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Interview Problems

May 24, 2009

RobotInterview1I do not come from a set of Chambers which has traditionally given candidates for pupillage an interview problem. As I understand it, however, such problems usually take the form of a topical question which the candidate has 20 minutes or so to consider. Legal knowledge is sometimes required but the test is not really legal. Rather it is a test of reasoning ability.

Given that I did two posts on interviews last year, and one when I first put the website up, it seems to me that I cannot have much helpful to say about interviews which I have not already said. But I may be able to help on the approach to the problems.

Firstly, the problem will not be one which has a right answer. It would not fulfill its function were that not so. Your interlocuters want to see how you reason. They probably also want to see how you reason under pressure. I suggest therefore that your first act should be to jot down the obvious arguments on each side.

Secondly, everyone will spot these obvious arguments. The issue then is twofold. Firstly, how do you present the obvious argument? Secondly, can you spot the argument that is not obvious?

Presentation needs to be barrister-like. That does not equate to your essay question in your finals. There you were showing how much you knew. Here you are being an advocate. As one of my pupil masters used to say to me, ‘some fool has decided that you should be paid for your opinion. The very least you can do is give it’. You need to determine which side of the argument you are on and be able to articulate why. Your presentation needs to acknowledge the force of the arguments on the other side, whilst saying why they are unpersuasive. It also needs to leave scope for the killer question you have not thought of, so for goodness sake do not be so adamant that you cannot retreat from your position. Lines such as, ‘only an idiot would conclude otherwise’ might be great in the debating chamber but they are instant death in court.

The best of way of presenting well – in my experience – is to try and anticipate the arguments against. You should try and link those arguments to your next point. That way your presentation will have some flow. It should also be polite and, if possible, should display a decent range of vocabulary. Please do not say ‘like’, unless you are saying ‘I like this’. I mean it about the vocab – start working on it now and, whilst you are at it, speak grammatically. This is not me being a fuddy-duddy, so much as a reminder that grammar evolved for a reason – namely that it means that what you say makes sense.

As to the unforeseen arguments and the less obvious arguments, you are to some extent reliant upon your basic intelligence. But, as a hint I can offer this. Ask whether the situation you are being asked to consider parallels anything in your experience about which you know a good deal. If so, then try and think laterally. Problems do duplicate themselves and quite often the arguments will readily transpose from one area into another. If you can pull that off then your interviewing panel should be impressed by your breadth of knowledge and your reasoning skills.

Penultimately, reality check. Your analogy will not work if it is plainly laboured. Then it will look like you’re trying too hard. Your argument may have that killer phrase, but that will not help you if the argument itself is nonsense. There are no prizes for taking a wilfully obscurantist position. You are being tested on your persuasion and your judgement. Don’t paint yourself into a corner.

Finally, trim. Your argument should have 3 main points and 2 subsidiary points or analogies. More is too much (arguably even this is too much) for the time you have. Select your best points and make sure they get home. If you have time for more then fit in the other things.

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. anon permalink
    May 25, 2009 7:58 pm

    Grammar – interlocutor is probably more correct than interlocuter. Classical Latin usually wins out, like – know what I mean …

  2. james c permalink
    May 26, 2009 10:34 am

    Anon-you are too cruel. We must all try and speak proper, like.

  3. May 26, 2009 2:10 pm

    Anon – quite right. Less speed and better re-reading required…

  4. Lucy permalink
    May 28, 2009 5:14 pm

    A subject close to my heart – I consider myself a bit of a problem question veteran – having had the fortune (or misfortune) of doing 11 on my way to a pupillage!

    In my experience, problem questions are there to test your advocacy ability. You are in effect giving a submission as if in court. You will get interupted, prodded, challenged and generally pushed away from your structure. The key is how you react. Just like in court.

    The principle is the same whether you are arguing about a piece of new case law or whether Big Brother has ruined the young people of today. The subjects are different, the purpose is not.

    Also, structure by numbers works wonders! I have three points, my first point is…. It sounds ridiculously basic, but will show the panel that you have thought about your argument and have structured it accordingly.

    I don’t intend this to sound patronising – just speaking from my experience. I found I was a lot more successful when I started to think about presenting my answers as I would any piece of advocacy on the BVC or in court. Good luck to anyone with interviews coming up!

  5. lawminx permalink
    May 29, 2009 3:45 am

    I had some tough interviews last year, but only one centred around a fictional legal problem – which pertained to Occupier’s Liability.It felt very odd giving my thoughts on the issue, because I was met with complete and utter SILENCE – not a comment, not a barrack or an attempt to sway or distract me in the slightest on the part of the committee, which was most unsettling. They just took a lot of notes. I was not the only candidate to have undergone this scenario. Most strange!

  6. james c permalink
    May 29, 2009 1:06 pm

    Lawminx,

    I believe such an approach is common in Japan, although the silence can be interspersed with some bowing.

  7. lawminx permalink
    May 29, 2009 6:42 pm

    @james C : It was AWFUL – I think they must have been testing the Putative Pupil Squirm Factor!!!

  8. May 31, 2009 8:50 pm

    @lawminx unfortunately the only proper strategy was to remain silent during the interview. By speaking you displayed weakness and a lack of self-confidence. Did you see their lips curl in contempt?

