Interviews: Be prepared and be yourself

It pays to know what to expect at an interview, so make sure you do your research, advises Amy McLellan

Anyone with even a passing acquaintance of legal drama, be it Law and Order or Rumpole of the Bailey, will be aware that a good lawyer needs superb communication skills. It's not just the cut and thrust of the courtroom: lawyers also need to be able to impress potential clients, act as mediators and undertake complex commercial negotiations. So, whether it's your dream to be a solicitor or a barrister, potential employers will be looking not only at your academic record but also your ability to communicate clearly and effectively.

This ability will be tested at interview. This can be an intimidating experience: after years in the library and lecture hall your future career will now depend on your ability to perform under pressure in front of seasoned experts.

Don't panic: the golden rule of interview success is preparation, preparation and more preparation. First, do some thorough research into the firm and the individuals who may interview you; most law firms have websites offering potted biographies of their key staff.

Remember, however, that all candidates will have access to this same information, says Shams Rahman, an associate at Payne Hicks Beach in London and treasurer of the Society of Asian Lawyers. "Find ingenious ways to find other sources of information," advises Rahman. "Look at recent case law, check to see if they've presented papers at conferences or written articles for legal journals."

It's important to show a real interest in law. Read law reports and journals, apply for free or reduced price tickets for conferences where you can hear all the hot issues discussed and scan the internet for relevant developments. But tailor your research to the firm in question. "We often find candidates come along prepared to discuss the scrapping of legal aid, which is a big and interesting topic but is of absolutely no relevance to commercial firms," says Rahman.

As with most walks of life, law is becoming increasingly specialist and it pays to be well-read on developments in your particular speciality. It can reap real rewards at interview. One Manchester Metropolitan University student found a newly published consultation paper on the internet the day before an interview for a highly-prized pupillage.

"She read the paper on the train down to the interview and was able to speak about it confidently," recalls Joanne Lewthwaite, associate director of MMU's Bar Vocational Course. "Apparently none of the other candidates had been able to answer any questions on that paper and she got the pupillage."

It pays to know what to expect at interview. Is this a short half-hour panel interrogation or can you expect to be interviewed by a series of people over the course of a day? Some law firms and barristers' chambers now set exercises for candidates to complete on the day, perhaps a piece of advocacy or written work.

"View these exercises as an opportunity, not a threat," says Lewthwaite. "They just want to see what you're capable of."

You may want to make a courteous telephone call in advance to see what will be expected of you on the day, and also ask fellow students and tutors for their experiences of the firm. It can help to find a mentor to talk you through the possible pitfalls and give you the inside track: contact the The Law Society or Society of Asian Lawyers for details of their mentoring schemes.

It may seem obvious but make sure you know where to go and arrive in good time. Dress smartly and conservatively: employers are looking for people they can trust to take part in multi-million pound commercial negotiations or handle sensitive child custody cases, people who can inspire confidence and reassure anxious defendants.

Try not to let nerves get the better of you in the interview. "Relax by taking some deep breaths, focusing on just one person in the room and imagining they are one of your family members," advises Manchester solicitor Niaomi Roberts, 24.

If you find yourself clamming up or stammering when speaking in public you either need to start practising, or think about a different career. "As a lawyer you need to build a rapport with clients and speak confidently in public," says Niaomi. "If this is something you really want to do, you just need to bite the bullet."

The good news is that the art of public speaking is something everyone can master, it just takes plenty of practice. Law school is a good place to hone these skills: get involved in mooting (debating) competitions, ask tutors about advocacy coaching, stand as a student rep or do some pro bono work (legal work undertaken for free). Sit in on court sessions to see the experts at work; the best speakers never rush, know a well-timed pause can speak volumes and know their subject back to front.

Profoundly deaf from birth, Nihar Punj, 23, had to fight to convince potential employers that her hearing impairment wouldn't affect her capability as a lawyer. She agrees that practice makes perfect when it comes to making a good impression.

"Confidence and clear speech are valued assets and one way of gaining these is elocution lessons or to join a debating team," says Punj, who starts a training contract with city law firm Herbert Smith next September. "Any environment where you constantly have to think on your feet or put your point across convincingly will definitely improve your presentation skills."

Don't, however, put on an act. Employers want to get a flavour of your personality to judge whether you'll get on well with clients and colleagues. "Be yourself in the interview because people will find you out if you're trying to be someone else," says single mum Karen Cronin, 42, who has just started a training contract with a North London property specialist. "Anybody can get the academic qualifications but this is also a people business."

And don't be intimidated by out-of-date stereotypes of a profession dominated by white, posh, middle-aged men.

"There are numerous examples of people from very diverse and non-legal backgrounds who have made a great success in the profession," says Shams Rahman. "Where you have the will and the talent you will succeed."

Cronin, who left school with no qualifications, backs this up. "If I can do it, anyone can," she says proudly.

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