Conquering competency questions

Candidates often fail to maximise the opportunity to convince us why we should give them a training contract as their applications fail to achieve scores high enough to progress. Here I explore an example question to help you secure top marks

At Shoosmiths we score our application forms in four parts; academics, employment history and work experience, extras (including written communication and spelling and grammar) and answers to competency questions.  

The competency question section is where we find that candidates frequently fail to achieve high scores.

This is disappointing as it’s often the deciding factor as to who is invited to an assessment centre. This section is the opportunity for you to stand out from your peers, demonstrate your knowledge of the firm and really convince us you are Shoosmiths material.

Here I shall explore an example question and provide advice on how to approach it to ensure you receive top marks available.

'Describe a situation where you were part of a team and had to pull together to achieve a shared goal.'

1. Ensure you answer the question and understand what we are looking for you to demonstrate

We are looking for you to describe a relevant situation that required a team you were part of to work collaboratively to reach a desired outcome. Ideally choose an example that demonstrates how you sought to build new relationships for the benefit of your own development. It’s impressive if you can think of an experience you have had that other applicants aren’t likely to use. For example, many applicants might describe a group they worked in to complete a task at university, so choose something different and unique to you. For average marks you’ll break your answer down, describing the situation, what you did and the result you achieved. But for top marks you’ll also include detail about how the team worked together, the impact of your actions on the other team members, and what you might do differently next time.

2. Always link your answer to the skills and qualities that will enhance your career as a solicitor

Although the above question is specific to working as part of a team you should link the achievement and skills you gained throughout this example back to why they are important to the role of a solicitor and how they will be transferable in a law firm. Think about why a recruiter might be interested to hear about those particular skills and why they will contribute to you having a successful legal career.

3. Research our values and demonstrate how they align with your own

Our website is a great platform for research but we don’t just want you to recite it. We’d recommend trying to gain a unique insight or impress us with something we may not even be aware of yet! Search for information about the firm that other applicants won’t easily find. It is one thing knowing you want to work at Shoosmiths and share in our values but it is another thing demonstrating this on paper and supporting it with evidence. The question is looking to establish if you understand the firm’s culture, values and behaviours which are assessed throughout the entire recruitment process, from application, to placement, to assessment centre. A key value you could expand on here is ‘pulling together’ by describing the significance of working collaboratively in a law firm.

4. Step outside of your comfort zone to enhance your personal brand

If you find answering this question challenging and find it hard to provide relevant examples then it may be because you need to expand your current activities and build on your personal experiences. Think about the personal brand and how you’d like others to see you, then go in search of gaining new skills, knowledge and achievements in unique ways. We want to gain a taste of your personality from your application form. This can vary from examples from a legal and non legal capacity including work experience, hobbies and demonstrating your commercial awareness.

5. Use the word count to your advantage

The application form will specify how many words you have in order to answer each question. Although it is about quality, not quantity we recommend utilising the word count to elaborate and provide detail in your answer.

In addition to my advice about competency questions, you may find it interesting to read up on more generic mistakes that should be avoided when submitting an application in an interesting blog from our graduate recruitment manager, Samantha Hope “10 brainless blunders that could cost you a training contract”

If you’ve previously experienced setbacks or have found it difficult to take feedback on board, you may find it useful to watch a video from our #ShoosmithsLIVE series “It’s not failure, it’s feedback” which covers advice and techniques to bounce back from disappointment and ensure you reach future goals.

If you have any further questions about the application process, you can email us at [email protected] or have a look at some frequently asked questions here.


This information is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. Please contact us for specific advice on your circumstances. © Shoosmiths LLP 2024.



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