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Clifford Chance Assessment Centre Guide

by Hristian Markov
Reading Time: 15 minutes

The Clifford Chance assessment centre is the same for all their schemes and direct TC applicants. It consists of a competency interview (usually 45 minutes-1 hour) with a Senior Associate and a Case study interview (for which you get 1 hour to prep and it typically lasts 1 hour- 1 hour 15 minutes) which will be with either 1 or 2 partners (the number of partners in your interview doesn’t make any difference so don’t read too much into it). Make sure you’ve thought about questions to ask the interviewers at the end! They don’t have to be technical or impressive – I always enjoyed asking more about the interviewer’s time at the firm/career path/why they moved to the firm if they didn’t train there/why they’ve stayed so long if they have been there since their TC.

The way that CC decide who gets offers from the assessment centre is that there are a range of criteria, each marked out of 5, that you are assessed on during your assessment centre with CC. The way they score this is that 3/5 is the level they would expect a vac schemer to be and 5/5 is the level that they would expect one of their current trainees to be (e.g. in relation to technical knowledge). This document will walk through both the interviews pulling out what these criteria are, and saying what the firm wants you to see. This insight is taken directly from speaking to the CC grad rec team and partners at the firm during my experiences there and during feedback sessions.

 Competency Interview

  • From the applicant’s perspective, you have to remember you are starting with a clean slate. The Senior Associate interviewing you only knows your name. Now is not the time to be modest you have to make sure you shout about all the experiences you want them to know about and really sell yourself. However, the fact it is CV blind can also play to your strengths for example, if you did lots of different mini pupillages at a Barristers Chambers and were worried that the interviewer might see this as a lack of dedication to a career as a commercial solicitor, just don’t mention it! And they’ll never know any different!
  • One of the main criteria the interviewer is scoring you on here (out of 5) is your dedication to a career in corporate law. They probe this question in ways that are not always exactly evident because they want to see that you make the links back to show your passion for the type of work CC does without being explicitly asked about it.
    • An example of this is ‘tell me about a news story you’ve been following recently’? – with this answer, they’re looking to see that you have a self-driven interest in the specific type of work CC does. It doesn’t matter what sector you follow, here you can follow your genuine interests (examples include, renewable energy, pharmaceuticals, retail etc.). What does matter is that the story you are talking about is directly related to the firm’s main breadwinning department. Whilst CC is a full service firm, they don’t want to hear about your passion for tax or employment law here. Focus in on the main departments of the firm e.g. banking, M&A, project financing.
    • Another example of this is when they ask ‘why CC’? Here, they don’t want to hear you talking about the firm’s pro bono work and why that’s the reason you want to work for the firm – this work isn’t their main focus and it doesn’t earn them money! Focus in on their main sectors and why the specific type of law they do appeals to you.
  • Another one of the criteria, which relates to the last question of ‘why CC’? Is your dedication to a career at CC specifically (again marked out of 5). The firm is aware this is probably the hardest one to answer, especially now that there is a lack of opportunity to come and see the firm in person and meet people. The Senior Associate interviewing you is all too aware that you are probably also applying to all the other Magic Circle, and probably some US, firms as well. However, for the purposes of this interview, you have to forget about those firms and put across why you want to be at CC. What they are looking for here to ensure you score highly is that you have done in depth research that goes beyond just reading the firm’s grad rec site and the chambers student/Legal 500 reviews – everyone does this and it won’t make you stand out. The firm hosts so many open access events on things that don’t seem directly related to their work or you application but can make such a huge difference e.g. the series of events and speakers the firm invited in for Black History Month. It is by going to these (virtual) events and talking to the CC staff at them that you will gain a true picture of the ethos and culture of the firm which you will then be able to specifically refer to in your interview so when you’re asked ‘why CC’? You aren’t just able to say ‘well from my reading…’ but instead ‘from my interactions with employees…’ which makes your answer stronger and more authoritative.
  • An understanding of law firms as businesses was another assessed criteria and what they are marking you on here is another criteria. This is assessed through questions such as ‘why would clients come to CC specifically’? What they’re asking for here is not just you to parrot all the band 1 rankings, international networks but also to understand why a client would need this. For example, a client is not going to come to CC for their run-of-the-mill commercial contract or a low-level employee dispute. CC’s fees are too high for that. CC’s expertise, international network etc. are used when clients are working on very high value and/or first of its kind work – the sort of stuff that makes it to the Financial Times. It is in these instances that CC can provide a services that other lower level/smaller firms cannot offer. As an example: a high street/national firm could help Sainsburys with their commercial contract for a new plastic bag supplier, but on market-shaping matters such as the Sainsburys-ASDA proposed merger, the supermarket went to CC as this was a first-of-its-kind proposition that was going to need a full service approach and would be an uphill battle.
  • Finally, the competency interview ended with what seemed to me to be pretty standard competency questions (e.g. teamwork, leadership, innovation, resilience, time management etc.) I remember thinking that I wasn’t asked anything that seemed especially hard/was designed to trick me and I found this slightly odd. When speaking to partners afterwards, they said there are 2 reasons for this: firstly with these questions they are asking for examples of competencies that directly relate to the skills you will need to succeed as a trainee at CC – they aren’t looking to trick you, they genuinely just want to hear that you have them and can confidently talk about them. The second reason is a less obvious one. It’s no secret that at a firm like CC you will be working long hours. The interviewers are looking at the personality that you put across in these questions, that you show some spark, passion and enthusiasm. They’re wondering if they can see themselves sat next to you at 3am working on a deal, and would they enjoy your company if so? So don’t be afraid to show your passion and enthusiasm if you’re giving an example of something you genuinely care about. I am mad keen on music societies at university and the interviewer commented on how my passion was incredibly evident from the way I talked about these experiences and they really liked seeing that as it proved that I had a personality and interests beyond being a corporate law robot.

