To know how I managed to render this articulate and educated barrister dumbstruck, you have to know a little about me. I’m an interview coach. And Mark has an interview coming up – for the QC Selection Panel no less. I have coached more than 500 people for interviews – from nervous graduates looking for their first jobs to senior directors moving companies. I’ve worked with doctors and accountants, management consultants and many lawyers. And the question that stumps the vast majority is the very one that has left Mark grappling for words: “Tell me about yourself”.

Mark eventually pulls it together, tells me a little bit about his practice, a case he’s currently working on and (bizarrely) the names of his children before meekly confessing “I have to say I’ve never really thought how to answer that question.” It’s not great, but still better than the economics graduate who could think of nothing except “well I really like Chinese food” (hardly the number one criteria for a job in an investment bank). There is something about interviews which sets the switch marked “common sense” to off.

I have no technical background in law – I read English literature before training as an actor – just as I have no background in the many other professions I’ve coached people towards. Interestingly, the skills required for an interview are broadly the same across all disciplines. And they are skills that lawyers struggle to master as much as anyone.

Silk selection

The QC Selection Panel offers a particular set of challenges that even the most skilled court performer could fall over. The current selection process dates back to 2004 and prospective QCs must now endure a competency interview. But they are a relatively recent phenomenon and no current QC applicant is likely to have encountered one before. Competency interviews are tough, time-consuming, tricky, confusing, easy to mess up and hard to get right. They are not technical interviews. In other words they don’t test your professional knowledge – your actual grasp of the law. Competency interviews explore frightening and vague concepts – teamwork, communication and leadership are currently very much in vogue.

In the case of the QC Selection Panel, there are five key competencies demanded for both the written application form and the worryingly short 30 minute interview (see “The five competencies” opposite). Worryingly short because 30 minutes does not give you a lot of time, or many questions, to demonstrate “understanding and using the law, oral and written advocacy, working with others, diversity and integrity.” Big concepts and not much time.

These happen to be the competencies for this particular appointment. But ask any chambers and they will (or should) have their own competencies for pupillage. Even the Judicial Appointments Commission has its own for applications for judicial office – a list even more frighteningly nebulous than those facing prospective QCs.

Failing to prove competencies is the number one reason for interview failure – and one reason why some barristers who seemed certain to take Silk on their first application in fact had to apply twice. It doesn’t matter how many cases you’ve won, how much you dazzled (or infuriated) the judge on a point of case law: the current system says you have to prove the competencies. If you can’t prove an “understanding of diversity and culture”, then you won’t get through.

Three key questions

So Mark turned to me for help. He’s stumbled at the first hurdle. “Tell me about yourself” provides a framework for the whole interview. It’s a similar question to “Walk me through your application form” or even something as vague as “So what have you been up to recently?” (And the fact that you’ve just come back from a fortnight in Mauritius is not what’s meant here.) I ask Mark three key questions: What is relevant? What is interesting? What is impressive

So I get Mark to talk about what is relevant to the position in question (in his case, QC); what is of interest to these particular interviewers (rather than “interesting” in the more general sense of “fascinating”); and, most importantly, what is “impressive” in the context of the role. Winning an Olympic medal in badminton may, in itself, be impressive but being asked to appear in court against a top QC (even if you lost) is much better in this context. There’s a key point here: what may seem everyday, unremarkable and mundane to you, may be the ingredients for a successful interview. If you identify the key material, talk about it clearly, coherently and (most of all) concisely then you are on your way to interview success.

Working a strong answer to “Tell me about yourself” forces you to consolidate your knowledge of yourself. I hate the phrase “selling yourself” because you’re not selling anything. In fact, you’re asking a group of people to judge whether or not you meet a pre-set standard. This is less pithy but also less intimidating. Ask yourself not how you can “sell yourself” but how you can prove what the interviewers want and need to know. Interviewers do not want interviewees to fail (a common misconception). You can make the interviewers very happy indeed by being well-prepared.

Prepare soundbites

The next stage is to work through the competencies and ask how you can prove each one in turn. This is where it gets difficult. I suspect lawyers, by nature, are not comfortable with soundbites (despite the TV clichés). But a competency interview demands a soundbite: you have to be able to summarise a key experience quickly and impressively in 30-60 seconds. It’s tough, it requires preparation and much practice.

Finally, try to anticipate every possible question. What would you ask you if you were the interviewer? Work through your application form and make sure you could verbally explain and expand upon everything you’ve written. Get others to help you with this, and keep refining your answers until they’re as good as they can possibly be.

Personal preparation

You will have heard all manner of interview tips and techniques. My suggestion is to ignore them. There are many old-wives’ tales out there. Preparing people for interviews is very personal. I avoid a “one size fits all” approach and I don’t enforce fixed rules. What is right is what works for you.

But if I have one piece of advice it’s this: always ask those three key questions and remember that detail and clarity are king.
Mark now knows that the Panel couldn’t care less what his children are called, or even that he has children at all. It would be a bizarre set of criteria if they did care, wouldn’t it?

*Names and key details have been changed.

James Hutchinson is an interview coach and communications trainer. For further information visit or telephone 07956 123694

The five competencies

To merit recommendation for QC appointment the following five competencies must be demonstrated to a standard of excellence in the applicant’s professional life. In general the Selection Panel will be looking for the demonstration of the competencies in cases of substance, complexity, or particular difficulty or sensitivity.  Competency B (oral and written advocacy) must be demonstrated in such cases. 

  • A. Understanding and using the law—Has expert, up-to-date legal knowledge and uses it accurately and relevantly, and becomes familiar with new areas of law quickly and reliably.
  • B. Oral and written advocacy—Develops and advances client’s case to secure  the best outcome for the client by gaining a rapid, incisive overview of complex material, identifying the best course of action, communicating the case persuasively, and rapidly assimilating the implications of new evidence and argument and responding appropriately. The Panel will be looking both at the preparatory and the resolution (in court or otherwise) aspects of advocacy.
  • C. Working with others—Establishes productive working relationships with all, including professional and lay clients, the judge and other parties’ representatives and members of own team; is involved in the preparation of the case and leads the team before the court or other tribunal.
  • D. Diversity—Demonstrates an understanding of diversity and cultural issues, and is proactive in addressing the needs of people from all backgrounds and promoting diversity and equality of opportunity.
  • E. Integrity—Is honest and straightforward in professional dealings, including with the court and all parties.