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Legal In-House Roles: Interview Questions and How to Tackle Them

In this article, we speak to Bryn Thomas (solicitor and independent legal consultant with many years’ experience as an in-house lawyer) who offered his insight and top tips regarding 7 Commonly Asked Interview Questions, below:

What can you tell me about the role you are applying for?

"On the face of it, this is an innocuous question, but it teases out how well candidates are prepared for the job. I am always surprised how little some candidates know about the job they have applied for, even after they have discussed it with their consultant, seen a job spec and (hopefully) researched the company.

The answer will give the interviewer insight into how a candidate is approaching their search and it is always the very first question I ask.

Work with your recruitment consultant to get as many details as possible from the prospective employer, explore the job spec in detail, and be prepared to speak to how your experience links to the specific role and why it interests you (see below)."

What are your strengths and weaknesses?

"Not a hugely insightful question, as candidates are unlikely (hopefully!) to say that they are lazy and do not get on with people, but nonetheless a very common question; the best tip is to assume you will be asked this and prepare accordingly with some well thought through, coherent answers.

Strengths

Candidates will need to strike a balance between a confident, authentic reply and presenting as arrogant. The best way to do this is to avoid reciting a list of adjectival descriptions of

your strengths and focus on some examples of things you did which demonstrate positive characteristics and outcomes. Examples could include times when;

  • you took on something which was outside your remit (the strength being your willingness to step in, a key, often overlooked, strength)
  • you negotiated a contract and completed within a critical timeline
  • you established an excellent working relationship with a difficult client or at least one who resists interference from lawyers (good customer relationship/client development)
  • you explained difficult legal concepts to a client which altered their initial proposed course of action (communication skills)
  • you saved money for a client or simplified a proposed course of action (budget awareness/simplification).

Weaknesses

Early in career (EIC) candidates will likely have some additional training needs in technical areas - if that is the case then explain these knowledge gaps and what assistance you may need; it will help everyone. If you are not particularly good at Excel (another somewhat stock answer) then say so, there is no problem with that, but go the extra mile and demonstrate you’re taking measures to improve (i.e. you are taking a training course on it or reading up on it and practising (NB the non-nonsense detector though)).

In general, although it may seem counterintuitive, an experienced (or at least empathetic) interviewer will most likely appreciate a show of vulnerability. It can often be seen as a shortcut to establishing rapport. Take comfort from the fact that there is no such thing as a perfect candidate.

Work with your recruitment consultancy to hone this as the interviewer’s non-nonsense detector will be out on this one."

What is your style of working?

"Remember that, in most cases, the interviewer is looking to appoint a long-term team member and is seeking an impression not only of the candidate’s technical skills but also of how they will gel with the existing team.

Tip: Instead of trying to describe your style with adjectives, give some examples of where you helped a colleague or client when they needed it, and what happened as a result of your input.

A stock answer is for a candidate to describe themselves as a “team player”. This is not a particularly interesting reply as interviewers would expect this to be the case.

A more impactful answer would be to explain that you enjoy working as part of a team, not only to give, but also to receive help when needed. This can lead to a time when you helped someone (see above) and you can then recount a time when you asked for help.

A well-worked example can make this a very powerful answer, indicating an emotional maturity which interviewers should appreciate. Again, this is something you can work with your recruitment consultant to hone."

Why do you want to move in-house?

"If you are a private practice lawyer looking to move in-house for the first time, it would be surprising if you were not asked this question. The stock answer is for candidates to say they want to be “closer to the business”, however that does not really advance the conversation.

With such a career-defining move, you would ideally explain your reasoning with a more fully developed answer. Use examples, such as:

  • completing a particularly enjoyable secondment;
  • undertaking prior Paralegal work in-house; and/ or
  • having a previous career within a relevant commercial environment then you can elaborate on that."

Why are you looking to leave your current job?

"The interviewer may have some background on this from the recruitment consultant, and this is a question to ask yourself many times before you start to look around! And beware, an experienced interviewer will have the non-nonsense detector primed on this one.

(i) Is it because you do not like your boss or some other aspect of your current employer? A very sensitive one - the best tip here is to explore this deeply and discuss with your recruitment consultant, to get to the bottom of why that is the case and how to coherently explain your position in an interview setting.

(ii) Are you not gaining access to clients/ key customers and find yourself “back office”? This is a relatively common situation for EIC candidates, and you need to explore why this is happening.

Is there limited career development in your current team (“headroom” can be an issue in long-established small teams and in (increasingly common) flat structures where the pyramid of advancement is short and wide. It may be that career development is not a priority for your employer, which is misguided, but not unusual).

Whatever the case, attempt a discussion with your current employer, it may be that they would be completely open to exploring this with you, there is certainly nothing to lose in asking if you are thinking of leaving in any event.

(iii) Aligned to the above, a common reason candidates give is that they are ready for a “step up”. Which is represented in the job they are applying for and which is not available to them at their current employer. Although very often legitimate, my only comment on this is that most people feel this all the time wherever they are in their careers!

To make your reply as cogent as possible, give some examples showing that not only do you want a step up but that have demonstrably performed at that level. For example, you may have covered for someone senior during their holiday/sickness, worked on a project which might normally be undertaken by a more experienced counsel etc. Good examples will show the interviewer that you are capable of higher-level work.

(iv) Are you being asked to specialise too EIC and would prefer to maintain a broader role? Explore this with your recruitment consultant and with your existing employer. It may be that the answer is exploring this more fully with your existing employer rather than leaving; assuming you enjoy working there, it is always worth asking whether you can change the scope of your role. Employers do not want to lose people and enlightened ones will seek to accommodate you if possible.

(v) If the reason is for family matters, relocation etc, these are perfectly reasonable and best just to be open. A genuinely understandable reason is a win for the employer."

Why does this sector interest you?

"Another seemingly bland question but it has hidden depths. Stock answers go something along the lines of “I have always been interested in Insurance/Construction/Whatever the Sector”. But this is a circular answer it does not address why the candidate is interested in the sector. Powerful answers usually have a story attached to them, a logical or understandable connection. For example:

  • Parents/friends in the industry;
  • Gamers wanting a role in e-sports, or hobby coders seeking to join a tech company;
  • A personal interest in conservation leading to seeking a role in the green/ renewable sector;
  • Graduate studies unrelated to law but to the sector e.g., science graduates seeking roles in sectors compatible with their first degrees.
  • The no-nonsense detector will be out on this one."

Why are you interested in joining this company?

"Arguably the question which can give the interviewer the most insight. It attempts to gauge if the role the candidate is applying for is special for that candidate, or if it is just another role for them, and thus teases out enthusiasm and commitment.

Show some insight into the company e.g., does it have a strong pro bono/charity programme which is compatible which looks impressive to you and something you would like to get involved with? Does it have a leading reputation; if so, why- quality products, a good place to work, reputation for ethics etc.)?

It could be something as basic as being attracted to its innovative advertising; that is fine, the interviewer will be seeking to differentiate candidates who just want a job from candidates who want a job with their particular company.

In many ways the answer is secondary, it is the story behind it which is interesting to the recruiter in evaluating your enthusiasm (and long-term potential)."

 

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