Case Study Interview

For the case study interview, you get an hour to read through a pack of documents and also to write a written email summary. What was interesting here was that the written task was in no way related to the commercial case study – it didn’t really have much legal aspects to it at all!

Written Task

The task was: You are working as a (non-legal) intern for a company and you have been asked to write an email giving advice on Influencer Marketing. Read the below article and summarise its findings into an email for your supervisor.

https://talkingtech.cliffordchance.com/en/ip/other/influencer-marketing–key-considerations-for-brand-owners–.html

  • One of the criteria assessed here, as obvious as it might sound, is your structure, spelling, punctuation and grammar. This is marked out of 5 and is just as important as the seemingly ‘bigger’ criteria already mentioned. Law is all about attention to detail so a misplaced apostrophe or using the wrong type of they’re/there/their could cost you your TC!
  • They are also scoring you on how you process, synthesise and summarise information. Busy lawyers don’t have time to read 10 page long briefings. They want to see that you can pick out the pertinent points from an (often very long) document and relay these in a brief manner, without losing the important information.
  • When writing the actual email, use a formal register i.e. Dear [name]. Start with a sentence very quickly summarising what you were asked to do then I would recommend giving the advice in bullet point form but using full sentences (and there can be multiple sentences per bullet point). If appropriate (e.g. there are clearly different sections to the document) then you can also use subheadings to break up your points. Be sure to sign off with a sentence such as “I would be happy to discuss any of the above in further detail, or carry out any additional research which you might like as a result of this information”.
  • The spelling and grammar checker will be turned off so be sure to proof read – and leave time for this!

Commercial Case Study

This case study was focused on the collapse of Thomas Cook and we were given a pack of documents (all of which were real and pre-existing – none were made as mock ups as they wanted to see how we responded to actual materials). The documents were predominantly news articles and one Thought Leadership/briefing piece written by CC. The links to the documents used are below:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-46452374

https://www.ft.com/content/dd402b2c-dd9e-11e9-9743-db5a370481bc

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-49791249

https://www.ft.com/content/1104e16a-dee8-11e9-b112-9624ec9edc59

https://www.cliffordchance.com/content/dam/cliffordchance/briefings/2019/05/death-on-the-high-street-the-impact-of-cvas.pdf

https://www.ft.com/content/45d2afca-dde5-11e9-b112-9624ec9edc59

https://www.ft.com/content/d64bd980-e058-11e9-b112-9624ec9edc59

https://www.retailgazette.co.uk/blog/2019/10/2500-jobs-saved-as-hays-travel-buys-555-thomas-cook-high-street-stores/

  • The pack of documents above will also include an ‘email’ from a Partner with some guidance questions to help structure your time when you are reading the documents, normally presented in the form of you being told that these are the client’s main questions/concerns.

For this case study, the questions included (and examples of what you could say based off what the Partners are looking for):

