Navigating On-Campus Interviews in Law School

A current 2L student walks you through the OCI process that takes place in the fall at many law schools.

OCIs, or “on-campus interviews” are an important part of the process for many law students’ employment search. It is the recruiting process that law firms, especially the bigger ones, will use to interview and hire summer associates. While some OCI-style hiring can occur for 1Ls and 3Ls, the bulk of the OCI process is conducted with the intent of hiring 2L summer associates. For those interested in Biglaw, it is important to become familiar with OCIs because it is not uncommon for over 90% of a firm’s first-year associates to have been hired through the OCI process.

Why do firms and schools hold OCIs?

There is an incentive for larger firms that have a national reach or multiple offices to conduct OCIs rather than to hire mainly through direct applications. Not only does creating pools of applicants grouped by schools help narrow their geographical interest, but the firms can also market themselves to students, save time by conducting initial interviews (or “screeners”) in bulk, and have access to additional information that a school can provide about the candidates. Larger firms will often seek candidates from the higher ranked schools, and a consolidated effort to prioritize their search can be a valuable tool. By dealing with individual schools instead of individual applicants, much of the communication effort can also be reduced on both ends.

Smaller firms will also often participate in a local school’s OCI process. If, for instance, a firm is dedicated only to serving clients in Indiana, having a chance to meet the best and most interested candidates in Indiana might be as simple as being a part of a handful of Indiana schools’ OCIs. It is also not unheard of for public interest agencies or non-legal firms (e.g. finance and accounting firms) to participate in a school’s OCI process.

Which law students should participate in OCIs?

If you want to enter Biglaw, use the OCI process that is available at your school to the fullest extent. Not all schools will have the same degree of success in placing their students into jobs through OCIs, but not doing OCIs and expecting to make Biglaw is almost certainly misplacing your efforts. Cold applications, resume collections, and networking are all very valuable tools to attain the job that you want, but getting into Biglaw without OCIs is closer to the exception than the rule.

If a firm is not conducting OCIs at your school, then there is nothing you can do about it, and you should find other ways to get on the firm’s radar (still very do-able!). However, if a firm will be present at your school’s OCIs, you should participate diligently through the process that your school has set up for you.

One thing you might want to consider is how competitive of a candidate you will be at your school’s OCIs. If you know from the data that your school does not place heavily into Biglaw and only the very top of the class gets a crack at it, perhaps applying to every prestigious firm available is not a good way to spend your energy. However, if your school tends to have a robust OCI season and you also happen to be a very strong candidate at any firm, you should be picking and choosing carefully where to apply, because you might end up with too many interviews to prepare for.

Firms and schools devote considerable resources to creating a streamlined interview process for students. Sometimes, schools charge firms to participate in OCIs. Firms must also send interviewers, often capable attorneys themselves, and need to cover the travel expenses and lost time working for clients. Schools do all of the behind-the-scenes communications and logistics. However, the student will often have to do no more than submit application materials like they would in any other situation. For law students, OCIs are competitive but intended to benefit you!

What participating in OCIs is like

Not all OCIs are created equal. Some schools will have lotteries, where a firm cannot pick the candidates for a certain number of their interview slots (at my school, there was once a time when every interview slot was a lottery!). Some schools have bid systems in place, where a student can rank their firm preferences which will be calculated into the final decision of who gets interviews and who does not. 

Some schools may have a GPA cutoff or extracurricular requirements to participate at all. Some schools aim to conduct local OCIs for particular regions off-campus and may even fly students out to interview (usually the biggest markets like NYC, LA, Dallas, etc.). While none of these differences should be stopping a student from aiming to participate in OCIs, keep in mind that you should defer to the details of how OCIs are conducted at your particular school.

Generally speaking, after you have submitted your applications, the firm will end up with a schedule of screeners. Screeners are 15-30 minute interviews and a firm can spend an entire day or more conducting them back to back. From those screeners, the firm is likely to offer a second-round interview, or a “callback” interview to the best of the qualified candidates. Callbacks can vary between firms, but a student can expect to have multiple interviews in a row with partners and associates of the firm, and possibly a lunch or coffee, in sum spanning anywhere from 3 to 4+ hours. After a successful callback interview is when a student can hope to receive the job offer.

How should a law student prepare for OCIs?

At any stage in your academic and professional career, you should be working on your communication skills, interpersonal skills, and professionalism. Do your best to be comfortable talking about your background and career goals, and develop your ability to leave a good impression.

OCIs for 1Ls

If you are in your 1L year, understand that grades matter a lot and will be one of the biggest factors in helping you get screeners from firms. You are in a graduate program to receive training and qualifications for a profession, so you should be well aware that your academic success plays a huge role in your available career outcomes.

As a 1L, you may be able to find opportunities to do OCI-style interviewing (some schools even have 1L OCIs). While you should try your best to get an offer, also use the 1L summer job interviews as valuable practice runs since you will likely have many more of them during your 2L summer job search. Pay attention to the kinds of questions you are asked and what your weaknesses are, particularly for firm interviews.

