We interview the interviewers to help guide you through the OCIs...
HIRING at most top firms follows a similar highly structured pattern: interviews on campus, followed by interviews back at the firms, then (hopefully) a summer associateship. Many components of this process are laid down by NALP's guidelines, and by law schools. Recruitment varies from school to school and from firm to firm, but here we will attempt to give you a rough overview of how the OCI process works, plus tips on how to get through it successfully.
We speak to many dozens of law firm recruiters each year during our research for this guide. Among other things, they tell us what they look for in prospective hires and what questions they're likely to ask during interviews. A number of consistent themes emerge about what they are looking for during these interviews, which we present below with some quotes from hiring partners themselves. Firms' recruiting strategies do differ, of course, and you can find out more about the particular requirements of each in the Get Hired section of our Inside View features.
OCIs are aimed at students at the start of their 2L year for summer positions the following summer, between their 2L and 3L years. Although they occur under the banner of 'fall recruiting', OCIs are increasingly held earlier in the year, starting in August and September. Besides BigLaw firms, smaller firms, public interest organizations and government agencies (like the Federal Public Defender’s Office, the IRS and Immigration and Customs Enforcement) also recruit on campus. While commercial law firms pay to attend, government and public organizations usually don't.
Students can bid on a certain number of employers (often between 20 and 50), ranking their preferences for firms and office locations. A preset system determines who they interview with: some schools allow employers to select a proportion of the students they interview; others use a lottery system which is entirely based on students' preferences. Bidding deadlines are usually in July.
Most schools request that students submit a writing sample alongside their resume when bidding for firms at OCI. This is typically a paper written on a legal subject. Good writing skills are essential for junior associates, as drafting is a big part of their staple diet. The writing sample is more important to some firms than to others. “This firm is really, really serious about the quality of the writing sample,” one BigLaw associate emphasized to us. “People with excellent credentials get turned away because their writing isn't top-notch.”
Besides OCIs, some firms also interview at job fairs with a regional focus (like the Midwest Job Fair) or are focused on a specific minority (like the NBLSA Job Fair and the Lavender Law Fair), or have a specific industry focus, like the Loyola Patent Law Interview Program. Smaller firms often take applicants through a mix of direct applications and OCIs, as they don't have the resources to visit a large number of campuses. A few firms bypass the OCI process entirely. Quinn Emanuel's recruitment 'parties' are the most high-profile example, letting students mingle with the firm's associates and partners at an informal drinks event before submitting resumes.
Firms see students' resumes before the interview. A resume should be no longer than a page long, unless you have at least five years' work experience prior to law school, which means you probably don't have space for that paper route you did in 10th grade. It also goes without saying that typos are to be avoided at all costs; even one mistake can make the difference between the 'yes' pile and the rejects, so do enlist someone to proofread your resume. Think carefully about coming up with a clear, punchy layout (there's helpful advice from Harvard here). Keep your resume continually up-to-date, and refine it constantly. Put your strengths somewhere where they can be clearly seen, targeting the five-second glance by a rushed recruiter. And, crucially, think carefully about how to tailor your resume to the jobs you want. It's not enough to say you're passionate about law. Give real and specific evidence which is targeted to the kind of firms you're applying to.
Often a resume will tick the right boxes, but recruiters will want to use the interview to find out if you really live up to your billing. Make sure you have plenty more to say about all the activities, experiences and hobbies you've listed. One interviewer explains that candidates are "likely to be asked detailed questions about items on their resumes. Their capacity to speak to those topics thoughtfully, compellingly and with some imaginative insight is very important."
Most students interview with between ten and 30 firms (assuming they can get that many interviews). OCIs usually last 20 minutes and are conducted by a mix of partners and associates. Some firms have a dedicated group of attorneys (often the hiring committee) which interviews on campus; others let a wider range of attorneys participate. Sometimes interviewers are trained by firms on how to interview and how to present the firm during OCIs. (Take a look at an OCI manual leaked to ATL – abovethelaw.com/2011/09/an-inside-look-at-sullivan-cromwells-recruiting-process/ – to get an idea of how big firms might prep their interviewers.)