  • What caused the collapse?
    • This is an answer that requires a two-pronged approach. I started off by talking about the long-term and wider causes of the collapse at first. However, the Partner fed back to me that it would have been better to start by talking about the immediate causes of the collapses as these were more financial related and relevant to the work CC does so by starting with those, you are again demonstrating that you have a passion for corporate law and that this is the first thing on your mind. Points to raise include:
    • Short term – why the collapse happened when it did
    • Thomas Cook’s recent attempt to restructure itself was too little too late. There was a £1.7bn loss in the first half of 2019, £1.1bn of which came from writing down the value of My Travel (writing down is essentially just writing off – you accept that it is money you will not be getting back)
    • There was a restructuring attempt but this failed. There was plans for a £750m recapitalisation funded by Fosun (a major shareholder in Thomas Cook). But this failed when there was demand from the banks for an extra £200m to be pumped into the business. This could not be met.
    • The banks demanded this because they wanted there to be additional equity in Thomas Cook to support the company through the winter months, having seen its poor figures during summer.
    • The request was fair enough as Thomas Cook had had insufficient cash flow over the summer to pay their existing credit facilities
    • The government refused to bail out Thomas Cook as they said the bailout would only keep them afloat for a short amount of time, and that a bailout sets a dangerous precedent. Thomas Cook was unlikely to succeed due to their high street reliance model. It was a moral hazard as they asked for up to £250m and that was a lot of taxpayer money.
      • I was asked my personal opinion on this e.g. did I think the government were right in their actions? There is no right or wrong answer here so don’t be afraid to say what you genuinely think. What they’re looking for is that you can give a reasoned and solid answer which you can back up with factual information (showing your commercial awareness) and that you can stand your ground when quizzed on this. The interviewing Partner will try and argue back – they aren’t looking for you to change your point of view and they are intentionally playing Devil’s Advocate to see how you respond under the pressure of a grilling.
    • Longer term/wider causes
    • The collapse happened as Thomas Cook became insolvent – was very debt heavy and could not meet their debt repayments. Reasons for becoming included:
    • They had spent a lot of money on advice from professional services e.g. law firms and financial advisors
    • Wider market/global trends led to lack of income: political unrest causing less people to travel to their destinations (e.g. Turkey), UK heatwaves meaning more people staying at home, competition from other brands, people booking holidays themselves online
    • The fact Thomas Cook is a high street brand with lots of shops and the decline of the high street
    • Thomas Cook decided against entering into CVAs with their landlords 2-3 years ago to help with their rent and debt situation
  • Why did TC go into liquidation rather than administration?
    • The company structure was too complex (i.e. so many different parts – flights, tours, hotels etc.) and their debt was too high (£1.7bn) for any administrator to be able to take over. An administrator would not have had the funds to sustain TC’s debt whilst looking for a purchaser.
  • What are the legal implications of the collapse?
    • The main point that was raised here by the Partner was asking me if the Directors of Thomas Cook acted appropriately/in good faith.
    • I referred back to the duties of a Company Director as is set out in UK company law e.g. the fact that Directors have an obligation to Promote the Success of the Company, exercise reasonable skill, care and diligence, exercise independent judgement and act within their powers.
    • I also mentioned that the CEO was still receiving a huge pay out, bonuses, and perks despite the company being in debt. They also paid shareholder dividends. I argues that maybe the company could had been saved if such large bonuses and reward packages hadn’t been given out as the UK government might have been more inclined to help.
  • What are the wider implications of the collapse?
    • Brits stranded abroad – causing the largest peacetime repatriation in UK history at a cost of £500m to the UK government and travel industry’s insurance scheme
    • Banks such as Barclays, Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse are facing write downs of over £1.8bn due to the collapse – this might be because they had loaned TC money and now can’t claim it back, or they were shareholders, or they were advising TC and now won’t be paid for the advice they provided
    • ^Write down also due to the fact that of the £1.9bn debt that TC had, the lenders are anticipated to only be able to recover approximately £138m of this back. That is a huge deficit and also will not get the interest payments that they had been anticipating.
    • Loss of jobs globally
  • Can you talk through potential things that may need to be taken into account with the purchase of Thomas Cook stores by Hayes Travel?
    • This is obviously a really broad question that you could spend the entire interview talking about as there are so many different things that need to be taken into consideration! The Partners fed back that what they are looking for here is that you start by talking about the aspect you know the most and can talk most confidently about as they want to probe your knowledge and dig deep. So, if your passion is IP, start by talking about the IP implications of this acquisition! Below are a few examples of things you could bring up but this is by no means an exhaustive list.
    • IP issues such as should Hayes Travel re-brand the acquired stores as Hayes Travel or try keep the Thomas Cook name? How would they need to go about getting copyright permissions if they wanted to use Thomas Cook? Would this even be a good idea given the ‘bad faith’ that is now associated with the Thomas Cook brand by many members of the public globally.
    • What type of purchase is this? Why has it been used? It is an asset purchase (rather than a share purchase) as Hayes Travel have cherry picked the assets of Thomas Cook that they wish to acquire (i.e. the shops, leases for the shops, some employment contracts). This has been used as it means Hayes Travel do not have to take on all the liabilities that come with the Thomas Cook brand that would be the case if they had used a share purchase.
    • Any properties that are leased – have they bought the right to those leases? Can they do this? Have they checked if the lease agreements have change of control or break clauses? Might end up having the leases terminated or having to renegotiate the rent.
  • What are CVAs and are they a good or bad thing?
    • CVAs are agreements between companies and their unsecured creditors which allow for the agreement of new terms such as extending repayment times or writing off some of the money due (a haircut)
    • CVAs are good as they can be quickly developed and target specific liabilities – they are also a cheaper form of restructuring than more expensive and formal insolvency procedures.
    • They prevent one creditor holding out and stopping the whole proceedings as they only require agreement of 75% of creditors by value.
    • BUT they are seen as controversial as they are often used to force landlords into rent reductions, they create uncertainty in the property market and they are often criticised by landlords for their lack of transparency.
  • How might CC be able to help in relation to the Thomas Cook collapse?
    • Again, this is a question which has multiple answers and you could go on forever about all the different departments that a ‘full service’ firm like CC has which could offer help. A few examples are:
    • Advising on the restructuring before the liquidation,
    • advising creditors of the rights
    • helping Hayes Travel with their acquisition – various departments e.g. banking, M&A, employment etc.
    • public policy team helping the government with their inquiry into whether the TC executives acted appropriately.