OCIs for 2Ls

As you finish your 1L year and become a rising 2L, you should be focusing on polishing your application materials. A resume, cover letter, transcript, and writing sample are often required by firms. In addition, you should begin to research the firms that you want to end up at and even reach out to attorneys and recruiters at those firms to establish a connection and hear first-hand about the firm. You will have better interviews if you can explain why you think that a firm will be a good fit for you and vice versa.

How to manage multiple offers

Let’s jump to when OCIs went extremely well for you and resulted in multiple offers from firms. How do you decide? Sometimes the answer will be obvious based on factors such as salary, geography, or practice areas. However, biglaw pay often does not differ drastically, especially amongst the larger firm offices in the largest markets. In addition, you probably have applied to and interviewed with firms after having done research on these factors, so the options you have available can often appear very similar. If you haven’t already, detailed information on firms can be found on Vault or NALP Directory of Legal Employers. These sites are where you can find information about salaries, national and regional reputations, associate reviews, return offer rates, summer programs, and much more.

Future lateral options

Beyond the basics, consider the reputation of the firm beyond just any ranking. Do you want to leave biglaw after just a few years? Exit opportunities can differ especially when contrasting the most reputable firms from the barely Biglaw firms. A firm with 500 attorneys is rarely going to be contested as being Biglaw, but a firm with 2,000 attorneys that has over 40 offices is going to be more recognized and will have a larger network of professionals to dip into. If you want to move cities or countries after a few years’ stint in Biglaw, a more nationally recognized firm can carry further on your resume. Bonuses may be higher at some of the most prestigious firms in the largest markets, but there is also the possibility that you will have to work harder for it. There is also nothing wrong with simply wanting a more prestigious outcome, especially if you find that all else is equal.

Know your interviewers

Consider the people you have networked with and also your interviewers. Have conversations with alumni or 3Ls from your school, both established attorneys and recent summer associates, as they will be willing to share their experiences with you. While few people will probably tell you much of the downsides of working for a firm, most will be eager to share all of the good. Part of your interviewers’ job is to sell the firm to you as a candidate, and sometimes you can take away some genuine advantages of working for that particular firm or office. If you begin to hear a consistent message from multiple people’s personal experiences, it may be worth taking into account.

One firm asked in advance of my callback which practice areas I was interested in interviewing with. The hiring partner attended the interview, and the interviewers were very familiar with the details of my resume and asked questions about it that I did not get asked in any of my other interviews. One of the partners stayed an extra 25 minutes to continue beyond the scheduled interview time. Albeit a small representation of the firm, the attentiveness and eagerness to interview me was something I appreciated and it stood out compared to other firms. You may not always have a similar standout experience with your interviewers, but you can always connect with attorneys before or after your interview to get a better idea.

Whatever ways you can, get to know the office

Finally, this may not be available for everyone because offers will usually stay open only for 2 to 4 weeks, but consider visiting the offices. A virtual visit is not a ridiculous request either (we are still not out of the pandemic at the time of writing this). If the firm allows you to take a brief tour, observe the environment, and interact with more people from the office, this can definitely help craft your decision and find the best match. Work environment can help split hairs between offers, and it can be an important factor to consider if you end up meeting the attorneys that you might end up working with.

What if I “strike out” at OCIs?

“Striking out” at OCIs means that you ended up with zero offers. While OCIs, as explained above, are the primary way for law students to secure Biglaw offers, it is still attainable outside of the school-sourced process with dedication and effort.

Most firms will have applications accessible either on their own careers page, and through various job-posting sites, or they will add them to schools’ careers pages. These applications will be posted throughout the remainder of the school year, though fewer will be around as the school year progresses. I have heard stories of people securing Biglaw in March of their 3L year, so while that is an anomaly (some might say a miracle!), striking out at OCIs is not a death sentence to Biglaw ambitions. 

If a firm does not have open applications, cold email recruiters or hiring partners and inquire about positions. They may direct you to other offices that do have open applications or take your name and resume for potential opportunities that arise down the line. 3L OCI programs are much smaller but still provide an opportunity for 2Ls that struck out the year before.

If you strike out, you must network. Find ways to get on the phone, on Zoom, or have live coffee conversations. Networking at this stage is no longer about learning about practice areas or asking about strategies for academic success. You want to make sure that the people willing to speak to you are taking your resume or handing your name off to recruiters/HR. Treat each conversation like it is an interview (except the dress code) and be prepared to sell yourself as a strong candidate that has initiative, resilience, and a major (see What They Don’t Teach You in Law School by Adam Gropper).

How do I interview?

Law firms for the most part conduct similar styles of interviews for both screeners and callbacks. Both will consist of general questions that are neither technical nor behavioral. The law firm interview is, for better or worse, a conversation to gauge how likeable you are and whether you have goals that align with what the firm is looking for. The GPA, extracurriculars, and prior work experience more often than not set the base for how “qualified” a candidate is, while the interview itself is mainly focused on fit.