Whatever's on your resume, it's how you come across during the OCI which matters most to firms. That doesn't just mean your personality – you need to be able to communicate how and why your past experiences make you right for the firm. The interview process itself is a test of character: interviewers will look at the way you speak, answer questions and make an argument to judge whether you have the qualities they are looking for. For example, many recruiters ask about candidates' undergraduate dissertations. They do this to see how well you still recall your main argument, and how well you can summarize your argument briefly for a lay audience. Of course, this ability to think on your feet is itself an essential quality for any attorney. Pay attention to which of its offices a firm is recruiting for on your campus. Some firms recruit for all their offices on all campuses; others allow specific offices to target specific campuses.
Firms often have a maximum number of students from any school who they will 'call back' for a second interview. 'Callback interviews' usually take place in October. They involve a half-day or whole day spent on-site at one of the firm's offices. Students are usually interviewed by four to six attorneys – a mix of partners and associates. Often there will also be a lunch or coffee event with junior associates.
Be aware that you are being assessed during the whole day, not just during the interviews themselves. Treat lunches and coffee dates as part of the interview process; there's no need to be formal, but you should always keep in mind that you are being judged – showing an interest in your interviewers' work and the firm in general is a good bet. “Candidates feel more comfortable during lunches with junior associates, so these interviews will often be more illuminating than the office ones. The associates fill out assessment forms in the same way that partners do,” a BigLaw hiring partner tells us. How you greet and talk to support staff and recruiters when you first arrive can be important too. Hiring committees usually take into consideration the views of staff and junior associates who have met with candidates.
A 'standard' callback interview will see some interviewers ask about your resume, while others might talk about hobbies, sports and academics to find out more about your skills and personality. “My interviewer put down my resume and said: 'Let's just have a conversation,'” one junior associate recalled. “Then we talked about what I liked and disliked about law school, the firm and my connection to the city.” Most firms allow interviewers a lot of free rein in what they ask. “Different interviewers will put different weights on certain aspects of a student,” another recruiter pointed out. Some firms employ so-called behavioral interviewing techniques. This ranges from asking questions directly about skills and competencies ('give an example of when you worked in a team') to structured assessments.
For example, Philadelphia's Pepper Hamilton uses an interactive scenario in which interviewers and candidates work though a legal issue. The aim is to “see how comfortable the candidate is in a working situation, how they work in a team and how they might counsel a client.” We reckon that this type of interviewing will become increasingly common in future.
If a student is unsure whether to join the firm (or vice versa) they might return to the firm for a 'second look' and meet with a few more attorneys. Candidates are often asked if they want to meet attorneys from certain practice areas during the callback or 'second look'. Make use of this opportunity: asking to meet people from certain departments – even if you're not sure which you want to join – will show you're engaged with the firm's work. A short while after the callback students will hear whether the firm wants to offer them a position as a summer associate. Students have 28 days to accept the offer.
Some top interview tips from hiring partners
- “I like to engage students about what their passions are – say what they wrote their thesis on – to see their fluency with language and whether they have a clear world view, sophistication and maturity.”
- “In interviews we use simple techniques to draw out aspects of someone's personality: when looking at leadership we might ask about past experiences where candidates were put into a leadership role. What was that experience like? Could they describe it in detail? How did you rise to the occasion? And so on.”
- “We ask about their connection to the city they’re interviewing in, about their outside interests and long-term plans, and what they like and don’t like about law school.”
- “One stock question I ask is: what is not on your resume that we should know about you? I like to know what’s behind the resume. That’s not just personality-related. I want them to go a little deeper so I can find out about their skills as a person. A wonderful response to that question is if someone relates it to a challenge they have overcome or a time when they have shown good judgment.”
