Training Contract Assessment Centres – An Essential Guide

Welcome to our Essential Guide to Training Contract Assessment Centres, designed to help you succeed at law firm assessment centres.

If you are looking for sample assessment centre questions and practice tests & exercise go here: Practice Assessment Centre Tests & Exercises

Why Law Firms Use Assessment Centres To Select Trainees

With so much written about interviews, it’s easy to assume they are the most important part of a firm’s recruitment process – the ‘make or break’ of securing your training contract. So why, then, do law firms use assessment centres? Are they a mere back-up? Another way of shaving down the application numbers, perhaps?

Assessment centres are composed of a series of pre-arranged tests and skill exercises often culminating in the interview itself. However, rather than viewing these individual exercises as the ‘poor relations’ of the final interview, high performance at every stage of the process is crucial to success. In fact, assessment centres offer a number of very real advantages to employer and potential employee alike that the interview alone can’t provide.

Their purpose can largely be seen as two-fold:

1) Providing further skills assessment

Interviews, when done well, are great. They offer a genuine opportunity to find out about a candidate’s suitability to a role and a company. But they are not without their drawbacks. It can be argued, for example, they favour a particular style of candidate – one who is good at building immediate rapport, good at responding to (often) fairly predictable questions and who doesn’t let initial nerves get the better of them.

Whilst these are useful qualities to present, it does provide a fairly narrow skills focus, and doesn’t account for many of the other skills that are actually needed in the job. The ability to work well in a team, perhaps. Or the high level of competence needed to interpret complex data and written information.

Aside from this, because of the nature of interviewing, they can also be very subjective experiences. So much depends upon the particular relationship between the interviewer and the interviewee. Results and outcomes can be turned on their head purely by putting a different personality in the interviewer’s seat.

The beauty of assessment centres is that they introduce a more objective element to the recruitment process. They place the candidate in situations where their abilities can be judged in a much fairer way, drastically reducing the chance of individual bias. And they do this whilst examining a much wider and realistic spread of skills, aptitudes and competencies.

This is undoubtedly the reason why more and more law firms have introduced specific assessment tests and exercises such as the increasingly popular Watson Glaser Test.

2) Providing a deeper insight into the firm

There is only so much you can assess a law firm on by walking into an interview room and shaking hands with one or two current employees. An assessment centre, however, offers so much more of an opportunity to really find out about a firm, its culture and its values, so that you are able to form a considered opinion on whether or not it is a good place – the right place – for you to start your career.

Most assessment centres will start with a company presentation, allowing you a deeper insight into their commercial activities whilst addressing subjects such as what it is really like to work for them. They will also provide you with the opportunity to liaise with other trainees (and possibly more senior employees), maybe over lunch or through a specific Q&A session.

Choosing a law firm is a very personal decision. And firms want to give you this opportunity to find out about them, as they want you to make the right choices. It is not within their interests to offer a training contract to someone who, ultimately, isn’t going to be happy working in their firm.

So while the thought of attending an assessment centre may sound daunting, consider the advantages that it brings you. Not only is it a showcase for your wider skills but it allows you to gather the information you need about the firm. It is essential, however, that you prepare thoroughly for every element of the day as interview performance alone will not be enough to secure your future within the company.

Performing Well At Assessment Centres

An invitation to a training contract or vacation scheme assessment centre is, no doubt, a very positive step forward. Your initial application has been read, has made the right impression, and the firm is keen to find out more about you. However, your training contract isn’t ‘in the bag’ just yet.

Having established just how important the assessment centre is (and remember, we’re talking about the WHOLE assessment centre – not just the interview) it’s worth focusing on some of the Do’s and Don’ts that are going to help you perform well on the day.

DOs

DO gather as much information as possible about the day and what it involves.

Sounds obvious, but knowledge really is power. If the firm hasn’t provided you detailed information on the schedule for the day or, if there is something you want to find out more about, then there is nothing wrong with phoning them up and asking. The very worst that can do is make you look keen and enthusiastic and it will help you focus your preparation on what really matters.

DO spend time preparing for each and every test and exercise.

