Being “On” at On-Campus Interviews

This post was co-written by Rachel Gurvich and Sean Marotta. 

As the summer draws to a close, we’re approaching the season of the On-Campus Interview (OCI). Let’s describe the set-up. Typically, on-campus interviews happen after an initial, usually competitive, screening. Students “bid” on a number of firms, and on the basis of their written applications—typically consisting of a cover letter, resume, and transcript, though sometimes also a writing sample and list of references—each firm selects a set number of students to meet with face-to-face.

Now, the mechanics: a law firm sends an interviewer to campus (or, for some schools, a hotel near campus) for a day, where she does a series of twenty-minute interviews that could last a morning, an afternoon, or even all day. Sometimes the firm is interviewing so many people at a single law school that it sends more than one attorney to do separate interview tracks. And sometimes the firms send multiple interviewers who will all be in the room with a single applicant at once. Either way, each candidate gets only twenty minutes to make an impression—and those twenty minutes may come in the middle of a great many other interviews.

Here are ten tips to keep in mind when preparing for and participating in on-campus interviews. 

  • Keep your firms straight. Often, during these fraught few weeks in August, students end up juggling many firms in a short time frame (it’s not uncommon to have multiple interviews per day, based on how the scheduling works). Pick out a few “distinguishing features” for each of the firms you’re interviewing with—check out how the firm markets itself for ideas—and try to tailor your answers and follow-up questions accordingly. And don’t get the firm you’re in the room with confused with other firms! Every interviewer has a story about the candidate that was very excited to work in the International Trade group of the New York office when the firm doesn’t have an International Trade group or a New York office. Try not to be that person.
  • Do you have any questions for me? Yes, you do. Check out Rachel’s post on choosing a firm for more advice on this topic. But if all else fails, remember that lawyers love to hear themselves talk and to discuss their own practice. And studies show that interviewers tend to think an interview went better when they spent most of the time talking. So even a more generic question, personalized to the listener and asked with visible enthusiasm, combined with active listening, can go a long way here. At a loss for what to ask? Here are a few suggestions that can work in most firm interviews: “What made you choose your firm?” “What are some interesting opportunities you got as a summer associate?” “How is work assigned to summer associates and junior associates?” “How does the firm credit pro bono work?” “What is it like being [at an outpost of a bigger firm] [at the headquarters of a large firm]?”
  • Let your personality shine through. A firm interviewer will talk to a lot of people in a day of 20-minute interviews, and all of you probably have equivalent—or at least comparable—credentials. Even worse, you’ll probably all be wearing gray or blue suits with white or blue shirts. Candidates can blend together, even with good notetaking. So interviewers will remember those with whom the conversation flowed easily or who made a personal connection. Instead of being over-rehearsed and stilted, try to let the “real you” shine through. That’s the only sustainable thing in the long run, anyway.
  • Related: keep your energy up. Sometimes, a burned-out interviewer may be relying on you not only to answer their questions fully, but even to keep the conversation going. These days can be brutal for interviewers. Not only might they have ten interviews in one day, but breaks may be quickly consumed by interviews that run over time. Be understanding if your interviewer is flagging around lunch or the end of the day, and be ready to propel the conversation forward if you have to. 
  • Don’t be arrogant. This one seems obvious, but it’s also something that we’ve seen a lot of would-be summer associates get dinged for. Basically, no matter how awesome your 1L year was and what a great summer experience you had, you’re still at the beginning of your legal career compared to the people interviewing you. Don’t be afraid to plug your experience and your accomplishments, but also be humble and remember that you have a lot to learn. 
  • Be ready to talk about your school. Firms tend to send alums of the school at which they are interviewing. So be ready to talk about whether Professor Smith still does X or whether Professor Jones is still using the Y hypothetical (but always, of course, in a respectful way). Interviewers often have law school nostalgia (which is why they agreed to take a day and go interview) and shared memories can break the ice and establish rapport. 
  • Remember it’s the first time they’re hearing you. You will say the same things again and again over the course of on-campus interviews. What your favorite class is. What you did at your job last summer. What happened with that Criminal Law grade. And it is easy to fall into rote with your answers. But remember the first rule of political stump speeches: It’s the first time they’re hearing it. So try to keep your answers as fresh as you can. After all, your interviewer wasn’t there the last ten times you explained why you really want to work in New York City. 
  • You don’t need it all figured out, but don’t be a blank slate. You will likely get asked what practice area you’re interested in. Or what city you want to end up in and why. You don’t need to know that you want to do False Claims Act qui tam litigation or that you want to live on Tenth Street between Third and Fourth Avenues. But you should at least know whether you are leaning towards corporate, regulatory, or litigation work, and explain why you are interviewing in one or two cities. Being too wide open looks desperate or disingenuous. 
  • Don’t panic about your interviewer. OCI interviews are, by necessity, not targeted. So you may be thrilled about a corporate practice and matched up with a litigator or vice versa. Don’t panic. Interviewers know this, too, and they aren’t going to hold it against you. But also understand that firms are big and your interviewer might not know in-depth about the practice area that has you really excited. Feel free to ask, but don’t be disappointed if the answer is a general, “I don’t know,” or “I’ll need to get back to you.”
  • Don’t be defensive. Often students have that one thing on their resume or transcript they’d like to “explain away.” An outlier grade, a gap in employment, or something else. While it’s good to think about what the narrative around these “blips” will be, when and how you talk about them is key. Think (and talk to your mentors and your school’s Career Services Office) about (1) whether to raise the issue affirmatively (usually, the answer is “no”), and if it does come up, (2) make sure that your narrative communicates that you’ve reflected on why the thing happened and taken steps to address the situation in the future. “I didn’t do as well as I hoped in Torts, and although that result was disappointing, after meeting with my professor, I understand that’s because [X]. In the future, I’ll be sure to do [Y] so that this situation doesn’t come up again.”     

Join us over on Twitter tonight (7/24), where we’ll continue the discussion for #PracticeTuesday, and don’t hesitate to get in touch with either of us if you have any specific or follow-up questions. Good luck!

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