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How to meet the knowledge threshold necessary for success in law firm interviews

It was late at night. I was hurrying to finish off some long pending work before I could go off to sleep. Someone buzzed and I, merely by chance, responded. The person needed help. He had a job interview with Trilegal.

Since I used to work there – he wanted me to help with some information about what to expect in the interview and how to prepare for it. That's very smart of him, I thought. Here was a person who was doing his homework before an interview.

I told him what kind of questions I had faced and what I thought he should do to prepare. Then I asked him – "When is the interview? Do you know the date yet?"

"Tomorrow morning, sir."

I could tell him a lot of ways to prepare, but none of them would have made him a great candidate for a law firm job interview overnight. From our conversation, it was clear that he did not even do the most basic things that one must do to prepare for a job interview – which is very surprising given that he was in his fifth year, in one of the better law schools. He must have expected to sit for job interviews in his final year – what did he do to gear up?

It is astounding as to how little information is available to law students about what to do to prepare for job interviews. People join law schools these days so that they can get a good job at the end of it. They slog through the years, polish their CVs, fight tooth and nail for CGPA – but when it comes to preparing for the crucial moment, the job interview which can make or break the law school dream – people behave carelessly.

Some people seem to think since they have secured good marks in exams, hence jobs are their birth right. Others have interned extensively, and expect a job on basis of that.

Wake up Sid!

Well, no matter what your name is, please wake up – the interview is there for a reason. It's a gateway – no matter what your track record is so far, if you are not liked by the gatekeeper, he has absolute authority to refuse entry to you. In fact, it is his job to turn away most people except the few who seem to be the very best available.

Guess what is common amongst all the people who get the good jobs? No, it's not high CGPA. Plenty of people with mediocre exam marks are chosen over people with stellar marks for top jobs, for very good reasons. This phenomenon becomes even clear when fewer jobs are on offer – due to market slowdowns – like what is happening now.

In fact, one partner from a top law firm told me in my interview that he is apprehensive of hiring toppers – they are usually too ambitious, and leave jobs sooner than those with lesser academic records. Recruiters also recognize that exam marks alone is not the hallmark of intelligence or capability – especially since many of them were not toppers themselves.

In benefit of the students who have done academically well – by looking at their CV a recruiter can tell that they have the discipline and required intelligence to work hard at a goal - which is very important for a lawyer in the making. However, there are many other factors that a recruiter wants to assess about your personality and ability – and if you don't prepare for the interview – you are unlikely to live up to the expectation.

People who get the jobs prepare ahead for the interviews, and the preparation often starts months ahead. Usually, those who perform academically well are the ones who know this best, and starts working on this aspect. Some of those who have not done so well so far in law school also prepare well, because they know getting a job is a whole new game and their performance in law school so far has only limited effect on it.

There are five things that recruiters, including law firm partners and legal officers of companies will throw at you, and getting a job depends on handling them well. What are those five pertinent things? We’ll discuss the knowledge threshold here, and I shall tell you the remaining four in the next email.

Recruiters will set a knowledge threshold

The matter of fact is that the law you are learning, even in the top law schools, is grossly inadequate for a job in a law firm or an in-house legal department.

In all probability, you have zero idea of how law is practised – you don't know the basic standards, you don't understand why clients pay lawyers, you don't know essential stuff about drafting, you don't know the difference between venture capital and private equity, all you know about mergers is a couple of sections from the Companies Act, you have only heard of the term project finance, you barely know what ECB stands for, and you don't even know how to register a copyright, a trademark or a basic private limited company. However, there is one thing expected from you and you better fulfil that expectation.

While your practical knowledge is probably nil, you better have the theoretical knowledge in place. You better know your contract law and Companies Act fairly well. You should at least know the basics of bankruptcy law and where it is to be found, and if you know more, they would highly appreciate it. You may not know the rules that apply to currency derivatives, but if you do not even know what is short-selling, or what a put option is – they would wonder what you were doing or whether you even bother to read the sections of a newspaper that a ‘would-be corporate lawyer’ would be expected to read.

Quite naturally, legal recruiters, especially top law firms, set a knowledge threshold – and if you can not meet that threshold, forget about your chances. This is the threshold that Trilegal sets through the written exam that it conducts before the interview. Other recruiters who don't conduct any exam still apply that threshold during the interview itself – as you are asked certain questions.

