The ALJ Exam: Preparing for the All New Online Component

Some (but not all) qualified federal Administrative Law Judge candidates have received an email from OPM inviting them to sit for the Online Component of the examination process. The new ALJ exam measures 13 Competencies, compared to the 6 Competencies addressed when the exam was last opened, in 2009. The competencies include: Decision Making, Interpersonal Skills, Judicial Analysis, Judicial Decisiveness, Judicial Management, Judicial Temperament, Litigation and Courtroom Competence, Oral Communication, Problem Solving, Professionalism, Reasoning, Self-Management, and Writing. None of these are expressly defined in this year’s announcement.

Candidates may sample the Situational Judgment Test and Writing Exercise online.

The 2013 exam is the first to administer an avatar-driven Situational Judgment Test, and it is the first to include a timed, online writing exercise. Although candidates will not be able to access the Situational Judgment test or complete the writing exercise until the April 29-May 10 window opens, a sample is provided here: https://www.usajobsassess.gov/assess/default/sample/Sample.action?ALJSampleForm. This sample reveals that the SJT will be used to assess 6 of the 13 competencies: decision making, interpersonal skills, judicial management, judicial temperament, litigation and courtroom competence, and problem solving. (Note: some but not all of these 6 were tested for via narrative response in 2009.)

Unfortunately, there is no OPM preview of the Experience Assessment.

The online sample does not discuss Section 3—the Experience Assessment portion of the Online Component—nor does it define the competencies. We are left with the language from the announcement itself:

Section 3: Experience Assessment – The Experience Assessment includes multiple-choice and open-ended questions about work experience that is related to ALJ positions. Applicants select a multiple-choice response and write a narrative response, as appropriate, to indicate and document their experience associated with the targeted competency. The Experience Assessment is not timed.

At this point, candidates should be preparing CCAR narratives (accomplishment stories in the Context-Challenge-Actions-Results format) relating to all 13 competencies so that to-the-point examples are ready for each of them. As of the date of this writing, we don’t know what the character limits will be or whether 13 separate narratives will be required. Nevertheless we are coaching applicants through this process and working to build compelling narratives that fairly address this entire set of competencies.

The Resume Place wants you to be ready to go with well-polished, relevant and recent examples in the narrative format that OPM likes. And even if you don’t use all of these narratives for the online component, you will have paved the way for a successful structured interview, and will have given serious thought to issues and ideas that will be tested elsewhere in the exam.

Fortunately, The Resume Place’s experts have compiled accepted definitions for all 13 ALJ competencies—and we can help candidates craft compelling narratives.

Perhaps the hardest competency to explain is “Judicial Temperament.” OPM hasn’t defined this term, so how do we know what it is? Well, we’ve researched it. The American Bar Association Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary evaluates the professional qualifications of nominees to the federal courts— covering Article III judges but not ALJs. Still, its views are worth heeding. The ABA measures judicial temperament based on a nominee’s compassion, decisiveness, open-mindedness, courtesy, patience, freedom from bias, and commitment to equal justice under the law.

In his 2007 book, The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries That Defined America, noted author and legal commentator Jeffrey Rosen quotes Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts:

I think judicial temperament is a willingness to step back from your own committed views of the correct jurisprudential approach and evaluate those views in terms of your role as a judge…. It’s the difference between being a judge and being a law professor, and appreciating that it’s not so much a question of analytical coherence or overview, it’s more a question of where this fits in with the Court’s established body of law. And how it’s going to be received as law.

Rosen opines that judicial temperament requires a judge to step away from personal ideologies and “factor in the Court’s institutional role,” in the interests of consensus and stability.

Here are definitions for all 13 Competencies:

Competency 1 – Decision Making

From 2009 ALJ Announcement: Makes sound, well-informed, objective, and timely decisions; perceives the impact and implications of decisions; commits to action, even in uncertain situations, to accomplish goals.

Competency 2 – Interpersonal Skills

From 2009 ALJ Announcement: Shows understanding, friendliness, courtesy, tact, empathy, concern, and politeness to others; develops and maintains effective relationships with others; deals effectively with individuals who are difficult, assertive, hostile, or distressed; relates well to people from varied backgrounds and different situations; is sensitive to cultural diversity, race, gender, disabilities, and other individual differences.

Competency 3 – Judicial Analysis

From 2009 ALJ Announcement: Analyzes, evaluates and weighs all evidence, including technical subject matter; defines issues and makes findings of fact and conclusions of law, which are appropriate to the case; clearly articulates the basis for the outcome.

Competency 4 – Writing

From 2009 ALJ Announcement: Recognizes and uses correct English grammar, punctuation, and spelling; communicates information (for example, facts, ideas, or messages) in writing in a succinct and organized manner; produces written information, which may include technical material, that is appropriate for the intended audience.

Competency 5 – Judicial Management

From 2009 ALJ Announcement: Knows and applies legal, trial, and evidentiary rules and procedures; presides at, participates in, and/or facilitates conferences, hearings, and meetings with sensitivity, diplomacy and impartiality; develops a full and fair record (for example, elicits facts, when appropriate, by examining lay and expert witnesses and by other means); gives all sides a fair opportunity to be heard; works with others to find mutually acceptable solutions.

