Answering your toughest interview questions

Posted by Stephen Gurman on 1 February 2013

Commercial Awareness and Current Events: Answering your toughest interview questions

I’ve helped a number of students prepare for law firm interviews over the past few weeks, and it seems everyone is nervous about the exact same thing: the dreaded commercial awareness / current events questions. Many people seem to think that if they’ve not memorized the last six months of the Financial Times and The Economist, they’re doomed. But that’s simply not the case. Once you understand why employers ask these questions and what they’re trying to assess, you’ll see they are nothing to fear.

When an interviewer asks you a question about a recent deal or current event, she’s looking to answer three basic questions about you:

1) Do you have a good awareness of the world around you?

Law firms want students who understand that there is more to life and legal practice than simply memorizing black letter law. That being said, they are not expecting you to converse about economics and world affairs with the easy fluency of a BBC News presenter. If you are able to discuss the general plot of the firm’s recent major cases and deals and you can demonstrate the type of news awareness that would be expected of an educated person, you’ll be fine.

2) How do you think through a complex problem?

This is where a lot of students trip up. When asked for their opinion on a recent merger or government action, many students see only an opportunity to show off what they’ve learned in their law classes, running through every relevant legal issue they can possibly think of. But the interviewer is looking for a candidate who can effectively break down a problem and think it through holistically, taking into account matters beyond the strictly legal.

3) Can you think on your feet?

This is a theme throughout your interview, but particularly important with commercial awareness / current events questions. You’ve been asked something you couldn’t exactly anticipate. Can you put together a thoughtful response on the fly? The ability to think fast (and to do so in a coherent manner) will be enormously important throughout your legal career, and the interviewer wants to know this is a skill you have.

So, how do you answer these questions?

First off, be prepared. If a recent deal is discussed on the firm’s website, you’re going to want to be able to talk about it. Likewise, if your application asked you to write about a recent news story, you should be prepared to discuss it in more depth during the interview. In any event, you should be paying attention to the news for a couple of weeks before your interview so you have a basic familiarity with the important topics of the day. This does not mean reading the Guardian from front to back every night; it just means you should be familiar with the major stories, both front page and in the business section. And it doesn’t hurt to set up a Google News Alert for the firm a few weeks before the interview.

What if you have prepared and they still manage to ask about something you’ve never heard of? If you really have no idea what the interviewer is talking about, you’re going to have to ask, and you’re going to have to do it calmly and with confidence. How much will this hurt you? Well, it depends. If they ask about the Eurozone crisis and you’re forced to admit you’ve never heard of it, well, you might be sunk. If, however, they ask about something more obscure, they’ll likely appreciate the honesty and confidence you show in saying “I’m sorry, I must have missed that. Could you give me a little background?” Certainly this is better than wasting everyone’s time with bluffing. And if the rest of your answer goes well, it might not matter at all.

Now that you know the topic they want to discuss, how should you talk about it? First off, you want to make sure you’re responsive to the question they’re asking. If they specifically ask about the legal issues raised, you’ll want that to be your focus. If they ask you to comment more generally, you have a bit more freedom to play to your strengths, but you want to make sure you’re demonstrating the ability to see the big picture. What are the economic, social, and political implications? Is the question about a merger? Certainly there are legal issues, but perhaps the companies have different cultures that will make consolidation difficult. Unrest in the Middle East? There are humanitarian, economic, and political implications to consider. This shows you can think about important questions in a well-rounded way – an important quality for a successful lawyer.

Sometimes these types of questions aren’t even about a specific deal or event. They may sound more like, “Our client is thinking about opening a nuclear power plant in New Mexico. What issues need to be considered?” You would answer this question in the same way. Will US law allow it? What are the relevant environmental and energy regulations? Is the site suitable? Is there a market for the energy that would be produced? How much will it cost to get the project up and running? Will there be resistance from the local population? You could go on and on . . .

If you have done these things well, you will have easily met the interviewer’s third objective of determining whether you can think on your feet. Be clam. Project confidence. Make sure you’re responsive to the question being asked. Ask for clarification if you’re not sure what they’re asking. Take a moment to gather your thoughts if you need to, and then express yourself in a clear and coherent fashion. If you can do all of these things, you’ll give a great answer and will have conquered the most dreaded of all interview questions.

Good luck! And please see your Careers team if you have more questions about giving a great interview.

Topics: Jobs and Internships, law, work experience, Interviews

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