How to ace law firm competency interviews

Interview competencies

Are you competent at competencies? We spoke to Dentons' grad recruitment team to get to grips with this popular method of assessing training contract hopefuls.


The reality

You've made the decision: you want to become a solicitor. Visions of slick attire, marbled interiors and on-site sushi chefs flood your mind; naturally, you start to look up how law firms recruit their future trainees. It's all going smoothly until a term comes into view, undefined but portentous: 'competency-based assessment.' And then it starts: that queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach. What is this competency malarkey all about? It sounds...well, a bit vague, a bit clinical, a bit intimidating.

Slow down. Put down the bottle of Kalms. Yes, the chances are law firms will assess competencies throughout the recruitment process, but there are ways to approach them that will keep you in the running for that coveted training contract. And who better to take us through this enduring recruitment technique than Dentons' very own Alex Mundy? As the firm's graduate recruitment manager, Mundy has interviewed an aspiring trainee or thousand in her time, so we'll use her insights to go through what the method involves: to take a closer look at five of Dentons' top competencies and to teach you how to showcase your talents successfully.

The method

Before an organisation or business can test a candidate's competency, it has to decide what it wants to test. For this, it needs to turn its gaze to its star employees and analyse what it is that's made them so successful. As Mundy explains, at Dentons it's a case of “using competencies to ascertain what the common factors are among the lawyers at our firm.”

With a list of competencies drawn up, the next step is to hold it up against potential recruits. “Competencies are useful to us as the candidates we're interviewing don't have five years' experience working as a corporate lawyer,” says Mundy, “so instead we base our judgement on the elements that make a successful lawyer and whether our candidates have demonstrated those qualities and skills in the past.”

Despite “new methods entering the market” – which we'll touch upon later – Mundy believes that the competency-based approach will be with us for a while yet, as it's shown itself to be a reliable predictor of future behaviour. “But we're not just looking at the core competencies in isolation; we use them in combination with other assessments – like psychometric testing – to find out how committed candidates are to a career in law and whether they've done their research.”

“The best examples I've heard have come from part-time jobs in hospitality or retail – experiences that had nothing to do with connections or privilege.”

So far, so good, but given that this entire approach is based on experiences, does it matter what experiences a candidate has had? Not really, says Mundy, as “we acknowledge and celebrate that every candidate is unique and comes from different backgrounds with different experiences.” Examples can therefore come from “any sphere – from part-time jobs, academia, extra-curricular activities and work experience. The best examples I've heard have come from part-time jobs in hospitality or retail – experiences that had nothing to do with connections or privilege.”

So if your CV isn't brimming with fancy internships and gap-year epiphanies, don't worry, as transferable skills can be found in even the humblest of endeavours. But knowing how to show them off effectively is quite another matter, so let's hand over to Mundy to take a closer look at Dentons' top competencies.

Dentons' top competencies

1. Organisation and planning

Method of assessment: “We assess this in the first round interview with HR, and also during the assessment day, where a role play exercise involves some organisation and planning.”

The key takeaway: “We're looking for those who have the ability not just to manage their own workload, but those who can use available resources to assist and organise the people around them, especially if they are working in tandem with other teams.”

This will score you points: “Showing that you've been able to manage a project from start to finish, balance competing priorities and meet the deadline. Often events planning is a really good way of demonstrating your ability to manage moving parts on a project that has a fixed deadline.”

This won't go down so well: “Highlighting a team-based effort where it's clear that your role was very discrete and that you didn't have to do much of the organising.”

2. Attention to detail

Method of assessment: “We'll analyse this through written, role play and case study exercises.”

The key takeaway: “It's not just about being able to cross your T's and dot your I's.”

This will score you points: “Describing a situation where you've been able to pick out a detail that has changed the whole scope of the situation or project you've been working on. We're seeking those who can identify the small details in a text or piece of communication and understand their significance in a broader context.”

This won't go down so well: “With the above in mind, describing a situation where what you've identified is in fact very obvious. Also: claiming that you have exceptional attention to detail but turning in an application form that's littered with errors. It's a common mistake – people rush through things too much!”

