Callbacks, continued

It’s OCI season, which means that it is—or soon will be—the time of year when many law firms subject many law students to that time-honored endurance test: the callback interview. Typically, this experience consists of 4-6 consecutive one-on-one interviews, each with an attorney of varying seniority, sometimes followed by lunch or coffee with even more attorneys. Needless to say, it’s often an overwhelming and exhausting experience, particularly when students run the gauntlet of multiple callbacks in a compressed time frame. 

Callback strategies were one of our #PracticeTuesday topics last week, and as part of that conversation, I started this thread:

Following up on that thread, I thought I’d use this post both to provide some context for my tweets and also to elaborate a bit on what I said.

As many of you know, I practiced for seven years at WilmerHale in Boston. How I got there and why I stayed will be the subject of a separate post, but for now, suffice it to say that during my time at Wilmer, I did a *lot* of callback interviews.

In large part, this was because the Hiring Committee and the fantastic recruiting staff knew that I was reliably social and especially loved talking to law students (I loved it so much, in fact, that I’d eventually leave the firm for a job that consists mainly of . . . talking to law students). This interest paid off spectacularly when I got to be on the of the co-chairs of the Boston  office’s summer program during my last year at the firm.

Plus, I gave a pretty convincing sales pitch. See, I had been particularly apprehensive about going into BigLaw when I was on the other side of the table, and for a variety of reasons—having to do with me, not the institution—had expected to dislike working at a large law firm (again, a story for another day). As it turns out,  I had a fantastic experience and was eager to return to Wilmer after completing the clerkship I had originally intended to be an easy escape valve out of BigLaw. So I came back, stayed six more years until I left for academia, and became—of my own volition—one of the firm’s biggest cheerleaders. (To this day, I’ll happily give that same sales pitch to anyone who will listen; it’s a great place.)

In any event, I was firmly on the firm’s list of “usual suspects” for conducting callback interviews, and over the course of several years, I had the opportunity to sit down with many aspiring summer associates. With that context in mind, here’s what I know: by the time a 2L walked into 60 State Street for her callback interview, the Hiring Committee didn’t doubt that the person could successfully complete the tasks expected of a summer associate (and, eventually, of a junior associate). Her application materials and her performance in the on-campus screener had already established her qualifications. Instead, what the Hiring Committee wanted to know—and what I was supposed to help them figure out—wasn’t anything that would be apparent from stellar credentials or a paper application alone.

One of the things I was looking for in callbacks was the answer to this question: if I’m drafting an emergency brief or reviewing documents in a warehouse or closing a deal at 1:00AM, is the person across the table someone I’d want to in the office next to mine or cooped up in the warehouse with me or on the phone with me in the wee hours of the morning? (Importantly, this is also a question that interviewees should be asking themselves about the attorneys they meet during the OCI process.)

But what does all that really mean? Well, take a minute and imagine that you’ve found yourself in one of the scenarios above. Who would you want at your side—at least figuratively? Yes, you’d want someone smart and capable of doing the work, but as I’ve said, that’s a given at this stage. And no rising 2L (or first-year associate, for that matter) is expected to be an expert in any substantive area of law.  What else? You’d want someone eager to learn, someone resourceful and proactive, someone who anticipates the needs of the team or the project without needing to be told. You’d want a dependable team player, someone who volunteers to take on additional responsibilities to lighten everyone else’s load, someone to whom collaboration comes easily. You’d want someone with good judgment, who can prioritize multiple time-sensitive tasks, determine which issues are appropriate for her to handle and which require senior attention. You’d want someone who demands excellence of herself, who consistently dedicates herself to producing the best work product she is capable of producing, and who truly understands what it means to serve a client.

But also—you’d want someone fun. No, seriously. Remember, it’s 1:00 in the morning. You want someone who is going to make you smile, who can carry on a lively conversation as you wait for the partner to send back edits, someone who will thoughtfully offer to get you another coffee when your eyes start to droop. You may not want a friend, but you’d at least want someone who is pleasant to work with. You absolutely would not want someone arrogant—someone who treats the staff at the printer’s differently than the lawyers on the team, for example—or someone who has a bad attitude because the team had to pitch in extra time to get the job done right.   

So what does this mean for your callback? Simply put, be the person you’d want to be in a room with at 1:00AM. Exhibit—in tangible ways—curiosity, eagerness to learn, and determination; have some specific examples or anecdotes about your work or life experiences where these qualities will shine through. Speak with enthusiasm about your 1L summer or pro bono work.  It doesn’t matter what it was; it matters that you prove your ability to speak wisely and passionately about it; it matters that you learned something from it.

Show the interviewers your investment in their firm, and in each of them as a unique individual. Listen carefully to what you hear from each attorney and actively engage in the conversation on their terms. (The preceding link to one of my favorite blogs, Listen Like a Lawyer, has some great resources about listening in interviews.) Don’t be afraid to let your personality shine through, even if it’s a bit nerdy, or a bit quirky, or a bit goofy. Your interviewers may see dozens of candidates in a few short weeks; the ones they’ll remember are the ones who are memorable (for the right reasons): that is, the ones who forget personal connections with them.

This should go without saying, but don’t be defensive or arrogant. Those qualities pop right out in an interview, and then people start to talk and a (bad) reputation is born. Relatedly, treat everyone you encounter in the building—from the managing partner to the recruiting staff to the administrative assistants—with exactly the same level of respect and courtesy. I promise you, people will definitely talk about things like this, and it’s the kind of information that spreads especially quickly.

Finally, my #PracticeTuesday thread on callback interviews raised a few other important points. More specifically, remember that the callback is also your opportunity to show the firm: (1) why you want to be in their city (even big firms in big cities like Boston will expect you to have independent reasons for choosing that city); and (2) why you want to be at that firm specifically (and here, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to do your research). And of course, all of the other general interview advice that folks have shared on #PracticeTuesday (like this thread or this one or this one) still holds at the callback stage.

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below or email me with any questions. Good luck!

2 Replies to “Callbacks, continued”

  1. Enjoying the team work. As I look back on my already 30+ years practicing law, those are the times I remember the most fondly. Five or more of us working to finish a brief at 3 a.m. in Baltimore so an associate could drive it and the detailed exhibits to the printer in Philadelphia to be printed, bound and filed that day in the Third Circuit. Absolutely exhilarating. Having the right people on that team makes all the difference.

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