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Husnara Begum, owner & careers consultant

There are many different job interview styles that employers can use to determine whether you’ll be right for the role they’re hoping to fill. One of the most commonly used methods in the legal sector is the competency-based interview.

During a competency-based interview candidates are asked questions designed to test whether they have the right skills (or competencies) to perform the job well. The thinking is that if you’ve used such skills effectively in the past then you should have the ability and experience to perform well in the future. These could include technical and soft skills.

Employers will focus on the specific competencies that are important for the job they’re looking to fill and will ask open questions designed to get candidates talking about the real-life experiences they’ve faced. From this, they can determine your transferable skills.

For each competency, the interviewers will usually be looking for both positive and negative indicators to score the candidate against. For example, if the competency is teamwork they’re likely to be after examples that demonstrate how well the candidate works with others, how they may have resolved a conflict, how they have supported a colleague or how well they listen to and encourage others.

Alternatively, if the competency is adaptability the interviewers may look for indicators such as whether the candidate can handle change positively, how well they adapt to changing deadlines, how they juggle multiple priorities and adapt to new situations with innovative approaches and an open mind.

This style of assessment is very different from the more general conversational job interviews. These tend to be more focused on your reasons for applying, what you know about the employer and include a general run-through of your CV. Competency-based interviews follow a much more rigid structure with the interviewers are looking for recent, relevant and specific examples to prove you have the background and experience they are looking for in a future recruit.

Key competencies typically sought after by employers in the legal sector include:

  • Adaptability
  • Commercial awareness
  • Communication
  • Conflict resolution / getting someone to see your point of view
  • Decisiveness
  • Research and problem-solving
  • Teamwork
  • Organisational / time management skills
  • Resilience
How can I prepare for a competency-based job interview?

Questions asked by law firms during a competency-based interview aim to test a variety of skills and you’ll need to answer in the context of actual real-life events.

These days, most employers in the legal sector are pretty transparent about the key capabilities they require in their future trainee solicitors. So I recommend researching their recruitment literature and the job spec. They’ll often outline the areas they want to test at interview. Research each organisation’s values and ethos too as this will help you build a picture of what they’re looking for in prospective trainee solicitors.

Next, look through your CV and brainstorm your life; your skills gained and achievements to date. Make a list of each desired competency, and then think of every scenario where you’ve demonstrated that competency – and the more specific and memorable your examples, the better. Examples could be drawn from a previous paid job, internship, education or extra-curricular activities. There may well be overlap ie one of your examples could indicate more than one competency.

The aim during the interview is to bring in a variety of examples so that you can show a range of experiences. If you’ve anticipated which skills may be tested, it makes it far easier to select the best, and most appropriate example for the role when under pressure.

Expect questions opening with: ‘Tell us about a time when you…’, ‘Give an example of…’ or ‘Describe how you…’

Here are some examples of competency-based questions:

  • Describe a situation in which you led a team.
  • Tell me about a time you worked as part of a high performing team.
  • Give an example of a time you handled conflict in the workplace
  • Give me an example of a challenge you faced in the workplace and tell me how you overcame it.
  • Give an example of a situation where you solved a problem in a creative way.
  • Can you tell me about a time when you had multiple deadlines and how you handled it.

The two best ways to structure your responses to competency-based questions are using the CAR or STAR techniques:

STAR

The STAR technique, which you may well be familiar with. As a reminder it’s:

S – Situation
T – Task
A – Action
R – Result

Using STAR is one of the best ways to communicate in a clear and structured way, rather than launching into a ten-minute monologue and hoping that at some point you get across what they’re looking for. As a rough guide see the percentages in brackets below that indicate how long you should spend on each part.

  • Situation(10%) – briefly describe the situation, paint a picture for the interviewer. For example, ‘We had an important client presentation to prepare for’
  • Task(10%) – describe the task that needed to be completed e.g. ‘I had to lead a group of colleagues to prepare a presentation for the client’.
  • Action (65%)– explain what you did and how and why you did it. Really emphasise your role in this, remember the interviewer wants to hear about you and your contribution – they are looking for key skills you possess. If you keep referring to ‘we’ or ‘they’ your interviewer will not get to hear about you.
  • Result(15%) – so you did all the above, then what happened? Talk through the outcome of your actions. For example, ‘As a result of this hard work and team effort we …..’ Also, if things didn’t quite go according to plan it’s important to outline what you learnt from the situation.
CAR

Personally, I prefer the CAR technique, which stands for:

C – Context is about describing a situation and setting the scene for a relevant example from your past. The key here is to pick a specific and memorable example – one that clearly demonstrates the quality or skill the employer is asking about.

A – Action is about explaining what action “you” took. Remember to include the competency in your answer rather than making vague statements and outline your steps and rationale. Top tip here is the start your answer with “I” rather than “we”.

R – Result is about detailing the outcome of your action(s). Offer specific facts / evidence relating to the result. For instance, quote figures and statistics, or feedback from a manager and / or client, that back up your assertion(s).

Breaking your answer into the above three bullet points will make your answer less wordy than the STAR method and like all good stories give it a beginning, middle and end.

My advice is to practice, practice and practice some more but there’s a balance to be struck. Try not to over prepare. You do not want to come across as scripted or robotic.

Finally, at all costs avoid generic text book answers – I’ve seen too many applicants make vague, general statements when answering competency style questions when, with a bit of preparation, they could’ve provided a really good example from their CV.

Husnara Begum