General Advice for the commercial case study

  • The most important thing here is time management in the prep session! You get an hour to write an advice email on the issue but also have to read through a big pack of documents to prepare for the actual case study! Be sure to set yourself strict timing deadlines within the hour and don’t go over these. (e.g. no more than 15-20 minutes on the written email to allow enough time to go over the commercial documents in detail).
  • For the questions given in relation to the commercial case study, I would advise going through the questions and prepping them in the order given as it’s usually pretty logical.
  • You won’t have time to copy points down from the documents on to a fresh piece of paper to plan so I would suggest highlighting key bits and making comments on the docs themselves and noting down next to the list of questions which article the answer/points for consideration are in and if applicable what page.
  • You will not have time to analyse each article in detail so try to get an appreciation for the key points of each document in the case study bundle and you can always flick back to them during the interview. They won’t have expected you to memorise the entire pack.
  • You will be asked to present your thoughts/talk through the issues with your interviewer. I would suggest starting by outlining what the issues/questions from the client were (like an executive overview type thing) and then work through the points in the order given then finish with a conclusion/summary to round things off. Depending on the partner they might let you talk uninterrupted for like 10 minutes or they might interrupt you multiple times to ask questions etc. so be prepared for both eventualities!
  • One of the criteria they are marking you on is your technical and legal knowledge and you can demonstrate this through not just knowing what things such as warranties, indemnities and asset vs. share purchase are, but also knowing why they might be used, and when and how they are specifically applicable to the scenario at hand.
  • However, on the topic of technical knowledge, another criteria they are assessing you on is how you respond under pressure when you do not know something. What this means is that the interviewer will intentionally keep asking you increasingly harder and more technical questions until they hit the point where you don’t know the answer. The key here is not to panic. They want to push you to see how you react in this situation. Ask questions back to the interviewer for clarification and say you are thinking/thought process out loud, even if it isn’t right. They can’t score you on how you’re responding if you’re thinking it all through in your head!
  • One of the main things I heard from the Partners about this case study was that they intentionally include articles that they know not everyone will understand/be comfortable discussing. In the case of the Thomas Cook case study, it was the FT article on the ‘perils of debt derivatives’. I had a quick glance at this article during the prep time, realised I didn’t have the knowledge to sufficiently and confidently discuss this article, so I steered discussion away from it during the interview. I asked the partner about this afterwards and he said this was totally fine and didn’t affect scores at all. That article was put in there for people who (for example) were doing something like a masters in financial law and it would be expected that they knew that stuff so it was there to try and challenge them. They don’t expect first and second year undergrad students to know the ins and outs of derivatives so don’t panic!
  • You don’t need a lot of black letter legal knowledge but I would make sure you are familiar with basic contract terms like warranties, indemnities, due diligence etc. also finance terms such as debt vs equity financing, asset financing, bonds etc. as if the study is based around a deal/acquisition you will inevitably be asked for your suggestions on how it might be financed. Allen & Overy have a really good video on YouTube called ‘the anatomy of a deal’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hK9UaRhsDPM) I would recommend watching.

Preparation for the case study prior to the interview day

Make sure you are aware of the biggest trends/stories over the past few months. You don’t need to know the intricate ins and outs of all the details but have an understanding of how the matter:

  1. Has shaped the wider commercial sector
  2. How it has/potentially could impact the legal sector
  3. How CC could be involved in this e.g. if it is new legislation, advising clients on this, if a company needs restructuring CC could bid for the work etc.

For each story think about what departments from CC would be involved (they provide a full service/one stop shop for clients) also think about what international offices/relationships could be utilised etc. If a bank agreement taking place in Singapore, and is being governed by their local law, you would reach out to that office for specialist advice.

To practise, I would recommend picking any big story/trend (use the FT/BBC news etc.) from the last few months and going through considering its implications as detailed above. PESTLE analysis is a good starting point to ensure you are considering as many different points of view as possible (https://pestleanalysis.com/what-is-pestle-analysis/).

University careers services/departments often have examples or mock case studies you can do and they will often give you feedback so it’s worth reaching out to them!

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