Law firms love asking competency-based questions at interview, either as part of an initial screening or to see how well candidates can think on their feet in front of a panel of partners and HR staff. The good news is, once you get the hang of how to structure your answer and what the interviewer is looking for, you’ll fly through these and demonstrate that you’re just right for the job.
However repetitive or formulaic it may seem, you should answer competency questions using the STAR approach – Situation, Task, Action, Result. Keep in mind that your listener will not be as familiar as you with the situation you’re describing, so set the scene with (relevant!) detail and be clear in explaining what you were doing, why you were doing it, and who else was involved.
Always stick to one specific example unless you’re explicitly asked otherwise – focus on a particular event, customer, deadline, disagreement, not a generic “At work I regularly…”.
Can you confidently answer the following?
Give an example of a project or task that you felt compelled to complete on your own. What stopped you from delegating?
This question is getting at your ability to judge when you can delegate tasks, and when you need to keep them to yourself. In other words, do you have a clear idea of what your competencies are, and when it’s appropriate to ask for support?
Here’s an example of how not to answer this question:
“When I was in my second year, we had a group project to prepare a presentation and I was assigned a particular job. The day before the due date, I realised the task was much larger than I had expected. However, because of the short time-frame, I had no-one to ask, so I did it myself.”
Why is this a poor answer? Well, it makes the speaker sound disorganised (leaving a project until the day before it was due) and describes a problem they could have avoided (by checking what the task entailed earlier). It also doesn’t use the STAR approach to full effect.
How it should look:
“During my part-time job at Tesco, I was responsible for training up a new junior staff member on the till. We had a particularly busy day soon after she joined, and I saw from watching her on the tills that she was not able to process goods fast enough. In the interests of minimising delays to our customers, I took her aside discreetly and asked her to take on another task, while I processed the growing queue of customers. As a result, I was able to clear the backlog and ensure customers left satisfied.”
This is a good answer – specific, in the correct structure, and making use of an example where the speaker clearly made a good decision in the interests of the company.
“Tell us about a situation where you made a decision that you knew would be unpopular.”
This question is testing your strength of character or “grit” – can you make a tough decision when you need to, even if others disagree?
Good examples for this may come from extra-curricular activities or participation in sports:
“I am a keen tennis player, and spent many hours as a teenager preparing for The Nike Junior National Championships. In 2010 I got through to the semi-finals, but injured my hamstring badly during practice one day. It was a much more serious injury than I or my coach initially thought. My coach put quite a lot of pressure on me to carry on with the tournament, in part because of how much effort we’d both put in to prepare me. However, I knew I’d be causing myself long-term harm by carrying on with the tournament while injured.
“In spite of pressure from my coach, I pulled out of the tournament, explaining to him that I felt continuing would damage my health. I sat out that year but recovered in time to have a great 2011 season.”
Again, this is a great example as it’s specific, easy to relate to, and gives a relevant, indisputable reason for why the speaker felt compelled to make the decision he did.
“Describe a situation where you had to change your approach half-way through a project or task following new input into the project.”
This question tests your critical judgment – can you assess when something is going wrong or falling behind schedule, and take the necessary steps to rectify it?
Examples from either your work or studies would work well here, with a focus on when you realised you needed to change your original plan, and how you went about doing it. For example:
“As a final year student, I had planned to write my dissertation about the early novels of Ian McEwan. Unfortunately, as I started writing up my research I realised that there just wasn’t enough material available for me to use in structuring my argument. Instead of ploughing on with a project that was sure to fail or get a poor grade, I worked through the weekend to re-formulate my dissertation topic and come up with something more viable, which still made use of the research I’d already done. My dissertation was a success, and I was awarded a first.”
This is a clear, detailed answer where the outcome (a first-class grade) was plainly linked to the speaker’s decision to re-work her dissertation topic. The STAR approach was also used to full effect.
“What is the biggest challenge you have faced? How did you overcome it?”
This question offers a great opportunity to show off! You’ll need to demonstrate your resilience and versatility when answering it – key skills for a trainee solicitor.
“During my undergraduate degree I signed up for a year abroad, choosing to spend it at the University of Taipei, Taiwan. This was an incredibly challenging time for me – I had to quickly get used to a different language and culture, while keeping on top of my studies. I handled this by planning ahead – taking classes in basic Mandarin before I left the UK, and making contact with other international students to form a support network and share information. Because of my preparations, I was able to make the most of the year and gained a 2.1 overall.”
“Give an example of a time you worked in a dysfunctional team. Why was it dysfunctional and how did you attempt to change things?”
Not all teams work well, and this question is asking you to acknowledge that and reflect on why things may go wrong, and what individual team members can do to improve things. You can use a range of examples here, from academic projects through work experience, sports or extra-curricular activities. For example:
“I had a weekend job in a pub during my first year. I loved dealing with customers, but found the management chaotic – often I’d be told I had a shift at the last minute, or turn up to find I wasn’t actually on rota. The poor communication made it a very dysfunctional team. To try and deal with this, I would send an email to my manager each Monday setting out what I understood my shifts to be, and asking my manager to let me know if there were any errors or changes. I also tried to encourage colleagues to do the same, so that none of us let the others down when we were scheduled to work.”
This is a clear, effective example – the speaker highlights a client-facing role (always a plus in legal work), and explains clearly why the manager’s actions led to poor team functioning, and how he tried to address that.
Competency questions can be daunting, but with a bit of practice and plenty of relevant examples to hand, you’ll be prepared with excellent answers at interview.
Sharon Shamir, My Training Contract
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