Panel Interviews: what are they and how should I prepare for them?

Panel interviews, which typically comprise of two or more interviewers in the room, can be daunting. As a former panel interviewer myself for senior legal executives, I fully understand the trepidation of facing a series of quick-fire questions in such an artificial environment.

The legal profession is fiercely competitive and there’s no doubt that it’s harder for prospective employees to build a rapport with more than one interviewer. That’s why preparation is key. Here at Executive CV Services we work with a broad range of legal professionals from senior managers right through to senior partners of multinational legal firms.

Whilst I’m speaking from the perspective of securing a legal executive position, these are general principles which apply across industry sectors. The important thing to remember is that panel interviews are different to a usual interview situation, and so it makes sense to practice and work on your technique.

Here are six top tips to identify some of the areas that you should think about:

1. Build a rapport

It’s important to create a friendly rapport but, at the same time, to remember that it is a formal process. It therefore goes without saying that part of what is being assessed are your interpersonal and communication skills. So it is imperative to take your time and try to establish rapport.

Panel members usually engage in small talk at the start or end of the interview and they do this for two reasons. Firstly, to put you at ease. And secondly interviewers often give you an opportunity to show them that you understand the importance of small talk in establishing a connection with your prospective employer. If you can slip a hot legal topic which has been in the news into a relaxed general conversation, then and all better. Remember that this is a chance for you to show that you get on easily with other people. It shows that you are more likely to be collaborative in your approach to work and that you are a team player.

So rapport is important. That being said, you should remember that panel interviews are formal and structured processes rather than casual conversations. This means formal handshakes, smiles all-round and a smart appearance

2. Interact with every panel member

It sounds obvious but this is an often overlooked area. Whilst there will be one panel member who “chairs” the interview itself, it’s a bad move to purely concentrate on one person on the panel. Instead, I would advise that you focus on one panel member at a time and ensure that you direct your responses to each of them at some stage, maintaining eye contact and showing real enthusiasm in respect of the question being asked.

Ultimately every member on the panel will have a say in their assessment of your overall performance. So it makes sense to make a positive impact with each one. Any of the panel could form a strong opinion about you.

Remember that 99% of candidates being interviewed will have the same academic credentials and practical legal expertise. What you need to do is show how you stand out – head and shoulders above your competition – and demonstrate the tangible business benefits you bring to this particular law firm.

A natural way to answer questions is to initially direct your response to the questioner, but then at some point in your answer, achieve eye contact with the other panel members. This will make each panel member feel that you have engaged with them when giving your answer. It will also give you the opportunity to gauge how you’re doing by assessing their body language.

3. Stay calm

It goes without saying that you should keep your nerve. Panel interviews can be intimidating and feel more like an interrogation than an opportunity to build rapport with the prospective employer. In this kind of situation it’s more important than ever to keep your nerve.

Ensure that you give yourself time to think before you answer the next question so that you can deliver a structured and well thought out answer and get back on track.

4. Find out who is on the panel in advance

Do find out in advance who will be there as this will give you a clue as to the questions that will be asked. Panel interviews are usually made up of the business owner, senior partner/manager, a subject matter expert (to advise on your technical levels of expertise) and HR (who will looking at your people-facing and soft skills and ensuring that the selection process is fair).

It makes sense to research the panel before the interview to work out the likely agenda and prepare answers in advance. By doing this you are more likely to prepare for the types questions that you may be asked and able to satisfy their particular requirements.

In my own experience, I was always more impressed if prospective employees had researched specific legal deals and/or cases that we had been involved with. Where a candidate had researched over and above a mere news headline, and discussed the legal principles of that particular matter, this always stood out.

I am also always impressed when a prospective employee has taken the time to prepare their own questions in advance for every panel member.

5. Bring multiple copies of your CV

Typically your interviewer will have a copy of your CV, cover letter and/or application form in front of them. In theory this will be the case for a panel interview too.

In practice however, you often will find that the interview panel share copies of your documents between them. So it’s always good idea to bring multiple copies of your CV – it shows the panel that you a forward planner and organised.

6. Thankyous

Thank every panel member at the end of your interview. It’s good practice to do so.

Even if your interview did not go as well as you’d hoped, you can throw away a good impression by not thanking the panel once you know that your interview is over.

This may seem challenging with a large panel, but in some respects it’s even more important to smile and thank every member individually before you leave. It shows respect and that you understand that each panel member is contributing to the overall interview process and outcome.

Written by

Leading career sector writer and law firm former partner. Rachel is also one of the consultants here at ExecutiveCVServices.

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