Since the onset of the “Great Recession”, law firms hire fewer lawyers and vet candidates more thoroughly before extending an offer. Recent polls of NALP (National Association of Law Placement) and NALSC (National Association of Legal Search Consultants) members, show an increasing number of law firms now use behavioral interviewing to better assess candidates’ qualifications. Therefore, before embarking on a job search you should understand this technique and how best to demonstrate your value to the prospective employer.
In a related trend, also partly in response to economic pressures, law firms are moving towards competency-based programs for associate evaluation, training, promotion, and compensation decisions rather than strict class-year promotions and raises. In the core competency model, law firms typically create three or four levels or bands of associates and identify personal and practice abilities expected at each level. Lawyers need to master the skills required at their current level before being advanced to the next band, and must graduate through all competency levels before being considered for partnership. This model creates a standardized framework to allow associates to identify the skills they need to advance and gives partners tools to effectively evaluate and compare associates’ progression.
Some firms extend their core competency model to lateral associate hiring, as well, to minimize the risk of costly hiring mistakes. They use behavioral interviewing to probe for the specific attributes the firm is seeking in a particular hire. Over all, recruiters need to ascertain the actual skill level of each candidate – whether or not a firm utilizes a formal core competency model – to increase lateral associates’ chances of success and better integrate them into the firm. Behavioral interviewing, which assumes past behavior predicts future actions, helps identify the attributes of successful associates more effectively than using traditional conversational interviewing methods only.
To implement behavioral interviewing, a law firm first must determine its hiring criteria specifically – both law practice skills and “soft” people skills such as leadership, team-player, creative problem solving, and the like. It then can design questions to evaluate whether a recruit possesses those traits. Behavioral interviewing questions probe how candidates performed in specific situations and usually begin with “Tell me about a time…” or “Describe a situation when…”
Therefore, as a savvy job-seeker, you should prepare specific examples of behavior to evidence your practice skills and personal qualities. Before the interview, review the job description, if it is available. Study the prospective employer’s website, including practice areas and bios of lawyers in the relevant practice group, to ascertain which skills and characteristics the employer may seek. Consider projects, tasks, and interactions from your previous legal employment and non-law related work experiences, volunteer activities, competitive sports involvement, and other areas of interest which might demonstrate your behavior. Look for particularly challenging and difficult, as well as especially rewarding, examples to illustrate your answers.
During the interview, think about the rationale behind the question by asking yourself: What particular qualification is the interviewer seeking? Organize and focus your answers; don’t ramble. Use the STAR method to keep your answers concise and specific:
S – Briefly describe the Situation;
T – State the goal or Task;
A – Explain the Action you took; and
R – Describe the Results.
Beware: The interviewer may probe for negative experiences. If so, relate how you actually handled the situation, then explain what you would do differently and identify lessons gained from the experience. The outcome or result of the situation then becomes positive.
With proper preparation, you can shine in a behavioral interview and, once hired, you may come to appreciate your employer’s extra efforts to ensure a solid fit on both sides of the equation.