If you are asked the difference between hypothecation and pledge, or English Mortgage and equitable mortgage and cannot explain properly, consider the interview has ended. You did not match the threshold. These things are taught in 1st or 2nd year of law school, and considered to be very basic knowledge. They will still consider you if you cannot draft a technology transfer agreement (we were asked to draft the outline of one when we appeared for the Trilegal test) – but if you cannot answer questions about basic property law, that shows your legal education of 5 years in rather poor light.

Basic knowledge acquiring and refreshing exercise before interviews:

This should start at least 3 months before interviews are coming up. Brush up on the following subjects by reading basic text books. Understand and make mental note of concepts rather than memorising sections and case law as you did for exams.

1Law of torts - especially on matters like product liability and negligence. Also focus on the general principles like causation, remoteness of damage, etc.

2. Law of contracts – the basic principles as well as specific types of contracts like agency, guarantee, pledge, hypothecation, hire-purchase, partnerships etc. Also, knowledge of stamping and registration is important and often tested.

3. Companies Act – go through a textbook like Avtar Singh – almost everything is important. Focus on concepts like personality of a company, shareholders, how the companies are governed and managed, meeting and voting, Memorandum of Association and Articles of Association, duties and liabilities of directors and promoters, difference between public and private companies, IPO, different kinds of share capital and debt of a company, dividend, accounting, audit, mergers and amalgamation, oppression and mismanagement and winding up. Additionally, you should understand concepts like capital markets, venture capital, private equity, basics about governance of stock exchanges, role of various regulators and have general knowledge and issue based understanding of the landmark events and critical news items in these areas.

4. Insurance – Basic principles of insurance should be very clear. It is a comparatively small subject – no need to go into great details of case law, regulations or procedure.

5. IP and technology law: No one expects you to be an expert of patent law, but understanding of the basic concepts of copyright, trademark, passing off or patent is very important. Technology law is becoming a major practice area and more clients are technology companies these days – so recruiters greatly appreciate a somewhat technological bend of mind and a good understanding of the Information Technology Act and the various guidelines issued under it on matters such as data protection, intermediary liabilities etc. If you are applying for an IP law firm, obviously the threshold of knowledge required will drastically increase.

6. Property law – General principles of transfer of property, registration, will be great if you also know basics of stamp duty.

7. Civil Procedure Code and arbitration – Again, knowledge of sections or case law is not important. Knowledge of how Bhatia has been overruled is necessary, but insufficient for success in an interview. What is important is if you know the forums you can approach when faced with a legal issue. For example, a problem could require you to evaluate alternatives like going to an arbitrator, a special tribunal, a consumer forum or a civil court. If you want to challenge a regulatory order that is harming your client's interest where would you go? What would be your strategy? This is no rocket science, it just requires your thinking. You only need to know the basics to get there - not complicated case law or section numbers.

8. Tax laws – Lawyers spend a lot of time structuring commercial transactions in tax efficient ways. An interviewer does not expect you to have this knowledge, but he does expect you to be able to suggest what kinds of taxes a particular transaction could attract, even if you are not 100% sure if a tax will be applicable or not – he wants you to be able to name the kinds of taxes, so that he knows that if you had to evaluate a deal structure in office for a senior associate, you won't be clueless and you can do the necessary research to arrive at an answer.

9. Subjects that you claim expertise on – this is crucial. The interviewer may ask you which subjects you are good at (if you are applying for a law firm or in-house counsel job, please don't say family law or constitutional at this point. That is called hara-kiri in Japanese. Why do you want to join a corporate law firm if your passion is family law?! Some of my batchmates naively did this which cost them some cosy jobs). They may also look at your CV and pick out the subjects in which you have scored well. They are likely to grill you on these subjects, way beyond the threshold we spoke about – and this is where the difference between the people who get jobs and who don't usually becomes evident. This is the area where familiarity or an understanding about practical aspects of law can help greatly.

Most importantly, don't shut your mind in the interview. When asked a question, don't try to think "Where did I read the answer to this?" and fish out a ready answer from your mind. 'Think' afresh and apply your mind to the situation. A lot of people get engrossed in reading books, commentaries and case law. Preparing for an interview is different. If you had understood the concepts, your mind will give you direction, and alternative paths to resolve a problem.

An interviewer looks for your train of thought, he can ask you questions to find out if you are thinking in the correct direction. He does not expect you to bounce off answers (except when the question is directly testing your 'knowledge' of law) to problems or issues.

Here are four other things you need to prepare yourself for:

• They will look for consistency in your story
• They will ask you to demonstrate your claims
• They will test your temperament and patience
• They want to be sure that you are sociable

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