5 stupid questions (and 5 good ones)

Things that don’t exist: unicorns, Santa and a free lunch. Things that do exist: stupid questions. I know. Because I’ve heard them.

Stupid questions aren’t stupid because the answer is obvious- they’re stupid because it’s stupid for you to ask them. It is totally fine to admit the limitations of your knowledge. I quite happily told you all about my hazy geography. But that’s not to say you should flaunt this lack-of-knowledge at open days and law fairs. The Monaco fiasco is certainly not an anecdote I  bring up in interviews. So let’s just have a quick look at some of the questions you shouldn’t ask (and should probably Google instead).

1. You work in TMT? What does that stand for?

You should be familiar with the names of common firm departments. Also, if you are stuck, why not ask, ‘can you tell me a bit about what you’re working on at the moment?’ That way you’ll figure it out from the context and learn something in the process.
(FYI: it stands for technology, media and telecommunications).

2. So you do mergers and acquisitions?

Try not to ask questions that show you don’t know what the firm does. If it is a large commercial firm, they do. If it is a small personal injury firm…well, not so much.

3. Oh you’re a Partner in litigation? Could you tell me when the vacation scheme is?

Equally, don’t ask a recruiter about the ins and outs of closing a deal. Think about your audience and their expertise. No one likes to publicly admit they don’t know something, but we don’t all do each other’s jobs!

4. Could you tell me about something I could quite easily find on the recruitment website? Thanks.

Research skills are pretty important, and by asking this you demonstrate that you have none.

5. What makes this firm unique?

This is just really dull, and everyone has heard it asked a trillion times. I can even tell you what anyone will answer at any given time. “Well, obviously the work is second to none- we get to work with market leading clients and complete international deals. But I’d have to say, what really makes Norfolk & Chance unique is the atmosphere. It really is different from other firms- it’s friendly and not hierarchical…well, to a point, ha.” Honestly, I’ve heard it so many times. Don’t ask this.

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“Well, those are all my question ruined….thanks for that Rosie.”

What makes a good question?

There are two key elements necessary for coming up with a good question:

  1. You have to have a general understanding of the topic (whether it’s what a solicitor does or how a law firm works).
  2. You need to know what specific information you want to get from asking the question. (And ideally, why you want it).

Let’s have a look at question 5 (what makes this firm unique?) and why it falls short of being a good question.

1: You have to have a general understanding of how the firm differentiates itself from its competitors. Now if you had looked on Chambers Student you would probably have a good idea. If that’s not detailed enough, you could find their competitors by looking at Wikipedia’s list of firms, ordered by worldwide revenue. Then find the differences between the firm’s closest competitors by researching their clients, deals and annual reports. This question breaks the ‘if you can Google it, don’t ask it’ rule.

2: What specific information are you trying to get from asking this question? It inspires a really wishy-washy response. You don’t want to hear that the work is amazing- you want examples of amazing work to reference in your application. Everybody writes that they want to work for market leading clients on international deals, but this isn’t exactly impressive (unless you follow it up with specific, relevant examples).

So now that I’ve made it sound really complicated and hard, here are some questions to point you in the right direction.

1. Can you tell me how the work you have been involved in has changed over the last 5/10 years?

Obviously, don’t ask this to a trainee or a grad. recruiter. But if you ask it to a senior partner, you will likely find out about the way the legal sector has changed and the way their department has evolved. (This counts as research).

[Update: since publishing this post, someone has gotten in contact with me to say they asked this question at a firm event, and because it was one of the best 3 questions asked that day, it won them a bottle of Champagne. How’s that for a result?]

2. Can you tell me how you see your department changing over the next 5 years?

This is important to you because you might end up in that department. You can also decide if it’s the type of work you want to do. If so, use it to strengthen the firm-motivation section of your application.

3. What have you worked on recently that has been really challenging?

It’s good to find out what has been difficult for solicitors at the firm, because from this you can infer what skills and attributes are important to being successful. It then wouldn’t take much to link this example in your application to a STAR competency where you demonstrate these skills.

4. You referenced in your presentation you previously worked at X- what have you found to be the key differences between working there and at this firm?

Always always ask people about their careers. Everyone loves talking about themselves, so it’ll put you in their good-books. Moreover, it’s likely you will be asking someone who is ten, twenty years ahead of you in their career. They will probably have really interesting opinions on the practical differences between working in different firms and working in-house.

5. Can you tell me about what the firm/ your department does to stay competitive? How does it provide added value to its clients?

By asking this question you will get an insight into how the firm works as a business. You will also demonstrate the fact you know it has to retain clients and make money. And that, my friend, is commercial awareness.

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