How to Answer Situational Judgment Questions in Training Contract Applications

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Next City Lawyer
October 21, 2022
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min read


Situational judgement questions (SJQs) often arise in the context of online situational judgement tests (SJTs) for vacation scheme and training contract applications. SJQs can also appear in your in-person interviews at law firm assessment centres. Although they are not the main assessment method for most law firms, SJQs pose several problems for even the strongest candidates. Failing these questions can lead to instant rejection. It is therefore important that you know how to answer these questions so that you consistently progress through the law firm application process.

Over the course of this article we will consider:

  1. what an SJQ is;
  2. the contexts in which SJQs arise; and
  3. how to answer SJQs effectively.

What is a situational judgement question in a training contract process?

An SJQ is a question that tests how you might respond in a hypothetical situation. These situations are normally centred around the role to which you applied. When applying for vacation schemes and training contracts the SJQs will describe a situation in which you are a trainee solicitor at the firm you are interviewing at.

For example, you might be asked:

“You are a trainee solicitor working in our law firm’s tax department. Your supervisor has been on holiday and has not left you any work to do. You took the initiative and asked for more work from some associates and partners in the department.

Now that your supervisor is back, she has given you a large piece of work with a deadline that clashes with the other work you have taken on. All of your work is due in 72 hours and there is no way for you to finish it all in time without sacrificing some quality.

What do you do?”

We have created this example ourselves, but it is representative of a classic SJQ that you could face in your law firm assessments.

An online vs. in-person assessment centre situational judgement test for training contracts

SJQs typically appear in two contexts: an online SJT or a law firm assessment centre. An online SJT is a test that is taken on a computer. You will face a series of questions in the style described above. You will have a selection of answers to choose from (either in multiple-choice form or a sliding-scale response). SJQs in an assessment centre are more free-form. Your interviewer will pose questions to you in the style described above, but you have the opportunity to provide your answer in more detail and ask clarificatory questions.

If the law firm you are applying to has recorded video interviews then you may face SJQs at this stage (and so the lessons from the in-person interview set out below applies).

To exemplify what SJQ answers can look like on an online test, here is how you might answer the example question in the previous section if it was an online SJT for a vacation scheme or training contract (the answers are presented in the ranking order, from most to least appropriate). You should note that this example is a preference-order ranking answer set, as opposed to requiring a sliding scale response:

  • Answer (Rank 1): I would approach my supervisor and explain my situation to her. I would ask if the deadline for her work is flexible so that I may complete all pieces of work to the appropriate standard. If the deadline is not flexible, I would approach my other colleagues and ask if some of the lower priority work has more flexibility in their respective deadlines.
  • Answer (Rank 2): I would approach my supervisor and explain my situation to her. I would explain to her that I already am at capacity and I am unlikely to be able to complete her work to the appropriate standard given the deadline. I would work on my existing pieces of work and finish the work set by my supervisor later when I have more capacity. I would keep my supervisor updated throughout the process so she could set her expectations appropriately.
  • Answer (Rank 3): I would work as hard as I could throughout the 72 hours. I would complete all the pieces of work and sacrifice small amounts of quality in the lower priority tasks. It is better to get the more important pieces of work done well and according to the deadline. I would pre-empt any mistakes in my work by notifying the relevant colleagues of my situation and explaining that I will do a second draft for them once I have some additional capacity and the more important work has been taken care of.

The answers listed above would be presented in a random order. You would then have to rank them from most appropriate to least appropriate (as we have already done). Sometimes you may only have to select the most appropriate answer or the least appropriate answer, or both.

At a vacation scheme or training contract assessment centre interview, you will not be given any answers to choose from. You must formulate your own response. This makes it harder for you to guess the right answer. However, it allows you to give a stronger, more personal response than those offered on an online SJT. You may also ask the interviewer for some additional information which we will elaborate on in the next section.

How to answer situational judgement questions for training contracts

Many candidates think answering SJQs is like alchemy – it feels very luck-based and unpredictable. We sympathise with these feelings. You should remember that SJQs are often written by the law firm, meaning that the “correct” answer may differ between firms. Nevertheless, we have some best practice tips when it comes to answering SJQs for vacation schemes or training contracts which candidates often forget.

Hired as a trainee solicitor – not partner!