3. Resilience

Method of assessment: “We are looking at this in the first interview and during a case study. Each candidate will go through the case study with an assessor, but won't see it beforehand or have time to prepare their response; they will have to come up with answers on the spot.”

The key takeaway: “With resilience it is about showing that you have got back up after experiencing setbacks. It's a bit of a mixed bag response-wise, because people's definition of resilience varies.

This will score you points: “Giving an example where something unexpectedly went wrong and you only had a short time-frame to find a solution (and were successful in doing so!). For instance, you may have been working in a restaurant and the electricity cut out, so you had to write out the orders and take payment manually while keeping your customers happy. A good response I heard recently came from a candidate who'd climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. She really explained the setbacks she faced well; she thought she was fit enough to handle it, but suffered altitude sickness badly, hardly got any sleep and found it extremely tiring – but she did it despite the difficulty.”

This won't go down so well: “Saying that finishing university in itself shows that you are resilient. Even if it was particularly hard it's about really being able to articulate why it was a challenge; you weren't used to having that schedule or timetable but you remained really committed. It's not about just stating what you've done, but really articulating the setbacks and how you managed to overcome them.” 

“If a candidate doesn't have it then they don't have anything else. This is the one that really sets people apart…”

4. Enthusiasm

Method of assessment: “We are gauging enthusiasm in the interview and throughout our vacation scheme – especially in the feedback we get on a candidate's performance during group exercises.”

The key takeaway: “It is about going above and beyond to help people out and satisfy others' requests. It is possibly the most important competency we look at. If a candidate doesn't have it then they don't have anything else. This is the one that really sets people apart when it comes to deciding who will make a good trainee.”

This will score you points: “During the vac scheme, for instance, it would impress us if a candidate really did not need to be involved in a project but through sheer interest or desire to help got involved in it. The ability to maintain the same level of commitment, even if a task is a bit dull, is highly valued.”

This won't go down so well: “Highlighting an example in the interview where it is clear that the candidate was only helping out others for personal gain.”

5. Analytical ability

Method of assessment: “We're assessing this one through a written exercise and a case study.”

The key takeaway: “There are two sides to analytical ability: the first is breaking down problems into smaller pieces and the second is being able to form a judgement by combining the information contained in those pieces. That is fundamental to being a lawyer. It's one that is quite hard to demonstrate in an interview setting; it usually requires a practical exercise too. You can't really prepare for it. You are given a problem in the assessment setting, where you'll take some time to think it through and then discuss your conclusions.”

This will score you points: “In an interview: describing your dissertation well. Don't worry if it seems obvious – it's the best example of pure analysis that most people have.”

This won't go down so well: “The people who aren't successful in the case study exercise are those who don't go into enough detail when discussing their conclusions; they're merely finding and highlighting information – they're not analysing it. When you're a trainee who's been tasked with a due diligence exercise, we're relying on you to find and analyse details that may be small but have a significant effect on the transaction and its outcome; it links back to the attention to detail competency we discussed earlier.”

“It's about building up a bank of examples that exhibit those skills, so that you have them in mind during the assessments.”

The right approach

If faced with competency-based assessments, ask yourself: 'Which skills are likely to be sought after by this firm?' Then, as Mundy says, “it's about building up a bank of examples that exhibit those skills, so that you have them in mind during the assessments.”

In any business career you’ll encounter a lot of cheesy acronyms, but the 'STAR' method is a good framework to employ at interview. It stands for Situation, Task, Activity and Result. When compiling your bank of examples, structure each one using the acronym:

Situation: set the scene – what was happening?

Task: what was expected of you in the situation?

Activity: what course of action did you decide to take?

Result: what effect did your course of action have? Did it have the desired effect and how does it demonstrate a particular skill well?

You may well generate loads of examples, including some you feel are so dazzling they must be raised at some point in the interview. But hold your horses. The key to success in competency-based interviews is offering a carefully considered selection of experiences. “Only use examples that answer the question and don't try to shoehorn in something that doesn't fit,” Mundy advises. “It may well be an amazing situation that you're describing, but if it doesn't demonstrate the competency that we're looking for it will fall flat.”

