Assessment Centres

Most commercial law firms use assessment centres as part of the training contract selection process.

So what will you actually have to do during an assessment day? While this does vary from firm to firm, you can usually expect a combination of a written case study, a group exercise or negotiation, verbal or numerical reasoning tests and an interview.

Below we aim to shed some light on the different elements of an assessment centre and share tips on how to stand out from the crowd while you’re in the thick of it.

Mental agility

A written case study will typically feature something linked to the firm’s business. For example, you might be given a true case scenario or a real client problem and be asked how you would advise the client.

But non-law students shouldn’t worry themselves too much about the legal aspects of the task. As a university careers adviser says – even if the problem does have a legal framework, it is unlikely that the firm is looking for deep legal knowledge. ‘They look for people who approach things in the right way,’ says a recruiter. ‘A lot of students get very concerned because they think they have to know the law off by heart.’

However, even if the task doesn’t have a legal basis, it will usually have a commercial slant and firms certainly look for commercial awareness. Our advice, therefore, is read, read, read! By regularly reading publications like (but not limited to) The Financial Times,  the business section of BBC News and legal press such as Legal Business, you will start to build up a clearer picture of the commercial world and how it operates.

Approach the case study logically, and make sure you follow the instructions properly. Write  succinctly and demonstrate clearly the reasons you had for having reached your conclusion.

Physical challenge

The group exercise fills some candidates with dread. But with enough practice and preparation there’s no reason not to go into a group task with confidence.

Above all, firms want you to show an ability to think on your feet. You need to display both confidence and negotiating prowess. However, a careers adviser at a university’s careers service cautions students to not talk themselves out of a job: ‘A student may feel they have to talk all the time, but this is not the case. Firms look for people who can work well in a team and thus help the whole group to achieve their task. This involves a blend of skills such as leadership, the ability to draw other people into the discussion, effective questioning and time management’.

Another important quality is enthusiasm; get involved and embrace what is asked of you. You will probably be involved in a group negotiation exercise of some kind. If such a thought makes you want to hide in a cupboard and weep quietly, then maybe the law isn’t for you. Or perhaps you should think about joining the university’s debating society, where you’ll get plenty of practice before you are asked to perform before a potential employer. University careers services and websites can offer guidance on likely scenarios, providing simple examples of the type of case study that might be given to you, either individually or to solve as a group. Enquire as to what help is available, and prepare.

Testing times

Verbal reasoning tests are widely used. They assess not only that you can write grammatically correct sentences, but also that you can understand the meaning of a written passage. ‘We get so many people with well-written applications and a good 2(1) that we need to find a way to make a distinction between them’, says one graduate recruiter. As the written word is an essential tool for any solicitor, what better way to assess future trainees than by using verbal reasoning ‘to find out whether candidates can correctly make deductions, assumptions and recognise inferences – all important in the work of a lawyer,’ says Clare Harris, associate director of legal resourcing at Hogan Lovells. There is an enormous number of different types of tests, some much more complicated than others. So does practice make perfect? ‘If a student knows they will be tested as part of the selection procedure, I would suggest that they have a go at some practice tests’, says one university careers adviser. ‘Not only will this give them an idea of what to expect but it will also allow them to practise completing the test under time pressure’.

Character building

Several firms include an informal section to their assessment day programme, but it’s still important to treat these relaxed parts of the day with a degree of formality and professionalism – you want to maintain the good impression you made at the start of the day. You’ll likely be taken on a tour of the office by a trainee and introduced to other members of staff, or have lunch with a group of trainees and associates. This is your chance to ask any questions you may not feel comfortable asking your interviewer(s), but of course don’t ask any invasive or inappropriate questions – your character is still (unofficially) being observed and assessed! Smile, look interested and engage in the conversation.

Selling Yourself

A standard part of the assessment day is the interview. Whether one-on-one or panel-style, you’re going to have to sit face to face with your potential new employer(s) and convince them that you are amazing! It goes without saying that you should have prepared for this element of the assessment day by practising answers to common interview questions and having examples ready for competency-based questions. With everything that you say, you want to make sure you are showcasing your competencies and professional personality. Also, ensure that you’re up to date with the latest happenings in the business and legal world so that you aren’t caught off-guard if a question relating to a recent business affair is asked.

To PowerPoint or not to PowerPoint…

Presentations also feature in many assessment day agendas. Sometimes it’s a component of the group exercise, other times it forms part of the interview section. At whichever stage it appears, it’s important to speak slowly and clearly, and use any preparation time effectively. You’ll want to show assessors that you’ve understood the task, carried our appropriate research and can communicate your thoughts and ideas confidently. It’s all about engaging your audience and showing that you know your stuff inside-out. Also be prepared for questions on your presentation at the end.

In-tray exercises

In-tray exercises are also a component of law firm assessment days. You’ll be given a selection of emails, letters, telephone messages, reports and memos (in paper or electronic format) and your task will be to go through all that’s in your in-tray or inbox and decide on a course of action. The task is meant to simulate what you will be faced with as a trainee at the firm, and is designed to assess your ability to prioritise tasks, judgement skills and time-management capabilities – all of which are heavily relied upon in the practice of law. You may have to write email responses or summarise reports, delegate tasks, make recommendations and provide advice. Can you keep a level head, make decisions and complete work to a high standard in a pressurised and time-constricted work environment? This test will find out.

Of course this will be a pressurised day and you are bound to be nervous, but within that try to relax and also be confident in your abilities!

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

Recruiters’ tips for preparation:

  • Do your homework! The better prepared you are, the more confident you will feel. Find out as much as you can about the firm, its ethos, clients, and recent cases.
  • Re-read your application. Be prepared to show that you have thought about why you applied to the firm and that you can describe why it appeals to you.
  • Expand your commercial knowledge by reading the business and legal press. If you’re asked about business deals, it’s no good saying that you’ve been out of the country. Read up on these things – the FT does a summary of deals at the weekend. It’s also good to have consistency of knowledge, not just what’s been going on in the last couple of days. And remember, firms don’t want to just test your memory – they want to see commercial application as well as awareness.
  • Visit your careers centre – it will have lots of information about assessment days and usually some sample tests.
  • Don’t be afraid to speak out in university seminars and tutorials. Start practising now and it will come more naturally in an assessment group exercise.
  • Contact the firm’s graduate recruitment team if you have any queries about times, location or dress code.
  • Plan your travel time and route to the assessment.

The day itself:

  • Dress for success: always dress modestly and smartly (a suit is best). Remember it’s a professional, business-like image you want to portray.
  • Always arrive on time, or preferably a bit early, to give yourself time to calm down/go to the loo etc.
  • Even if you get a bad feeling from one of the exercises, keep going and don’t give up – give it 100% throughout.
  • Don’t be afraid to be nervous – if you’re shaking you won’t necessarily be judged on it!
  • Body language and speech are important: don’t slouch or mumble and avoid verbal tics such as ‘like’, ‘you know’ and ‘sort of’. Try and maintain eye contact when appropriate. A firm handshake is best, but try not to break any bones.
  • Try to think on your feet and give honest, heartfelt opinions – if your heart’s not in it, you won’t shine.
  • Don’t be blasé – enthusiasm and a smile are key attributes and will get you a long way.