Thinking over your options – well-prepared or uncommitted?

In amongst the fallout from the football club I support dispensing with the services of yet another manager recently, I read a tweet in my Twitter timeline which caught my attention. One of the lawyers I follow was talking to a law student who had mentioned the importance of having a backup plan, and that he was looking forward to a graduate careers fair in the summer. Barry, a partner in a City firm, gave the following reply:

I can see why it’s a great question to ask from his perspective – put the candidate on the spot and see how they react. But as an interviewee, how do you react?

Law is a career that, whilst not on the same level as medicine for an early decision and a strong, goal-oriented focus, requires its aspiring members to show a commitment and drive for the profession. It’s a brilliant tactic from interviewers to word the question in this way, as it makes it sound as though the quality that the firm has probably asked you to exhibit on your application form – a complete dedication to law – might be a blot on your copybook.

If I had been asked that question in an interview, a million things would have gone through my mind at breakneck speed. What kind of answer do they want? It appears there are three broad types of answer to this question, each posing their own questions to the interviewee:

- Is it legitimate to answer that you have never considered any other career? Or is that being unprepared and unrealistic and likely to result in a disappointed look from the interviewer?

- If you have thought about what might happen if you fail to get a training contract, but only fleetingly, does that show a half-heartedness and lack of conviction? Will this reflect badly on you in the interview?

- If you have seriously considered the possibility of needing to go down another career route, does admitting it risk coming across either as a lack of faith in yourself or as not being fully committed to law? Is that career route linked with the type of law you’re hoping to practice, such as banking for an aspiring corporate lawyer? Does that make it acceptable? What if you’ve considered becoming a circus performer or some other legally unrelated career? Does that compound the problem?

As an interview candidate, you are constantly thinking about the image you are presenting to your interviewing panel. To be worrying about whether the single-mindedness you thought was a strength of yours actually seems foolhardy and naive, or which of the three answers comes across best, can throw even the best candidates.

I said to Barry that I thought it was a very tricky question, and asked whether the answer “I’ve only ever thought about being a lawyer” was a good one or not. He replied as follows:

No sensible candidate simply tries to work out the percentages for every question, attempting to second-guess what the ‘right’ answer is in the eyes of the interviewer and the firm. But there is certainly a degree of working out how to present answers to reflect you at your best.

Yes, the interview is designed to test the skills that the candidate would require for their career, of which thinking on one’s feet and handling tough questions are most certainly two. But in my opinion, a question designed in this way is certainly clever and not particularly conducive to seeing the best of candidates, even if it stops short of being “evil” as Barry first asked.

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About Ashley Connick
Ashley Connick is a trainee solicitor at an international law firm. For a full profile, please visit the "About the Author" section of the blog.

3 Responses to Thinking over your options – well-prepared or uncommitted?

  1. Milly says:

    I’ve asked this question of prospective pupils. One lass told me that even if she ended up being a paralegal with rights only before a DJ in chambers, she was going to advocate, and represent clients somehow. Told me an awful lot about her.

  2. Alice Morrissey says:

    In the current job market, I think it is vital that potential trainee solicitors think long and hard about alternative career choices. Competition for training contract places is extremely tough and even when the golden snitch is caught, there may be a long wait before the training contract commences – this time needs to be used carefully and for most of us, needs to provide the funds to allow us to live – it may also be the only chance we have to try something different before a long career as a solicitor. I am biased as I have a few years experience in non-legal roles and hope to qualify as a solicitor in the next few years but I do believe that rather than showing a lack of commitment, working outside of the legal profession can have a very positive impact on a legal career. There is no better way to understand the needs, priorities and working culture of your potential clients than having spent some time working in their industry. Additionally, many skills and qualities required by solicitors such as excellent organisational skills, the ability to cope under extreme pressure and the ability digest huge amounts of information in a short space of time are all transferable skills which do not apply exclusively to the legal profession.

    I simply do not believe people when they tell me there is no other job which they could imagine themselves doing – to me, this shows a lack of imagination. There is a whole world of opportunities out there! When it comes to the reasons people pursue a law career – justice, a genuine passion for applying the law to practical situation, an appetite for business etc, there are so many different ways in which these interests can be satisfied and skills developed outside of the legal profession. Legal jobs are not easy to come by these days so being creative and adaptable is more important than ever. Law students also need to face up to the fact that once they’re in, a legal career, like any other career, might not actually be as glossy as the brochure made it out to be or might not actually suit them and who knows where life will eventually take us? All this makes thinking about other options early on a pretty wise move in my opinion.

  3. Good post as usual. As I said in my Twitter post with many interview questions it is not always about the answer itself but rather about the delivery, reasoning and thought processes behind it. When I interview I am looking at the depth in any answer. Anyone can prep for an interview by reading the FT and quoting back the leading opinion pieces. But with a bit of probing and discussion it quickly becomes clear who actually understands the issues and who is simply repeating the information. We look for people who can think, analyse and see the other side. We take trainees from all backgrounds including those with experience in other areas. This is often seen as a plus. Yes we want to see a true commitment to law as a career because we do not want to spend literally hundreds of thousands of pounds training someone for them to quit law. The trainees we recruit could be the future of the firm. Getting the right ones is extremely important.

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