How to Prepare for a Behavioral Interview

Interview-Sign-iStockThe Changing Landscape of Legal Interviews
Attention all legal candidates! Gone are the days when you can expect to be asked general interview questions like, “So, tell me about yourself” or “Why should I hire you?” That’s because there’s a new buzzword in the legal community: Behavioral Interviewing.

Far from being new, however, Behavioral Interviewing was first developed by industrial psychologists in the 1970’s; it’s estimated that approximately 30% of all organizations currently utilize some form of Behavioral Interviewing. Legal employers, it seems, are just a little late in coming to the party, but they are increasingly turning to this style of interviewing to enhance their recruitment efforts.

What is Behavioral Interviewing?
Behavioral Interviewing is based on the premise that past behavior is the best predictor of future performance. It’s the difference between being asked a hypothetical question such as, “What would you do if you were placed in a situation where you had to make an unpopular decision?” versus being asked, “Tell me about a time when you had to make an unpopular decision.” That may seem like a subtle difference, but employers have found they can get a better picture of a candidate’s work style by causing her to relate specific, past experiences, than by allowing her to respond with vague generalizations about what she would do in a perfect world. You can always recognize a behavioral interview question because it will most likely start with one of the following phrases: “Describe a time where…”, “Give me an example of a time when…”, or “Tell me about an situation where…”

Impact on Candidates
What does this interview revolution mean for you? You’re going to have to work a little harder, dig a little deeper, and be a little more thorough in preparing for your next interview. An effective behavioral interviewer will ask you standardized questions that are tailored to help her assess whether you possess the specific skills, aptitudes or traits that her firm or company has identified as critical for this position before hand. In short, she will know what she’s looking for before she asks you the question. Your job is to anticipate what skills she will be looking for, and identify specific examples from your background that demonstrate you possess them.

How Do You Know What the Employer is Looking For?
Start with the most obvious source when looking for clues as to what skills the firm or company is seeking: the job posting itself. What language did they use to describe their preferred candidate in the ad? You probably already put some thought into how you might demonstrate those traits when you wrote your cover letter. Now, check out the employer’s web site. What adjectives do they use to describe their firm and its attorneys? “Entrepreneurial?” “Innovative?” “Committed to our clients’ success?” It’s a good bet they’ll be looking for the same in you. Finally, recognize that most legal employers will be looking for many of the same, basic traits: good judgment, decision-making and problem-solving ability, leadership potential, motivation/initiative, good communication and interpersonal skills, and strong planning or organizational abilities. You won’t go wrong in preparing for a Behavioral Interview if you keep that laundry list in mind.

Find Specific Examples
Now that you’ve got a handle on what the employer will be looking for, you can pull together examples. Look through your resume carefully, and think about each item listed from the standpoint of what particular skill or aptitude it enabled you to develop. The more concrete your examples, the better. For example, if an employer asks, “What have you done in the past to contribute toward a team environment?” she is not looking for an answer like, “I was involved in lots of projects that involved other employees in the company.” That’s way too vague. Refer to a specific incident or project, such as, “When I was overseeing the budget analysis project, I felt it was important to get lots of different perspectives, so I invited employees from other departments to sit on the committee.” Then go on and flesh out that story. Bear in mind that the interviewer is seeking enough real “evidence” to convince herself – and others involved in the hiring decision – that you do, in fact, possess the skills they seek.

When coming up with examples, don’t forget to consider things that may have not made it onto your resume. Generally, it’s best to use examples that are germane to a work place, school, or some type of organizational involvement, as opposed to more personal examples. It’s also best to use examples that have occurred in the fairly recent past. There may be times, however, when an event from your life outside of work or other structured environments provides the best example of a particular aptitude. Just make sure it doesn’t touch on topics that are “taboo” in an interview setting like family, relationships, etc.

Give Complete Answers
The key to impressing your interviewer is to provide thorough answers that don’t force her to work too hard in extracting the information she is looking for. When she says, “Tell me about a time when you contributed to a team environment,” she’s not looking for a nice little story generally describing the event. She wants to know, in detail, what we call CAR: the Context or situation in which the behavior occurred, the specific Action or steps you took, and the Result or outcome of that action. If you find that an interviewer is constantly asking you follow-up or probing questions after you have already answered, it probably means your answers are not complete enough. Adjust by making sure you include the three elements of CAR in each example you give.

Don’t Forget Your Other Prep Work!
Even though a behavioral interviewer might adhere fairly strictly to her list of standard questions, she will still be looking and listening for the other “basics”: what your physical demeanor and communication style during the interview say about you; whether you’ve done your homework and researched the firm or company ahead of time; what is your level of interest in, and enthusiasm about, the firm or company; and whether, quite simply, you are someone she would enjoy working with side by side everyday. In other words, don’t get so caught up in finding concrete examples for anticipated Behavioral Interview questions that you forget all the other important aspects before and during an interview.

And don’t forget to prepare some questions for you to ask the interviewer about her practice, about the firm or company in general, or about the position. Even though the interviewer will want you to do most of the talking, particularly during a Behavioral Interview, the last question you will most likely hear is, “So, what questions can I answer for you about the firm?” The level of sophistication of your questions, and the sincere interest they demonstrate, can prove just as important in your final evaluation as how well you answered the Behavioral Interview questions that were asked of you.

The following is a sample list of basic, Behavioral Interview questions:

Skill Sought: Good Judgment

Give me an example of a situation where you had to keep from speaking or making a decision because you did not have enough information.

Describe a time when you had to inform a superior of an unexpected outcome of a project, meeting or assignment.

Skill Sought: Decision Making and Problem-Solving Ability

Give me an example of a time when you had to be quick in coming to a decision.

Tell me about a situation where you anticipated potential problems and developed preventative measures.

Skill Sought: Leadership Potential

What is the toughest group that you have had to get cooperation from? How did you approach this issue? What was the outcome?

Give me an example of a situation where you showed initiative and took the lead.

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