As part of an SJQ you will assume a particular role, usually that of a trainee solicitor at the firm you are applying to. So you must clearly understand:

  1. what a trainee solicitor does;
  2. what a trainee solicitor’s responsibilities are;
  3. what the expectations of a trainee solicitor are; and
  4. what the authority of a trainee solicitor is;

Many candidates go into an SJQ thinking that they need to showcase all of their competencies, such as teamwork, leadership, organisation, and so on. This is usually the wrong approach because the candidate forgets that the question is meant to be answered through the lens of being a trainee solicitor. A trainee solicitor is not meant to take charge and make high-level decisions; he/she is meant to do the most basic work required to complete a transaction or resolve a dispute. This is best illustrated with an example:

“Imagine you are a trainee solicitor and have been offered the opportunity to get involved in an interesting matter. Unfortunately, you are almost at capacity and have a lot of other work to be getting on with. What do you do?

  1. Discuss the work in greater depth with the individual who offered it to you. Understand what the work would demand of you and see if you can reorganise your schedule to fit in the work.
  2. Tell the individual that you are not available right now but suggest she talk to the other trainee who shares your office with you.
  3. Decline the work and explain that you do not have enough time to take on the work now but ask to be kept informed if a similar opportunity arises later.
  4. Explain to the individual who offered you the work that you do not have the capacity right now. You do not want to get anyone’s hopes up and you are unsure what your capacity will be in the future.”

Try and answer this example question on your own before reading ahead.

Our suggested answer

The last answer is the least appropriate. It demonstrates a lack of understanding concerning what a law firm expects of its trainees. A trainee solicitor is supposed to try to take on as many opportunities as they can. Even though you may be at capacity, that is no excuse for you rejecting work or similar opportunities at a later date. You will almost always be “busy” – you are expected to make time to take on these tasks!

The second and third responses are inappropriate but still better than option four. The second option shuts down the opportunity like option four but does make a slight improvement by offering a (weak) solution. The solution, however, is not a good one. The individual has approached you for work, not your colleague. If they wanted to give the work to the other trainee, the individual would. It is also not your place as a trainee solicitor to be suggesting other people take on work given or offered to you. As a trainee solicitor, you have little to no authority when it comes to delegation. Always be suspicious of answers that describe you delegating work – consider whether it would be appropriate for a trainee solicitor to do so!

The third answer, like the second answer, goes further than option four, making it a marginally better response. You always want to keep an open mind when it comes to taking opportunities. Nevertheless, the answer is lacklustre. Think about it in practice: if you turn the opportunity down now, the individual may not offer it to you again. They will be more likely to offer the work to another trainee who is passionate enough to make time for it. You must reflect on the expectations that the firm has of its trainee solicitors. They want bright, passionate trainees who are motivated and organised enough to rearrange their schedules and take on larger workloads.

The first answer is the best. You should note that in this answer you do not immediately turn the response down. Instead, you ask for some more details about the work. This demonstrates curiosity and conscientiousness. You may almost be at capacity but you do not know how much this extra work actually entails for you! It also demonstrates a degree of self-understanding. You know what your skills are and by understanding what the requirements of the work are, you will be in a better position to know how you could take the work on. Finally, the response ends with you evaluating your capacity and attempting to action a solution to see if you could complete the work. You should note that the answer does not say you will take on the work but rather it shows you trying to take on the work. This is what the law firm is looking for and is what all of the other answers lack.

You should observe from reading these explanations that there are two major things to consider when choosing the correct response. The first is: what are the expectations of a trainee solicitor at this law firm? The second is a subset of the first: what competencies should I have? Most candidates only consider the second point when it is more important to consider the wider expectations the firm has of their trainees.

It is impossible to sum up all of these expectations in a short paragraph. However, trainee solicitors are expected to demonstrate a high degree of passion for their work, a strong level of organisation, and work well with others. Firms expect them to exceed expectations when it comes to the quality of their work. They should to take ownership of their work and not deviate from what colleagues have assigned them. Trainees are expected to seek out work and take on new opportunities but not to let others down or sacrifice quality for quantity.

Read SJQs carefully

Whilst this section’s advice is more relevant for in-person assessment centre SJQs it may still be useful when taking online SJTs for vacation schemes or training contracts. You must pay close attention to all the details when answering an SJQ. Any specific detail may be a clue to giving the correct answer. For example, if the question states that you have been offered some work to do on a Friday you should consider that you might have the weekend to complete it. This may influence your answer as to whether you should take on the work.

Ask for for clarification

You can also ask for further context when facing an SJQ at an assessment centre. This can help show your thought process and explain how you reach your conclusion. For example, you may be presented with a situation in which you are told that you are on the way to a meeting but have forgotten some important but non-confidential documents. You could ask the interviewer whether you have a digital copy of the documents on hand, either on your email system or on a USB drive. You could also ask whether those at the meeting are used to having documents digitally in such meetings or whether you had previously promised them to have these documents printed. There are many questions you could ask so make sure you pick the ones that help you to advance your response and ultimate decision.