Competency 6 – Oral Communication

From 2009 ALJ Announcement: Expresses information (for example, conclusions, rationale, ideas or facts) to individuals or groups effectively, taking into account the audience and nature of the information (for example, technical, sensitive, controversial); makes clear and convincing oral presentations; listens to others, attends to nonverbal cues, and responds appropriately.

Competency 7 – Judicial Decisiveness

From American Judicature Society JNC Handbook (Ch 5: Evaluative Criteria): Decisiveness. A trial judge in particular must be capable of making quick decisions under pressure. Often a trial judge will be required to rule on objections as soon as they are raised. Motions, too, will require prompt decisions if cases are to progress. A trial judge must be able to keep cases moving and be willing and able to reach decisions. He or she must be able to quickly assimilate law and facts and to respond to issues raised by counsel with confidence and without hesitation. The judge must be willing to make hard decisions and be able to rule with firmness. An appellate judge also must act decisively to draft and circulate arguments in support of, or in dissent to, draft opinions in order to facilitate the appellate decision-making process.

Competency 8 – Judicial Temperament

(A) From American Judicature Society JNC Handbook (Ch 5: Evaluative Criteria): Judicial temperament. The judge’s job includes contact with lawyers, members of the public and court employees and requires an inordinate amount of an elusive quality called judicial temperament. Judicial temperament encompasses a variety of noble qualities. One of these qualities is dignity. To be dignified a judge must possess “quiet, tactful ways, and calm yet firm assurance.”6 A jurist with appropriate judicial temperament uses authority gracefully. Judicial temperament also requires sensitivity and understanding. An understanding judge is sensitive to the feelings of those before the court, recognizing that each and every case is important to the participants. Finally, a candidate is not temperamentally suited for the bench unless he or she possesses great patience. Patience is simply the ability to be even-tempered and to exercise restraint in trying situations.

(B) From Standards on State Judicial Selection (ABA Standing Committee on Judicial Independence, July 2000): (iv) Judicial Temperament. Judicial temperament includes a commitment to equal justice under law, freedom from bias, ability to decide issues according to law, courtesy and civility, open-mindedness and compassion.

Competency 9 – Litigation and Courtroom Competence

From Standards on State Judicial Selection (ABA Standing Committee on Judicial Independence, July 2000): (iii) Professional Competence. Professional competence includes intellectual capacity, professional and personal judgment, writing and analytical ability, knowledge of the law and breadth of professional experience, including courtroom and trial experience. Candidates for appellate judgeships should further demonstrate scholarly writing and academic talent, and the ability to write to develop a coherent body of law.

Competency 10 – Problem Solving

From OPM’s MOSAIC Competencies: Professional & Administrative Occupations 1996-1997 (http://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/assessment-and-selection/competencies/mosaic-study-competencies-master-list.pdf): Problem Solving – Identifies problems; determines accuracy and relevance of information; uses sound judgment to generate and evaluate alternatives, and to make recommendations.

Competency 11 – Professionalism

From American Judicature Society JNC Handbook (Ch 5: Evaluative Criteria): Integrity. This is another touchstone criterion. The responsibility of judges to make decisions that affect lives and fortunes requires the selection of men and women of unquestioned integrity. At a minimum, integrity means intellectual honesty, moral vigor and professional uprightness. It also requires a sense of honor, trustworthiness and absolute sincerity and reliability. A judge with integrity is unswervingly ethical. Ethical conduct by judges requires, at a minimum, commitment and adherence to the law, the Code of Judicial Conduct and the Code of Professional Responsibility. To emphasize the importance of integrity, and to alert potential candidates to the ethical standards to which judges must adhere, a number of nominating commissions, Nebraska and Utah, for example, send potential candidates a copy of their Code of Judicial Conduct along with the applicant questionnaire.

Competency 12 – Reasoning

From OPM’s MOSAIC Competencies: Professional & Administrative Occupations 1996-1997 (http://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/assessment-and-selection/competencies/mosaic-study-competencies-master-list.pdf): Reasoning – Identifies rules, principles, or relationships that explain facts, data, or other information; analyzes information and makes correct inferences or draws accurate conclusions.

Competency 13 – Self Management

From OPM’s MOSAIC Competencies: Professional & Administrative Occupations 1996-1997 (http://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/assessment-and-selection/competencies/mosaic-study-competencies-master-list.pdf): Self-Management – Sets well-defined and realistic personal goals; displays a high level of initiative, effort, and commitment towards completing assignments in a timely manner; works with minimal supervision; is motivated to achieve; demonstrates responsible behavior.

Need more help?

The Resume Place is standing by to provide ALJ applicants with the expert help they need to respond appropriately to the online experience assessment. This part of the evaluative process is not timed, and provides candidates with the opportunity to deliberate the merits of their own record, and provide the most accurate and useful responses in keeping with OPM’s standards and accepted techniques for providing accomplishment narratives in the format OPM prefers.

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