How to Ace a Behavioral Interview

Published: Dec 02, 2015

 Interviewing       Law       
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Behavioral interviews are becoming increasingly popular in the legal industry. A behavioral interview seeks to discover how you handled yourself in certain situations at your previous jobs, or, if you don’t have a lot of work experience, in summer jobs or in internships and other school-related activities. The logic of these interviews is that past performance predicts future performance. So, if you were a strong communicator and a good time manager, worked well with others, met deadlines, and otherwise performed professionally, the reasoning is that you’ll do the same in your new job.

“You should prepare specific examples of behavior to evidence your skills and qualities,” advises Valerie Fontaine, senior legal search consultant at Seltzer Fontaine Beckwith. “Look for particularly challenging and difficult, as well as especially rewarding, examples to illustrate answers. Think about the rationale behind the question being asked. What qualification is the interviewer seeking? 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.”

Behavioral-interview questions vary based on the skill set and knowledge needed for the position (for example, environmentallaw versus intellectual property law), but one trait that all such questions share is that they will be more probing than traditional interview questions. Here are some typical behavioral-interview questions:  

  • Tell me about the highest-pressure situation that you’ve dealt with in the past six months.
  • Can you describe a situation in which you had to deal with a difficult judge in court? What did you do?
  • What big challenges have you faced during the discovery process in a lawsuit? How did you address them?
  • Can you provide me with a specific example of a time when you used good judgment and logic to solve a problem?
  • Can you tell me about a time when used your oral persuasion skills to successfully convince a judge or jury to rule in your client’s favor?
  • At your last job, what was your typical way of dealing with conflict? Give me an example.
  • Can you tell me about a time when you had to go above and beyond the call of duty in order to bring a case to trial?
  • Have you ever been involved in a situation in which you and a boss or colleague had a disagreement over a strategy (such as how to tackle a client’s defense)? How did you resolve it?
  • Can you describe a situation in which you needed to brainstorm differing or conflicting ideas with others in order to help accomplish work goals?
  • Can you tell me about the biggest mistake you made on a past case and how you remedied it?
  • Can you tell me about a time when you were the lead attorney on a case? What challenges did you face, and how did you address them?
  • Can you tell me about a recent situation in which you had to deal with a very upset client?

There’s no “right” way to prepare for a behavioral interview because you don’t know what questions you’ll be asked. But you can try to anticipate the types of questions that you’ll be asked by reviewing the terms that are used to describe the ideal candidate in the job ad (excellent multitasker, strong communicator, highly organized, etc.) and thinking of past experiences in which you’ve demonstrated these qualities. It wouldn’t hurt to visit the firm’s Web site to see how it describes the firm’s practice and attorneys (entrepreneurial, problem solving, etc.) and create responses that match these adjectives.

Another good approach is to review the list of questions above, find additional questions online and in interview books, and create responses in the form of short “stories” that present your actions in these situations in a positive light. Practice your responses until you’re confident that you can effectively answer similar questions during the interview.

Many people use the STAR interviewing response technique when answering behavioral-interview questions. This technique may also be referred to as the PAR (Problem, Action, Result) or SAR (Situation, Action, Result) technique. STAR is an acronym that gives you a reminder about how to respond to behavioral questions. Here are the steps in a STAR response:

  • Describe the Situation or Task in a past job or volunteer experience that you had to address (for example, dealing with a difficult coworker, going the extra mile to complete an assignment, etc.).
  • Detail the Actions you took to address the situation or to complete the task.
  • Describe the Results that occurred because of your actions.

The above was adapted from the Vault Guide to Law.

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