You should be careful of assuming information in the situation. Although in an in-person assessment you will be able to ask the interviewer for clarification and further context, there is no guarantee they will give it to you. They may say, “answer however you think is appropriate”. In these circumstances, you may choose to involve an assumption in your answer by stating, “in the case that [insert reasonable assumption here]…”.

The best candidates will consider multiple possibilities by stating, “In the case that [insert reasonable assumption] then [insert response x]. However, where that assumption is not the case “[insert response y].”. Do not base your response on an assumption without (i) explicitly asking whether the assumption is or is not the case in the scenario and (ii) then saying that you will or will not base your response on it. You must make sure that the law firm interviewer is following your thought process!

Be wary of making assumptions

If you are taking an online SJT, you must not insert any additional outside information into the situation. Although you are expected to think about the law firm’s expectations of you in the situation, you should not assume additional facts. For instance, you might be presented with a situation in which you are distracted during a client meeting and miss important information. The scenario may say nothing else. It would be inappropriate for you to assume that your colleague was making notes and that you could just read his notes afterwards.

Most online SJQs will discourage you from making these assumptions through the answers available to you; however, some firms may slip these assumptions into the answers themselves. Be wary of succumbing to an answer that seems too good to be true.

Explain your SJQ answer

As touched upon above, for SJQs given in an assessment centre you have to lead the interviewer through your answer. Candidates often leap to a “correct” answer. Although there may be more correct answers than others, this will not score you the highest marks. At this stage, the interviewer is more interested in your approach to problem-solving than how you would actually react. You need to give your answer in stages, setting out what you would do logically. Here is an illustrative example:

“Imagine you have just received some harsh feedback from your supervisor on a piece of work you submitted. Your supervisor bluntly delivered their feedback and was clearly upset with you. How would you deal with this situation?”

The best candidates will begin with a human response which might be something like: “I know that harsh criticism is tough for most of us to deal with, and I would probably take a minute or so to collect myself and my thoughts. The last thing I would want to do is to add my own emotions into the conversation. I would give myself a little breathing space to calm down and understand what they have just communicated with me.”

After this, the response may continue as follows: “I would first apologise for the quality of work. If my supervisor is upset with me, I would want to de-escalate the situation and move the conversation towards a discussion of how I can (a) rectify the situation and (b) improve in the future.”.

Although the answer would continue in greater depth, this example demonstrates that you must lead the training contract interviewer step-by-step through your response and explain your choices as you go. The best candidates will have perfected this process and it is something that you should practice doing!

Male and female in interview artistic representation


This blog article has covered how to answer SJQs in vacation scheme and training contract applications. Specifically, we have looked at what an SJQ is, the contexts in which you may be presented with SJQs, and how to answer them effectively.

Our summary

To summarise our advice:

  1. An SJQ is a question that is designed to test how you would respond in a given situation. These situations are usually related to the role you are applying for (i.e. a trainee solicitor).
  2. SJQs typically appear either as part of an assessment centre interview or as part of an online test when applying for training contracts. You may also face them at the recorded video interview stage (if the law firm has one).
  3. Online SJTs have set answers whilst those faced at the interview stage allow you to give a personalised response.
  4. Understanding the role and expectations of a trainee solicitor is crucial in answering SJQs. You must remember that a trainee solicitor is expected to be passionate, organised, and amiable. They are also expected to understand that they have very limited authority and are solely responsible for their work.
  5. You must be aware of the context detailed in the situation but may be able to ask your interviewer for additional detail. Ensure that you address any assumptions you make explicitly and explain how you would behave differently if the assumption you made was not valid.
  6. If you are taking an online SJT, do not assume any facts that are not detailed in the situation.
  7. For SJQs during an interview, you must explain your answer and work through it step-by-step. The interviewer is as interested in your thought process and argumentation as they are in the actual answer.

We hope you found this article useful – if you did, please share it with other candidates who might find it helpful!

You can learn more about how we can help you secure a training contract here.  

  • Our Application Database has >95 examples of successful applications for >70 different law firms for £14.99 each. Each application includes expert line-by-line commentary by our team of qualified solicitors from US, Magic Circle and Silver Circle firms to help you craft your own perfect application and secure a training contract.
  • Our Practice Case Study will help you turn your assessment centre into a training contract offer. This realistic mock case study takes 45 minutes to complete. It includes >15 pages of expert feedback which will teach you vital commercial content that you need to know and help you to assess how strong your practice performance was.  It costs just £19.99.
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