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A way to apply yourself

15 October 12

A training programme has been devised to help solicitors who wish to apply for judicial or other office but who may have difficulty with modern, competency based selection procedures

by Roderick Wylie

The days are long gone when those in the legal profession who wished to further their careers and join the judiciary, or become the chair or member of one of the statutory tribunals, would be invited to do so, or would be able simply to “express interest” in such a post and then await the call. As I am sure everyone now realises, to become a member of the judiciary or of one of the various tribunals, there is an extensive and thorough application and interview process to undergo. In the case of some tribunals, applicants will not even be able to submit an application form unless they have successfully completed a qualifying test, such is the intense competition that now exists.

For any senior appointment within the public sector, the selection process – both at application form and interview stages – is largely or exclusively competency based. This means that those selected will have had to demonstrate, by their past performance, that they have the relevant knowledge, skills and behaviours for the post in which they are interested. This move towards competency- based selection is by no means restricted to senior public sector appointments: speak to any recruitment agency and their representatives will tell you that this form of selection is now by far the most common for all stages of the recruitment process, and for positions at all levels.

Whereas interviews used to be filled with questions about what a candidate might do in a hypothetical situation, this approach is now very much the exception rather than the rule. After all, it is quite easy, when faced with a hypothetical question, to answer with what you think the interviewers want to hear. It is much harder to do so if asked a penetrating question about what you have actually done, and what the result was. Such questions on actual performance can also be followed up with further analysis of the results of what you did, and what you might have learned, or what you might do differently if faced with a similar situation or task in the future. At the end of a competency-based interview, applicants should feel that each of the various competencies needed for the post in question has been thoroughly explored by reference to their own past performance.

Lost in translation

Not everyone is acquainted with competency-based selection, and it is certainly the case that many have struggled with its requirements over the last few years. When I first met Neil Stevenson, the Director at the Law Society of Scotland who commissioned this work, he was keen to emphasise that it was sometimes the most senior and respected solicitors who had least prior experience in such processes. He hoped that online learning would support members interested in new roles and ensure both that all solicitors could compete effectively for posts in the public and private sectors, and that talent was not excluded from the judiciary and public life simply on the basis of lack of familiarity with contemporary recruitment methods.

I have worked closely with solicitors in the public and private sectors for over 25 years, and for many of these years was very involved in the recruitment of solicitors. One of the common threads running through interviews I attended or conducted, especially those involving more senior solicitors, was that many tended to undervalue what they did. They also sometimes had difficulty in relating their practical working experience to the sort of essential and desirable criteria that appear regularly in modern-day job descriptions and person specifications.

Before I started to prepare the training, I wanted to understand some of the issues faced by those responsible for administering the recruitment process in the public sector.

Speaking to Michael Garden, chief executive of the Judicial Appointments Board for Scotland, it became clear that my experience of interviewing solicitors rang a bell with him, which is why he feels the training is necessary. “Some candidates”, he told me, “have not done themselves, or their careers, justice when completing the new- style application forms, because they have made assertions about what they have done without explaining properly their own role or providing evidence of what has happened. We need concrete and concise examples that show what the applicant has done personally and demonstrate that they have the necessary attributes for the post. It is clear that some advice and training relating to all stages of a competency-based selection process would be helpful.”

Of course, in some cases it may be years (or even decades) since someone senior in the legal profession has gone through a selection process. If, for example, they have joined a firm as a trainee solicitor and gradually risen through the ranks to become an associate or partner, they may not have had any formal interviews during that time. To be faced with an application form requiring a significant amount of structured and condensed writing can be relatively intimidating, even for someone senior and respected.

One of the issues may be that, when faced with a person specification that lists the experience and personal skills and abilities that will be needed for the post, there can be an apparent disconnect between the skill or competency needed and what is done on a regular basis in the person’s professional life: for example, if the post calls for “negotiation skills”, the solicitor needs to think laterally in order to translate their own experience to that criterion. In this example, questions such as “Have I had to discuss and agree fees with a client?”, or “Have I had to agree with another person or department in the organisation what time I spend on this piece of work?” need to be asked. It is almost certain that some form of negotiation skill has had to be used during a career in the legal profession, but identifying when and in which circumstances, and then describing these, is the critical factor when completing an application form. Thinking in this way does not come naturally for everyone.

Time of the essence

One of the other issues I found when researching what can currently go wrong for those applying for senior posts in the public sector, is that some of the application forms betray a rushed approach in completing them. Martin McKenna, head of operations of the Scottish Tribunal Service, which assists with appointment-making to the tribunals it supports, makes the point that “for such senior appointments, those applying have to leave plenty of time to complete the application form, and then to revise and refine it so it is as clear as possible and that, critically, it demonstrates beyond doubt that the applicant fulfils the necessary competencies required for the post. For these posts, potential applicants should ideally be thinking of preparing for the selection process well ahead of when the post may be advertised, and in that way the application process will not be rushed and it will be easier to describe succinctly their relevant experience”.

Certainly in the case of appointments to the judiciary or to one of the statutory tribunals, it is likely that those who have such aspirations will have had this ambition, or will at least have thought about the possibility of applying, for some time – maybe even years. It’s never too soon to be thinking about what sort of evidence you might need when the time is right for you to apply.

Good practice

With all of this in mind, the online training I have devised for the Society looks at what a competency-based selection process is, and then goes on to provide advice on what to do in advance of such a process before covering how best to complete the application form and how to prepare for – and behave at – an interview. Although I have focused in particular on senior posts in the public sector for which a competency-based process is used, the online training is not exclusively for those applying for such posts, given its wide use in all sectors. I have included in the training some reminders and general tips on good practice relating to CVs, application forms and interview practice.

The hope is that this training facility from the Law Society of Scotland will assist many in the profession and will make the jobs of those who analyse and sift applications for senior posts much more challenging!

Roderick Wylie is a management consultant and a former chief executive of Murray Beith Murray

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