    That said, had I been on the panel I would have offered you a pupillage and tenancy on the spot.

  9. lawminx permalink
    June 1, 2009 5:29 pm

    @geeklawyer – I dont get it; they invited me to offer an analysis of Occupiers Liability and didnt say a THING back! Was I supposed to do something shocking to grab their attention? Was I THAT boring?!?!
    Thank you kindly for saying that you would have offered both pupillage and tenancy on the spot – can I swop you onto various and sundry pupillage committees and hope that they dont notice one of their number is missing? Of course, it might be hard to disguise you if the committee is all female – I am not sure you have the legs for a skirt!

  10. Legally Ginge permalink
    June 4, 2009 5:31 pm

    I had an interview once, minx, where the officious sh*t sitting in the middle of 3 was looking the other way and actually rolled his eyes as i was speaking. That was pretty cringy.

  11. lawminx permalink
    June 5, 2009 9:58 am

    I think that interviewing panels do that sort of thing on purpose ,Ginge, just to see how you respond. It’s not very pleasant, but its all part of the process…….

  12. June 5, 2009 11:03 am

    lucy – i will not attempt to substitute my inexperience for your experience, but i hate the ‘i have 3 points’ school of advocacy. i hate hearing advocates using it in court, i hate it when people moot and i am unable to force myself to use it. i guess advocacy is a personal thing. i do not for one moment disagree with the need for structure above all things. it is the skeleton which will keep you from wandering off and your audience from losing the thread.
    please forgive my temerity in quibbling with this (and this alone) in your comment.
    and of course given that you got pupillage and i am still seeking it, that may say something about the better method…

    the thing that baffles me about interviews is all the horror stories – i have never yet had an interview that was other than kind, courteous and positive with interviewers wanting to give me the chance to show them how good (or not) i was. sometimes by being probing and provocative but always polite and professional and never with a hint of bullying (mind you – i’m looking forward to the day i get that bullying interview because i adore that sort of rough play).
    to name names, pump court chambers recently struck me as incredibly friendly and perhaps the least up-themselves people i have met. kudos to them.

    • Gill Surfleet permalink
      July 13, 2012 5:39 pm

      Bit random this and many years on, but I have a first round interview at one Pump Court, was that the Pump Court you were referring to? Any tips on format etc. Thanks!

  13. Anony Non permalink
    June 10, 2009 3:38 pm

    Here’s some reminiscences and handy hints picked up from 15 first interviews and half dozen second interviews on the way to my numbers coming up in the great pupillage lottery:

    When dealing with the legal problem or current affairs debate type questions, don’t go out on a limb or make yourself a hostage to fortune by being too unequivocal. In short, anticipate the arguments against you and always leave yourself an escape route.

    Don’t be intimidated. Be robust. Stand up to the barracking. Try to accomodate the arguments they raise against you whilst retaining some of your original thesis. However, if you are backed completely into a corner, and have little choice to concede, don’t flounder or look down shamefacedly at your shoes, but admit defeat with as much with as much good grace and humour as you can muster and move on.

    Sometimes panels will try to unsettle applicants by displaying what I can only describe as unconventional behaviour. For instance, I had an interview where one member of a panel of two completely stonewalled me and was what I can only describe as passive aggressive for the first half of the interview, only to then come to life and start cracking jokes in the second half. Very disconcerting.

    Panels frequently engage in a bit of the “good cop/bad cop” routine but it is important to still try and engage with the bad cop when giving answers.

    Legal problem questions frequently seem to be deliberately designed to either unanswerable or simply so long and complicated that it is impossible to come up with a proper answer in the time allowed for preparation. Clearly, the intention is to take candidates a long way out of their comfort zone deal in order to see how they cope under pressure. I once encountered a problem that had, IIRC, 6 or 7 parties and a similar number of causes of action of several different types. There were also sub-issues of limitation and capacity/minority. Candidates were given 30 minutes to prep this question AND another, more general question (IIRC, should legal professionals sit on juries or something similar). Anyhoo, I ran out of time, had big holes in my legal arguments (I completely missed the limitation points) and generally thought I’d flunked it, but they asked me back. I can only assume this was because I was cool under fire and not because of my penetrating analysis of the legal issues involved.

    Keep abreast on current affairs by reading at least one broadsheet newspaper per day, as well as The Economist, The Week and other similar periodicals.

    Refresh your memory on the areas of law you are likely to encounter at the interview. This means two things.

    (1) Read the legal press to get a heads up on the big legal and professional issues of the day. Don’t just read the articles, also read any big cases, consultation documents or reports etc. It sounds like a lot of work, and it is, but it is worth it.

    (2) Revise the areas of law in which Chambers specialises eg: for common law sets – contract, tort and, if relevant, criminal. Commercial/chancery sets – equity and contract. And so on.

    This sounds trite, but present yourself properly. I have seen plenty of scruffy, sweaty applicants in waiting rooms and I doubt they were successful. Look the part, sound the part, act the part and eventually you will get the part.

    I’m sure I’ve missed things out, but I need to go and do some paying work now…

    A

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