- “The worst answer I have ever had to a question was the person who told me about working on a group project at college where no-one pulled their weight, so they did all the work. They were really proud of it, but it tells me they might not work well in a team.”
- “Show a serious interest in what the firm does, and what the people you are speaking to do.”
- “The biggest thing you could do wrong at OCI is not be able to keep up an intelligent conversation for 20 minutes or not have any questions.”
- “During interviews candidates should have good questions about the firm. Not just questions to which the answers are on our website, but things that show they have done their homework.”
- “Prepare. It takes more time than some students set aside for it. Practicing to get over the jitters is good, but what's more important is thinking through what you've done in your life to understand what skills you have that can contribute to being a lawyer. When we sense that somebody's done enough thinking about themselves to know which part of their experience to talk about at an interview, we're prone to think they're analytical and will be able to perform the tasks required of them.”
- “Identify a couple of areas of real interest and educate yourself about those areas, both through law school courses and practice experience. In that way you can distinguish yourself from the mass.”
Examples of questions
Here are some examples of OCI and callback interview questions reported by juniors and recruiters:
- Why do you want to be a lawyer?
- Why are you applying to this firm?
- What is it you have heard or read about this firm that made you interested?
- What areas of practice are you interested in and why?
- Describe to me the central argument of your undergraduate thesis.
- What did you enjoy about law school?
- Where do you see yourself five or ten years down the road?
- What mistakes have you made in your past?
- If I called one of your referees now, how would they describe you?
- How would your law journal colleagues who worked with you describe you?
- Describe a time when you didn't succeed and what you learned from it.
- Describe a time you showed leadership. How did you rise to the occasion?
- How much time would you spend polishing a draft to get the little points right?
- Can you describe a particularly challenging circumstance in your life?
- What motivates you?
- Are you a team player?
- Can you describe a situation where you handled a difficult customer?
- Tell me about a time you worked in a team that was dysfunctional.
- Tell me about a time you helped successfully produce a certain work product.
- Tell me about a time you had to juggle several responsibilities.
- Tell me about a time you faced a setback or failure and what you did.
- What adversities have you faced in past employment?
At many BigLaw firms, getting on the summer program is tantamount to getting an associate job. Historically, many firms used the summer program as a final step in the recruitment process: a tough few months' work at the firm would weed out the weaklings, and firms would only give job offers to a certain proportion of each summer class. Some firms still use the old model, but since the recession an increasing number only hire summers who they intend to take on as first-years. Firms now pride themselves on their 100% offer rates – you'd really have to screw up during the summer not to get an offer (the economy aside...).
Summer programs traditionally involved a lot of wining, dining and schmoozing of participating students. This trend, too, is declining. First, a recession-induced squeeze on firms' budgets means less cash to spend on perks for summers. Second, it used to be fairly important for firms to impress (top) students to stop them seeking jobs elsewhere. With the job market as tough as it is, this is barely necessary any more.
Firms now pride themselves on offering students a summer experience which reflects the life of a junior associate.
Recruitment outside OCIs
Aside from OCIs, firms recruit from some schools by allowing students to submit their resumes via a central pool. This is known as a 'resume drop'.
Some firms also accept direct write-in applications outside OCIs. As one recruiter put it: “If someone writes in to us and they're not from a top-50 school, but they came top of their class and were editor-in-chief of a law journal, that will certainly get our attention.” Networking is also very important if you want to get an associate job outside OCIs. Getting in touch with attorneys at the firm you are interested in either directly or via alumni events is the very least you should do. “Our attorneys are very involved with their former alma maters,” a hiring partner told us. Networking is also increasingly important if you are applying via OCIs. “Students need to work hard at networking as more job opportunities are spread by word of mouth than before.”
Some firms like recruiting candidates who have completed an LL.M., especially overseas. Usually though, an LL.M. will do nothing to help your chances of getting a job as an associate.