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Behavioral Interview Questions

Behavioral Interviewing: Assessing Past Action

Employers use behavioral interview questions to assess your past and future performance. An interviewer will ask you to provide an example of a time you demonstrated a particular skill required of the position. Likewise, an employer may ask how you handled or faced a specific situation or assignment. For example, an employer might ask an applicant to describe a time he or she had to work with a difficult client. Interviewers use behavioral interview questions to determine whether you will be a good fit for the position. Your past performance serves as a strong indicator of future performance. By asking you to elaborate upon your prior professional experiences, employers can assess whether you possess the requisite skills for the position.

Behavioral interview questions provide an opportunity to connect your current skills and knowledge with the core competencies of the position. A core competency is a skill or personal attribute an individual must possess for successful performance. A position’s job posting will list core competencies under required skills or qualifications. Sample core competencies include:

  • Leadership
  • Flexibility
  • Motivation
  • Commitment
  • Initiative
  • Teamwork
  • Responsibility
  • Decision making
  • Communication
  • Trustworthiness
  • Problem solving
  • Organization
  • Resilience

To prepare for behavioral interview questions, review the job posting in advance of the interview and identify the position’s core competencies. For each core competency, identify a time you exhibited the required skill during a prior work experience, internship, clinical experience, or extracurricular activity, just to name a few examples. You should have at least two anecdotes for every core competency listed on the job posting. Completing this exercise in advance will enable you to present your best examples during the interview.

When presented with a behavioral question during an interview, frame your responses using the STAR method, which consists of the following:

  • Situation or Task: Provide context for the interviewer. Provide a brief overview of your position. Explain the problem or issue you faced while completing a specific project. You should seek to humanize the situation for the employer by providing relevant details.
  • Action: Describe the steps you completed or skills you used to address the problem or issue. Use this opportunity to highlight strengths and skills you could bring to the position.
  • Result: Summarize the result or lessons learned while addressing the issue.

Keep your answers specific, focused, and succinct. You should seek to engage the interviewer and demonstrate why you are the best candidate for the position using concrete examples.

Situational Interviewing: Assessing Future Action

While behavioral interview questions assess your past performance, situational interview questions evaluate your ability to respond to hypothetical challenges. An employer will present you with a hypothetical situation related to a project, supervisor, or other workplace issue and ask you to develop a response. The interviewer may also pose an ethical dilemma and ask how you would address the situation. Your response should resolve the issue presented while highlighting the strengths you wish to convey during the interview.

Situational interview questions provide an opportunity for the employer to assess your knowledge, values, and skills. Organizations use situational interview questions to test whether you possess the skills necessary for the position. The interviewer will be evaluating your ability to solve problems and address challenges under pressure. Additionally, the employer will be assessing your values and integrity if he or she poses a question involving an ethical dilemma.

You can prepare for situational interview questions similarly to how you prepare for behavioral questions. Review the job posting in advance of your interview and identify the position’s core competencies. From this information, you should be able to anticipate questions employers could ask based upon these skills. Put together a list of potential questions and practice your responses in advance of the interview.

OPIA has compiled a list of sample behavioral interview questions for you to consult in advance of your interview.

  • Tell me about a time you had to make a quick decision.
  • Tell me about a difficult experience you had in a clinic or internship and how you overcame it.
  • Tell me about a time you had too many things to do and had to prioritize.
  • What did you do the last time things didn’t go according to plan?
  • Tell me about a situation where you failed. Why did you fail and what did you learn from it?
  • Tell me about a time you had to work with someone who did things very differently from you.
  • Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a difficult client or coworker.
  • Describe a situation in which a detail you thought to be unimportant turned out to be very important.
  • Tell me about a time you had to persuade a colleague to accept your point of view.
  • Tell me about a time you went above and beyond the call of duty.
  • Describe a situation where your efforts had a direct impact on the outcome.
  • Tell me about an ethical work situation you had to deal with. How did it turn out?
  • Tell me about a time when you had to act in a leadership capacity.
  • What have you done in the workforce that shows initiative and creativity?
  • How would you handle a situation where you and your supervisor disagreed about an issue or course of action?

Hypothetical Interview Questions

Beyond the questions presented above, prosecutors and public defenders will typically ask applicants hypothetical questions to assess their judgment and reasoning. An employer will present hypothetical criminal fact pattern and ask you to make a decision based on these facts. These fact patterns often do not have clear-cut legal answers.

The employer will be evaluating your ability to respond to ethical concerns and your commitment to the mission. The interviewer also will be assessing how you react to a situation under pressure, your thought process to reach your decision, and your ability to defend your decisions when challenged. Prior to the interview, prepare yourself for questions related to criminal justice proceedings and ethical conduct. Review the questions below and think about how you would frame your answers, keeping in mind the interviewer’s objectives.

District Attorney’s Offices

Hypothetical questions posed during a district attorney interview will test an applicant’s allegiance to the community. The list below includes some hypothetical questions a district attorney’s office may ask.

