Situational Judgement Tests (SJTs) are an increasingly common part of the application process for numerous jobs – but especially those within the legal industry. Critical thinking tests are certainly still very common (especially the notorious Watson Glaser), but top law firms are now often turning to Situational Judgement Tests as well as (or even instead of) such exams.
The main appeal leading to firms adopting Situational Judgement Tests more widely is the fact that they are flexible – each firm will often create their own, and the answers are usually tailored to the needs and values of that specific firm, allowing for greater differentiation between candidates in regard to who would be the best fit for that firm. This also means that firms are able to test a candidate’s ‘soft skills’ – for example teamwork or collaboration – rather than the more traditional test of raw critical thinking ability being uncovered by a Watson Glaser, for instance.
With their rapid popularity growth showing little signs of stopping, it’s more important than ever that you prepare yourself well for taking a Situation Judgement Test – in which a minimum score is often required now before a recruiter will even take a look at a CV or cover letter. This article will outline some key strategies you can use to succeed and make it through to the next stage of the process.
While a full list isn’t possible given that many law firms don’t publicly list their process until you’ve applied, here are a few examples of top law firms who are known to use Situational Judgement Tests as part of the recruitment process:
There are a number of free practice tests available online for law-orientated Situational Judgement Tests. Some have even been created by individuals previously working at SJT-employing law firms. Of course, there’s a major limitation here – the questions and answers won’t be tailored to a particular firm, as they often will be in the real thing. However, these practice tests are still an excellent way to get a feel for what kind of questions you’re up against and what kind of answers tend to score the highest. As with any exam which doesn’t rely on memorising actual content (including the Watson Glaser), practice tests become an even more invaluable resource than normal, since so much of the answer often hides in the intricacy of the questions and answers themselves.
Here’s a simple, generic example question we’ve created for you:
Q: Your supervising associate is going away next week and has asked you to take on some extra workload relating to the project you’ve been working on the past few weeks as a result. You’re already pretty busy and aren’t sure if you could get it done – plus you’ve got plans after work next week. How do you respond?
Some SJTs will ask you to simply select which action you would take. Others will ask you to rank the possible responses from most to least appropriate. Let’s take the more detailed ranking approach here, from best (1) to worse (4):
This may benefit from some explanation.
Number 4, while honest, demonstrates a lack of perseverance and the initiative to work hard (also prioritising activities outside of work during crunch time) – something few law firms have on their tick list for an aspiring lawyer. While the work-life balance in law is often far from ideal, you need to demonstrate that you’re willing to put in a shift. The tone may also come across as blunt and thus rude – very unprofessional.
Number 3 is admirable in regard to working hard, but equally creates the problem of spreading yourself too thin – while the work may get done, it’s unlikely to be of great quality.
Number 2 is a decent answer, demonstrating a sense of teamwork and collaboration, and ensuring that the work will still get done by someone with more time to focus on the task. However, your associate specifically asked you since you’re already on this project with them, and thus have probably developed specialist knowledge about the intricacies of what’s going on. It will take time to explain this to another trainee, and they’re more likely to make mistakes.
Number 1 is a balanced, mature response which demonstrates time management, project management, the ability to think rationally and logically, and still take ownership of your work.
Let’s now look at some of the themes you could consider in preparation for answering questions like these.
This applies to both the question and the possible answers. In the mock question above, the fact that the extra workload being given relates to a project you’ve already been working on for a while (and thus would have deep knowledge of) might tip the scale from D to C in terms of the best answer. Reading option D carefully may also make you notice that we’re talking about any trainee in the cohort – not necessarily someone who’s already been in (or currently sits in) your practice area, which again might affect your answer.
In exams like the Watson Glaser, or Situational Judgement Tests, the lack of content knowledge required means that it’s often in the intricacies of the wording that candidates will be tested – and this is where most will slip up. Many Situational Judgement Tests aren’t even timed – even if they are, be sure to allow yourself time to properly process everything about the scenario.
A useful technique for Situational Judgement Tests involves thinking about the specific employer you’re applying to. If they’re using an SJT in the first place, there’s a high likelihood that they want tailored answers. It can be useful as a result to try and work out what skills your specific employer values. While many law firms, for instance, may seem to blur together in your mind, looking for a ‘key attributes’ or ‘key values’ section on a law firm’s website, or ideally even speaking to others with more experience relating to the firm (perhaps a current trainee at your university law society’s networking event), can allow you to take note of what the firm particularly emphasises.
For example, if you’re torn between two reasonable answers where one prioritises teamwork and the other prioritises independence, some Magic Circle firms with larger trainee cohorts might prefer the teamwork option, whereas an elite US firm with lean teams and an eat-what-you-kill model might prioritise an independent approach.
When answering a Situational Judgement Test, you need to really take on the role of the situation itself. If you’re being asked a question as if you were a trainee lawyer, you need to remember to answer as a trainee lawyer – not from the mindset of your current situation (whether that’s a student, someone in another career, etc.). This might affect your answers in relation to considering things like etiquette, professionalism or industry specifics. For example, you might need to demonstrate a sense of formality that you’re not yet used to (consider the problematic blunt tone of Option A from the mock question), or bear in mind the sense of client confidentiality that comes with being a lawyer which isn’t usually as pronounced in other fields.
Another perspective you can take on a Situational Judgement Test question is to look for the most balanced answer – which often falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of actions you could take. Answers falling on the extremities (e.g. Options A and B from the mock question above) don’t usually manage to demonstrate a balanced range of qualities (as Options C and D do), and thus tend to score lower.
Be prepared for the test to take a number of formats – this is far less standardised than something like the Watson Glaser. While some Situational Judgement Tests will be laid out in a similar fashion to a normal exam (with text on your screen and a timer), others won’t be timed at all, and instead present the scenarios through a recorded video of the situation playing out in real time. For these testing formats, you’ll need to listen carefully – there may not always be a chance to repeat the video or audio during the test.
In short, Situational Judgement Tests are increasingly becoming a crucial stage of the application process for legal opportunities (especially for training contracts and vacation schemes at major law firms), and need to be tackled successfully in order to make a competitive application on the whole, whether alongside or instead of critical thinking tests like the Watson Glaser.
Aspiring lawyers should be prepared for any format, look over practice questions in advance, read the questions carefully and respond with a balanced answer that demonstrates a range of qualities which the hiring organisation is looking for. By doing so, you’ll set yourself on the right path for success in your upcoming applications.
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