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How to ace competency-based interviews

31 May 2016 | tagged New lawyers news

Rob Marrs

Rob Marrs, Head of Education at the Society, offers advice on how to handle competency-based questions in application forms and interviews.

I recently found myself in a room surrounded by experts in recruiting and training trainee and newly-qualified solicitors.

At times like these it makes sense to remember Epictetus’s thoughts on why we have two ears and one mouth. So I took the opportunity to pick their brains. Specifically I asked them ‘when recruiting, what’s the difference between those you take to interview and those you didn’t?'

One person noted that those who were unsuccessful ‘didn’t seem to know how to answer competency-based questions’. Another asked ‘Do the universities not teach them this stuff?’.

I chewed this over. It was maddening news. Because the fact is, universities and their career advisors do try to make students aware of competency-based interviews (I would implore law students to utilise career advisors more). The Society talks about competency-based interviews in our regular visits to students. Our recruitment guidance also talks about this.

Most online sources talk about the STAR or BACK methods of answering a competency-based question. Using these models helps people answer competency-based questions and – here’s the rub – make it far easier for the interviewer. It is, after all, their job to get the right people for their organisation. One HR director at a large firm said: applicants should ‘’show’’ not ‘’tell’’. But if you don’t know what a competency-based interview is – this article can be a one-stop shop.

What is a competency-based question?

Competency-based questions often appear on application forms or in interviews. They’re designed to assess a candidate against a standard set of competencies required for a role. Asking these questions enables employers to understand a candidate’s past behaviours and experiences and are used as a basis to predict future behaviour and suitability for a job. Try to think hard about what the firm wants and try and pick something that is unique to you.

Competency-based questions are designed to assess a candidate against a standard set of competencies required for a role. Sometimes you will see these labelled as ‘’Essential criteria’ and ‘Desirable criteria’. Some of the largest law firms publish their firms’ entire competency framework on their website.

The competencies assessed in an interview differ from role to role and from organisation to organisation. Sometimes they will publish the competencies necessary for a role as part of their job descriptions. They’re often labelled as ‘essential criteria’ and ‘desirable criteria’.

Competency-based interviews can provide a more objective and evidence-based way of assessing candidates and the competency framework allows candidates to be benchmarked against the requirements.

In theory this should mean that an organisation using a competency-based approach should be able to tell you where you didn’t meet the competencies. It should be clear and obvious. Here are some examples of competency-based questions:

  • Describe a situation in which you were able to use persuasion to successfully convince someone else to your point of view
  • Give me a specific example of a time you demonstrated your commercial awareness
  • Tell me about a time when you had to use your presentation skills to influence someone’s opinion
  • Please discuss an important written document you were required to complete

A good way of thinking about any of these is not just ‘what did I do’ and ‘when did I do it’, but also ‘what did I learn from it’.

Prepare but don’t over-rehearse

In theory, such a system allows candidates with limited job experience to compete on equal terms with more experienced candidates. That said, there are some worries that such questions don’t promote social mobility. If someone doesn’t have much experience they don’t have as much to talk about as other candidates. If you are in that boat and can’t find a work experience-related answer, then use an example from another situation – from your studies, extra-curricular, volunteering etc.

There’s also a feeling from some in the graduate recruitment industry that they can be over taught so candidates can reel off what they think the interviewer wants to hear. This generally backfires.

Recruiters are making an expensive decision when they hire a trainee solicitor. They don’t want rehearsed answers or ‘what the candidate thinks they want to hear’. They want to, to paraphrase Mark Darcy, like you just the way you are. They want to get to know you and make sure you are the right fit for the organisation.

So whilst below I outline a model for answering questions try not to over-rehearse, be yourself and only ever use examples that are true!

Methods for answering competency-based questions

There are two models to answer such questions: STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Result) and BACK (Background, Actions, Consequences, Knowledge). These are a useful ways to answer interview questions even if the organisation is not using competency-based interviewing techniques.

Let’s look at the question: ‘Tell me about a time when you had to use your presentation skills to influence someone’s opinion’.

Pretty much every law student will have done this. Most will have done some form of presentation during their studies. Some will have taken part in moots or debates. Others may have spoken at an academic conference.

Looking at that question using STAR:

Situation: I was part of the university debating team. We regularly took part in competitions around the country, usually comprising four rounds of competitive debate judged by a series of neutral and experienced judges. At one competition, my debate partner and I had to argue a different case in each round. One round was particularly tricky as I was asked to argue in favour of something I did not believe in – the death penalty for terrorists. I am a member of Amnesty and find the death penalty unconscionable.

Task: The nature of such competition is you have fifteen minutes to prepare for the debate after the topic is announced. We worked as a team. I tended to enjoy the ‘prep room’ and enjoyed generating arguments whilst my partner was often good at working out what the opposition might say.

Action: I had to put my personal beliefs to one side and worked out a strong series of arguments. My partner and I then divided the arguments evenly between us and argued the case.  

Result: We won the debate and I received the highest score in that round. The three judges unanimously agreed that we’d won the arguments and we reached the final of the competition. I know that as a trainee solicitor I’ll be expected to update my team on changes to the law and pitch to clients. I hope that my background in debating – as well as other presentations at university – will help prepare me for this.

Why is that a good answer?

Firstly, is it a good answer? I sent my thoughts to a few HR directors at law firms and a legal recruitment consultant and they seemed to think it was a strong answer to that question.

But why is it good?

For starters, it answers the question directly and concisely. Someone (the three judges) had their opinion influenced by the candidate’s presentation skills and arguments.

Secondly, it’s specific and focuses on what the individual did. It’s easy for candidates to talk about team-working and use ‘we’. Whilst this is sometimes necessary, the interviewer is assessing your competency. They want, therefore, to know exactly what you did in a situation. For instance, an answer to a question on demonstrating commercial awareness which focused on what a team did makes it difficult for an interviewer to understand how you demonstrated that competency.

Thirdly, this example more than answers the question. It alludes to the sort of things solicitors do all the time: team-working and making a case on behalf of a cause they may personally dislike. It also shows the individual understands their own strengths and weaknesses.

Fourthly, it’s a real-life example and relates directly to how the person reacted to a real-life experience.

Finally, the candidate shows they are aware of why the question is being asked and goes above and beyond to show their knowledge of the role. This should be at the forefront of your mind when answering such questions: why does the organisation want you to demonstrate this competency? Why does a trainee solicitor need to demonstrate such a competency?

Ultimately, a competency-based interview is an opportunity for you to show off your finest moments to an interested and captive audience.

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