  • You have been asked to handle another ADA’s hearing concerning the search and seizure of a pound of cocaine. The notes you have for the case indicate that the arresting police officer saw the defendant driving erratically and so pulled over the defendant’s car. When the officer asked for the defendant’s license and registration, the defendant said he didn’t have them. The officer arrested the defendant and searched the car. He found a pound of cocaine in the gym bag of the trunk. What questions do you have for the officer before you analyze how to argue for admission of the cocaine in front of the hearing judge? Do you think the search was constitutional? Develop your argument.
  • What would you do if you were assigned a case you were morally opposed to? How would you reconcile the conflict between your personal beliefs and the case?
  • What would you do if your supervisor told you to file a case but you did not believe beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was guilty?
  • Can you imagine a case in which you believed beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime was committed but you chose not to file?
  • You are an ADA on a case and offered the defendant a plea of five years. The defendant rejected it and wants to go to trial. You receive a call the night before the trial informing you that your only witness just died of a heart attack. You come to court to tell the judge that you have to dismiss the case when defendant’s lawyer approaches you and says that they’ll take the deal. What would you do?
  • A police officer and victim come in to the DA’s complaint office, wanting to charge an individual with armed robbery. The victim is an 80-year-old white man who was robbed at gunpoint at 3 AM with no witnesses. After the robbery, he sees a police officer and flags him down. The officer and the victim proceed to drive around for a minute when the victim points out the robber in front of a store with three other men. The robber has nothing on him at arrest – no gun, no wallet, not even his own identification. His three friends took off, so you don’t have any information on them. Would you charge armed robbery?
  • You are about to start a gun possession trial. The defendant was arrested after he was pulled over for running a red light. The arresting officer testified in the grand jury that he saw the gun lying on the passenger’s seat as soon as the he approached the defendant’s vehicle. At 9 AM on the morning of the trial, the arresting officer says he needs to talk to you. He explains that the arrest happened as he explained in the grand jury, except that he came on the scene after the actual seizure of the gun. The officer who saw the running of the red light and found the gun was at the end of her shift and asked this officer to cover the case. What do you do?
  • A police officer comes to your office with an arrest. She tells you that she heard about a robbery on her police radio; during the robbery, three guys knocked down an old lady and grabbed her purse. The officer started driving to the scene of the crime and she saw two men running down the sidewalk. One man was holding something bulky under his coat. She ordered them to stop. She searched them and the one with the bulky coat had a purse under his jacket, so she arrested them both for robbery. Would you write up the case?
  • You are prosecuting a robbery case. You have spoken with the victim several times about the events that occurred the night of the robbery. She presents consistent facts to you every time you speak with her, providing you with specific details about robbery, including the location, time, and description of the perpetrator. There are no inconsistencies. However, you have a strong, nagging gut feeling that you don’t believe her, but you are not sure why. You just do not believe her and you cannot point to a specific reason why. Why do you do?

Public Defender’s Offices

Public defenders use hypothetical questions to test an applicant’s loyalty to a client. The list below includes some hypothetical questions a public defender’s office may ask.

  • How would you counsel a young client who had never been arrested and is proclaiming his innocence in the face of prosecution for a serious crime based completely on the testimony of several police officers? The client is facing a long jail sentence should he be convicted after a jury trial but is now being offered a plea-bargained sentence of probation. What do you say to the client?
  • What would you do if you appeared for court and saw the government’s witness in the wrong courtroom? Would you notify the judge or the prosecutor when the witness failed to show up for court in the correct courtroom?
  • What would you do if you were assigned a case you were morally opposed to? How would you reconcile the conflict between your personal beliefs and the case?
  • You represent John Smith, charged with beating his wife. Smith admits to you that he did in fact beat his wife but stresses that an investigation into his wife’s personal background will reveal facts about her drug addiction, neglect of her children, and petty theft, that will devastate her credibility and result in Smith’s acquittal. He also tells you in an offhand remark that he would beat her again if he had the chance. How would you proceed?
  • In preparation for a trial, you contact the prosecutions’ main witness, the person who says that your client robbed him. You arrange to meet him with an investigator from your office (who can testify at trial if the complainant contradicts himself). At the meeting, the witness admits that in fact, he was trying to rob your client, the gun that was recovered was his, but he is too afraid to recant to the DA because he does not want to go to jail. You suspect that on cross-examination you can get him to admit to all of this on the stand. As a defense lawyer, you are concerned about his Fifth Amendment right not to self-incriminate. Before trial, do you call the DA and suggest that she have a defense lawyer present in court to advise the witness regarding Fifth Amendment, if need be?
  • Your client has stolen several pieces of equipment. She has two people who will supply her with an alibi, but you think they might be lying. Do you put these people on the stand?
  • How would you feel about defending a man who admits to you his guilt on child molestation charges yet wants to plead not guilty? Would you be willing to try to impeach the child’s testimony on the stand even though you know that the child is telling the truth and that by doing so, you are likely to get a favorable result for your client while at the same time further traumatizing the child?