This series is long overdue, but recent requests for help from both friends and LinkedIn/blog connections have prompted me to finally write up some guidance on assessment centres. And because there are a few stages to them, I have broken them up into four parts so that they are easily digestible: the case study, the group exercise, the interview and the ‘green room’ time.
Assessment Centre: a process where an organisation can examine candidates by using techniques like interviews, group exercises, presentations and simulated work exercises. Created to recruit officers in World War I – they are widely used by solicitors’ firms in the recruitment process for vacation schemes and training contracts. They are also one of the most feared parts of the process – but I am here to tell you that there is no need to fear them, as long as you read this post carefully and follow the steps and advice laid out below! People think of it like something from The Hunger Games – but in my experience, that is far from the case.
I will start with a caveat (the best way to start any piece of advice…) I have only completed three assessment centres – two for vacation schemes and one for a non-law position with a FTSE 100 asset management company. Three isn’t a huge number and each were very different – however, I was lucky enough to be offered positions for all three, so I hope my musings will help a little. I have tried to make this advice generally applicable, even with the variances, although I do appreciate that firms often structure ACs differently, sometimes including a written exercise or other practical assessment.
The Case Study:
This is usually the scariest for people. But it need not be. The case study is usually a time-constrained task – normally presented to you as a stack of papers – with a mountain of technical, financial, legal and non-legal information. Usually to do with a business. You are asked to prepare a pitch/presentation/etc. to give to a senior employee in the firm (normally a Partner, if you are in a law firm) and are usually provided with all the necessary guidance and information beforehand. The Partners tend to like to grill you a little during your presentation, and test your thinking and your ability to respond on the spot. You can read about one of my experiences and some more tips here where I wrote up my experience of applying to Mishcon de Reya.
The key to excelling at case studies is: USE YOUR COMMON SENSE. Sounds easy, right? The problem is that common sense ain’t so common. So, if you use it – you’ll not only do well in the assessment, but you’ll also stand out from the crowd and be more attractive for it. Students and law firms throw around the phrase ‘commercial awareness’ like confetti at a wedding – but really it’s mainly just common sense by another name. Yes, it’s fantastic if you know what is happening in the business/commercial/legal world and the key cases and issues. But if you can’t apply your brain to a problem and engage with the real-world issues, using real-world solutions, while thinking holistically about the problems and the goals of the client you are advising, then your hours of reading the Financial Times, The Lawyer, The Economist etc. will be wasted.
I would recommend that you take a wide approach – think as broadly as possible during the time limit of your preparation about any issues. If you’re advising a business in financial trouble, don’t just think about the money – think about the employees, the stock or assets, the real estate, the competitors, the personal lives of executives. If you’re advising an individual then think about their personal circumstances, their family situation, their hopes and dreams, their risk appetite – not just the ‘textbook’ issues. Law firms don’t just want a lawyer – they want someone who is empathic, who is aware of business development, who understands the economic and political trends, who listens to their clients but may not always go for the popular or ‘looked for’ answer and someone who thinks strategically, while understanding risk factors. If you show that you can think in more than one dimension – then you’ll do very well.
Don’t be overwhelmed by the amount of information, or the limited time. Just make sure to read everything through once and start planning as soon as you can. If you are given a calculator, or big sheets of paper and a flip-chart – use them. It struck me as odd that in one of my case studies no-one else availed themselves of the flip-chart we were provided with. It certainly helped me present my advice more clearly and professionally when it was my turn to face the Partner. Don’t be so consumed by the task that you forget to be a little different, show some personality and get creative!
- Read everything through. Although be aware that you may not have time to read through the info more than once.
- Understand the aim of the exercise – who are you, what is your role, what have you been asked to do.
- Make notes or highlight key issues or goals as you read.
- Try and use all the information (and any tools/gadgets) you are given – don’t ignore or overlook key points.
- Have a structure for your presentation.
- Don’t be alarmed if you are questioned closely or challenged during your presentation.
- Think in 4D – don’t take a one-dimensional approach.
- If you’re asked to advise – ADVISE – have an opinion and be clear about why you have recommended that path and not another.
- Don’t be worried if you don’t understand finances or economic issues – law firms won’t be expecting everyone to know a balance sheet inside and out. Just be sensible, and don’t pretend you are a whizz if you’re not.
- Similarly, don’t be concerned if you aren’t a law student – again, law firms will expect that a large amount of candidates won’t have studied law.
- As above, law firms also won’t be expecting expert pitch-makers or presenters. Just do your best to keep calm and convey your findings clearly and you’ll do excellently.
- If you’re given a time limit for the presentation – stick to it.
- Breathe, smile and enjoy tackling a problem that you may end up facing in practice!
My advice in a nutshell is that, as long as you do a little research beforehand, be yourself and use your common sense – there is no reason to fear an Assessment Centre nor worry it will be your undoing. Like me, you may even surprise yourself and enjoy parts of the process!
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