Master your professional story

You should not be surprised when you are asked  “tell me about yourself” after brief introductions. Here is your elevator pitch, a chance for you to share a professional story about yourself by accomplishing, among others, a number of goals in 1 to 2 minutes:

  1. Bring up your strongest qualities and explain away weaknesses
  2. Preemptively answer a number of “why” questions
  3. Mention any positive experiences you have already had with the firm or members of the firm
  4. Personify your resume

1. Strengths and weaknesses

You want your interview to stay focused on what you are good at. Do you have relevant work experience for the practice area you are interested in? Make sure you bring it up. Do you have a strong and relatable reason for pursuing law? Make sure you bring it up. 

On the opposite end, you may have weaknesses that you want to get in front of before the interviewer asks you the question. For instance, do you have zero ties to the city you are interviewing for? Explain why you were drawn to that city and why you want to work there. Are you a non-traditional student who is older, married, or had a career completely detached from the law? Explain how you ended up realizing that law, and particularly firm work, was the right profession for you.

2. “Why” questions

There are a number of “why” questions that often serve as small talk in interviews. Interviews often last just 20-30 minutes, so why is there small talk to begin with? Remember that your interviewers are very busy and might not have even had time to peruse your resume before hopping onto Zoom or into the room to interview you. Small talk is a conversational tool to cover broad bases and find potential for more meaningful discussion. Every second of your short interview is valuable and neatly packing a number of “why” questions into a single minute of an uninterrupted “tell me about yourself” allows the interviewer to pick out something that they care to talk about. 

Explain why you chose law, why you went to your school, why you like the firm, why you are interested in your practice area, and why you want to work in the city that the office is in. If you don’t, you might get asked these “why” questions anyway and waste precious time from being able to talk about what makes you memorable. The more of these questions that the interviewer can check off of their list, the more they will care about things that are unique to you such as your interests or the questions that you yourself have for the interviewer.

3. Connections and experiences

Briefly mention experiences or connections you have with the firm (in a humble manner of course, you don’t even have to drop names). You might mention that you heard great things from an upperclassman that was a summer associate at that office or that you met with an associate at a reception/networking event and that they helped put the firm on your list of targets. 

Do not mention blatant connections such as “my uncle is a partner and promised to hire me!” You want to show the firm your initiative and effort to show you have taken steps to discover that you are a good fit for the firm and vice versa.

4. Personify your resume

Finally, make sure that you are not just listing things off of your resume. Like an artful storyteller, you want to take the interviewer through a brief journey of who you are in a sequence that makes sense, with a beginning and end. Your answer should share a professional story and not get into your hobbies or unrelated facts:

  • What skills did you develop from your past jobs that are essential to a lawyer? 
  • How did your education and work experience lead you to the law? 

Your resume is like a collection of facts, often chronological. You now have a chance to put all of those facts together to justify your interest in the position and your goals moving forward.

The rest of the interview

A great “tell me about yourself” answer can really get the ball rolling. By preparing your broad story efficiently, you will already have prepared your answer to most of the basic questions you will get. The rest is mostly conversation. Another thing that interviewers will often be curious about are your interests (are you a balanced individual?) but you should not volunteer them

Other common questions you might want to prepare for include:

  • Litigation or transactional? You should already be able to answer this if you’ve done research to answer questions about practice areas.
  • Favorite law school class? I personally did not get this question outside of the 1L summer job search, but sometimes there is a “right” answer – think Property for real estate law or Tax (if you’ve taken it) for tax law.
  • Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
  • Greatest strengths and weaknesses?

Every now and then you will run into behavioral-type questions such as “how do you balance your studies with your personal life?” That kind of question is not entirely behavioral, but you also shouldn’t be too surprised if you occasionally run into the pure-behavioral question like “tell me about a time you dealt with conflict.”

Finally, be prepared with questions to ask your interviewers. You want to give them an opportunity to sell the firm and also talk about themselves. You generally will only have time to ask a couple of questions, but in my opinion, you should prepare 5-10 because oftentimes you’ll realize that during the course of the interview, the conversation already answered a number of questions that you had prepared. The easiest way to have questions is to be genuinely curious and show that things like culture, work environment, diversity, pro bono work, performance assessments, case staffing, etc. all matter to you.

Beyond the interview

My personal golden tidbit for preparing for and succeeding in interviews is to network. Networking is your opportunity to interview attorneys who already have the job you want. Drill that previous sentence into your head. When you network, make sure you ask questions to learn why you should work at that firm, what the firm culture is like, what the firm’s goals are, what a certain practice group is like, etc. Through a natural flow of conversation, you should come out the other end more prepared for an interview and you will always have a “source to cite to” for the things you know about the firm or office. 

Adam Gropper’s book What They Don’t Teach You in Law School goes over a 6-step process to attain the legal job that you want, one of the steps being networking. I highly recommend this book and have gifted a copy to every student-organization mentee I have been assigned so far. The themes focused on in this book can be incorporated into your interviews and job search overall. In addition to networking, you will learn how to pick a major, how to brand yourself to employers, and how to research a firm to know everything about them.

Joseph Kim is a 3L at Notre Dame Law School. Joseph grew up in California where he developed an interest in working with music, powerlifting, and bowling. He’s been a member of the FIRE community since before law school and plans to pursue FatFIRE following graduation.

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