It’s not all about the interview. You need to make sure you are performing to the best of your abilities in each and every test and exercise. Like with most things, it’s a case of ‘practice makes perfect’ so spend time familiarising yourself with and, if possible, practising examples of the tests and exercises you are going to face (see our Guide to Assessment Centre Practice Tests & Exercises). Not only will this help you complete your tasks better on the day but it will increase your confidence going into the assessment centre.

For the more subjective assessments such as the group exercise and the interview, it is crucial that you re-familiarise yourself with the values and competencies that the firm are looking for, and be sure to bring these out throughout the day.

DO show courtesy to everyone you meet

Big Brother is watching you. It’s not just the interviewers and assessors who will be making notes on your interactions. Remember that everyone you meet – from the receptionist who greets you when you walk through the door to the trainee that sits next to you during your lunch break – may well be asked their opinion on how you came across.

Courtesy should stretch to your fellow candidates as well. They may well be your competitors for the job but being affable towards them will not only help you make a more positive impact, but it will help you genuinely enjoy the day more.

DO be prepared to ask questions

Most assessment centres will provide you with at least one opportunity, aside from the actual interview, to ask questions to current members of staff. This may be following a company presentation or it may be during lunch or break-out session. It is advisable to prepare a few intelligent questions that you can ask at such points, in order to show enthusiasm and also to be memorable.

Make sure you’ve done thorough research on the firm beforehand so that your questions are appropriate. You may want to ask about aspects of their training programme, for example, or a question relating to their legal specialisms. Always be sure to ask questions that you wouldn’t be able to find out the answer to yourself by doing your own research.

DO be yourself and try to have fun

Easier said than done, perhaps, but view the day as a wonderful opportunity. And the best way to make the most of this opportunity really is to relax, to be yourself and try to enjoy the experience. Take in everything around you and be excited by the opportunity to discover more about the firm. Don’t try and be the person that you think they are looking for – just be you. You were invited to the assessment centre because they liked your application and believe you may have something to offer them so be true to yourself throughout the day.

DON’Ts

As important as what you should ensure you do at assessment centres are the things you don’t want to be doing.

DON’T be over-dominant

It is a complete fallacy that the person who talks the most always gets recruited. The assessors will be looking to see evidence of much more subtle skills throughout the day. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the better alternative is to say nothing at all. It really is all about balance here. Do enough to get yourself noticed, but not at the expense of other candidates. There will be nothing more off-putting to the assessors than a candidate who fails to let his or her peers speak or who bulldozes other opinions. It is far better to embrace team values than to show arrogance and lack of social-awareness.

DON’T stand out for the wrong reason

Granted, you want to stand out. It can be pretty hard going for the assessors to remember exactly who was who at the end of a long day, particularly if performance was mediocre at best. You need them to be able to remember who you were. But make it be because of an intelligent comment, a good performance or a genuinely likeable personality. Don’t be the person who is remembered because you turned up late, because you were dressed inappropriately, or because you disregarded other people’s contributions.

DON’T panic if an exercise goes pear-shaped

Of course, the ideal is to perform well in every aspect of the assessment centre. But things don’t always go to plan and that doesn’t mean that it’s game-over. You’ve got this far and giving up is not an option. Strive to do better in your next exercise – use it as a motivator and keep going. Stay calm and career on!

DON’T over-analyse your performance throughout the day

Following on from this, so often we are our harshest critics – we remember the things we did badly and not the things we did well. This gives us a distorted picture of how the event is going and this is not a helpful mind-set to adopt throughout the day. Avoid creating a negative focus and over thinking what you have done wrong. Leave the analysis until after the event. Over the days following the assessment centre write a list of things that went well, things that didn’t and what you would do differently next time. Use it to perfect your future performances.

Read our Guides to Individual Tests & Exercises & How to Practice Them

Matt Oliver

Matt Oliver

Matt is a former FTSE 100 in-house lawyer, an experienced legal career coach and MD of Trainee Solicitor Surgery. He provides entry level law careers advice to students and graduates through his writing and mentoring. He also offers private one to one coaching to those struggling with training contract, vacation scheme or paralegal applications and interviews. Find out more about Matt's 1-2-1 Coaching >>>>

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