in informing you of the outcome. One chambers telephoned me to say how sorry they were not to make me a firm offer. However, I should take consolation from the fact I was 13th on the reserve list. When I got home, I worked out that they offered 3 pupillages, had 16 people for second round interview, which made me their last choice. Another chambers rejected me accidentally and 3 never informed me of their decision, even after second round interview.


The newly-qualified process

The NQ process is shrouded in much less mystery with a recruiter acting as an intermediary. The outcome of the interview was often communicated on the same day.


Lessons learnt?

You can tell a lot from the farewell. Some make it obvious (“the second round will take place next week, will you be around?”; “would you be available to come into chambers before the second round?”; or “the food is excellent here”). Where I did well, interviewers tended to ask more practical questions, so in my case, they asked about the mechanics of transferring to the Bar. Interviews ending with “all the best with everything” and “good luck” were always bad news – why wish someone good luck if you are going to offer that person a job? One nightmare interview began by the chair outlining the interview format: I was to present; the panel would then ask questions before asking me if I had any questions. After my presentation, they said “no further questions” and escorted me out.
You can also tell a lot about a place from an interview. During second round interviews, you suddenly ask yourself whether, after all this effort, you actually want to work there. Some chambers invite second round interview candidates to a drinks reception to enable them to get to know chambers better (especially if they are likely to have multiple offers). However, the fact such drinks take place before any offers are communicated can make it seem like just another assessment.

I also learnt that there is very little you can do to prepare. I spent hours compiling dossiers on barristers who might interview me and collecting every article I could on personal injury. Very little helped (especially when the interviewer changed at the last minute with barristers being stuck in court). The Bar interviews remain similar to Oxbridge interviews with their emphasis on an ability to think “on the spot” and persuade. Basic knowledge of the law is required for the Bar and, for some sets, an ability to use a textbook like Chitty on Contracts under timed conditions. You can prepare more for NQ interviews as they focus more on your CV and experience and, unlike most chambers, will ask you “Why us?” giving you an opportunity to recite the firm’s website.


Bar v law firms: a comparison

My NQ interviews were almost entirely a general discussion, often with the firm telling me about themselves than vice versa. Compare this to two rounds of pupillage interviews, two different panels, and an unseen legal problem presented in real time like a conference (sometimes with assessed mini-pupillages and written work after that). To be fair, City law firms have to recruit (and retain) a lot more candidates than chambers. And at a trainee level, firms recruit for a much wider variety of areas and have vacation schemes (although many still apply for training contracts directly and vacation schemes can often be more about marketing talks and drinks parties). That said, City firms have millions of pounds at their disposal for recruitment, more of which should be spent on the interviews themselves and testing whether a candidate can actually do the job. This way there is less chance from the recruiter’s perspective of an applicant slipping through the net. From the applicant’s perspective, at least you know if you might actually be able to do the job.


The author is due to begin pupillage in October 2011


Memorable questions from both pupillage and NQ interviews

  • A six-year-old child falls over by the swimming pool on holiday in Spain. If you act for the child, whom can you sue and what questions would you ask?
  • Imagine the panel are aliens. Describe “a biro”.  (I’m told the way to answer this is to start broadly, think of the overall purpose of the object and narrow in, ie “Humans communicate; one of the ways in which they communicate is in writing; one such implement they use for recording this is a pen. One such pen is a biro; a biro is ...”)
  • What is something you are proud of and why?
  • What do you think about closing down some universities and giving the money to the remainder?
  • Discuss the pros then the cons of denying people treatment on the NHS (eg the obese, smokers).
  • Name three good and three bad qualities about yourself. (An old chestnut yet still difficult to answer. If you say something true, you are respected momentarily but then the fault is remembered. My sister suggested using skills to remove the personal element, for example “I can’t play the piano” but I found interviewers savvy to this tactic. Equally, scorn was poured on familiar attempts to turn seemingly bad qualities into good ones, such as “I’m just such a perfectionist, I have to stay up all night and work.”)
  • Argue for and against having an imposed quota of women in the Supreme Court.
  • Persuade the panel to go and see the Wimbledon Final rather than the World Cup Final; then vice versa. (I received this type of question in over ten pupillage interviews. Often the panel would select two hobbies from your CV and ask you to persuade them to take up one rather than the other, and then vice versa.)
  • What is your least favourite practice area of ours and why?  (This tests both your knowledge of the recruiter’s practice areas and ability to think quickly and diplomatically.  It is advisable to avoid a core area and end positively, for example “no doubt I would enjoy this area if I had chance to do it in practice”.)
  • As a member of a litigation department, how do you “sell” litigation to clients and win business when the idea is expensive and discouraged by  the Civil Procedure Rules?
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