“No experience can be too boring, but it can be irrelevant.”

The fear of sounding boring often prompts candidates to only highlight their flashiest experiences. From Mundy's perspective, “no experience can be too boring, but it can be irrelevant.” So banish the fear of being the candidate with the beige examples – if they do the job, they do the job. “You could highlight a really simple situation that showcases the competency in a concise way. Maybe you had a part-time job in a supermarket and were working under a lot of pressure the week before Christmas; people were fraught, and it required you to keep calm and deliver a high degree of client service.”

Whatever you do, don't lie – not even a teeny tiny white lie that just elevates the experience a bit and crams another handy skill in there. Your interviewer probably won't be able to know for definite that you've told a porky, but we all have in-built lie detectors that beep when something doesn't quite ring true. “You can usually tell, as the answer tends to be quite shallow and just doesn't feel authentic,” warns Mundy. So alongside relevance, authenticity reigns. “Those elements will make you stand out. We don't have an 'ideal' model for a candidate, but we want you to be authentic – we want to find out about you.”

Authenticity is certainly a must for any assessment days you attend. As Mundy points out, “candidates have to tread a fine line between making their opinion heard and listening to and considering the opinions of others. This is a challenge, but don't try to be someone you're not.” Knowing when to speak will showcase an overarching competency that's important to all firms: effective communication. “We assess this across all parts of the recruitment process,” Mundy confirms. “We're on the lookout for people who are self-aware when they communicate; those who can build a rapport and articulate their points well.” Of course, nerves can get in the way of communicating well: “We do take that into account, but it can really impact on a candidate's ability to sell themselves. My advice is that if you think you will be nervous look into what you can do to minimise and control your nerves in advance.”

The rest

You'll have to go beyond competencies in your prep. “They're just one element of the process,” stresses Mundy, highlighting that other assessment methods have entered into the fray. A popular one is strengths-based interviewing, “which is based around the idea that if you find something enjoyable you're likely to be good at it. It's a more forward-looking approach that examines a candidate's strengths and weaknesses via interests and motivations.”

Games-based assessment is also gaining traction. Taylor Wessing and Clifford Chance have already signed up to use it, and Dentons may follow suit in the future. In 25 minutes, Taylor Wessing's game, 'Cosmic Cadet,' assesses a range of aptitudes – like interpersonal skills and the ability to deliver results – as candidates progress through six levels. “It's an interesting method,” says Mundy, “which sets out to get a more accurate picture of a candidate by making them feel like they're not being assessed.” Depending on how much games-based assessments take off, we recommend dusting off your old PlayStation and reconnecting with your inner-gamer.

“We also need to see that they have the global mindset that the firm promotes.”

Outside of these nifty assessment techniques, you'll also have to consider your answers to the standard questions that all firms ask. Why law? Why this firm? Why are you passionate about business? Essentially: all the other elements of your story that should, if you tell it right, conclude with the alignment of your future with that of the firm's. Part of that will involve devoting some time to thinking about a firm's strategy and what you have to help them achieve it. While you won't have to demonstrate the canny flare of a senior partner, you will need to bring a suitable level of commercial awareness to the table. “We do expect candidates to understand the direction of the firm,” confirms Mundy, “where it fits in the marketplace and what it offers its clients in comparison to its competitors; we also need to see that they have the global mindset that the firm promotes.”

As with most things in life, the key is preparation, preparation, preparation. “The more prepared you are the more confident you will feel, so really do the legwork in advance,” recommends Mundy. However, bear in mind that “you can't cover absolutely everything, as some things have to come as a surprise in the recruitment process. But, if you've done the groundwork, you'll be in a more confident place to tackle those unexpected elements.”

Read our True Picture on Dentons to find out more about the firm. The firm is recruiting 46 trainees to start in 2022. The deadline to apply is 30 June 2020.


This feature was first published in March 2017.