How to Sell Yourself During On Campus Interviews
Law students tend to believe that OCI works just like law school admissions. According to conventional wisdom, your numbers (grades and school) are the only thing that matters, and interviews don’t make much of a difference.
But inexplicably, every year, there are law review editors who receive zero summer associate offers. And every year, there are middling students who land job offers at some of the most prestigious law firms in the country.
How does this happen? Why does this happen? And how can you, as someone who is about to go through OCI, best position yourself to land the best possible job?
The truth is that OCI is nothing like law school admissions. After you meet some GPA floor (which is likely lower than you think), interview results completely depend on your interview performance and soft factors. Interviewers are generally looking for their future colleagues, so they would rather take someone pleasant with slightly worse grades, than someone unbearable with excellent grades.
Yet year after year, law students discount the importance of interviewing. They will spend hundreds of hours fine-tuning their outlines and practicing law exams until their fingers bleed. But when it comes time to prepare for OCI interviews, they just wing it.
They walk into interviews completely unprepared.
I believe that students who take the time to prepare for their interviews can effectively “sell themselves” to law firm interviewers.
I’ve written this post to help you figure out how to do just that. To sell yourself effectively, you have to know how to target law firms, and how to pitch yourself effectively. It’s not an easy process—and involves some hard work and preparation—but it’s not complicated either.
With a little elbow grease, and some guidance, you can pull it off.
Where Do You Stand as a Candidate?
The first step to market yourself to a law firm requires you select the right firms to interview. Focusing your limited time and energy on a firm that is unlikely to hire you would be a waste of time. At the same time, you have to apply for firms in your “reach” zone–places where it’s possible, but not necessarily likely, for you to be hired.
To pull that off, you have to understand the firm’s normal hiring practices, and if there are any external factors that would affect recruiting.
Normal Hiring Practices
What kind of grades is the firm looking for? Consult your school’s career center to see if they have callback or offer GPA data. Ideally, they will have such a file and be willing to share it with you. The best statistics come in the following format:
Four observations about this hypothetical data:
- First, you’ll notice that the GPA of the average student who receives an offer from each firm has steadily risen over the past three years.
- Second, you’ll also see that the number of students hired by each firm has declined.
- Third, each firm has raised their minimum GPA.
- Fourth, you’ll notice that both firms have approximately the same median GPA.
Don’t be misled by the fourth observation. These two firms have slightly different hiring preferences. Excellent Firm LLP tends to hire from a narrow band of GPAs while Awesome Firm LLP hires from a broader range. That means that if you have a 3.2 GPA you have a decent chance at landing an offer Awesome Firm. But with a 3.2 GPA, you’re probably not going to be hired by Excellent Firm because they appear to have a GPA floor of 3.37. The median doesn’t always paint a complete picture.
So you would be better served by devoting your time and energy preparing for an interview with Awesome Law Firm. (Note: Don’t be discouraged by the resumes–law review, magna cum laude, etc.–you see on Awesome Law Firm’s website. Just because a lot of top students end up there, doesn’t mean they don’t take students with more typical GPAs.)
What if my school doesn’t provide this data?
Unfortunately, it’s possible that your school doesn’t release such detailed data. Or maybe they only release selected data, like only median GPAs. What if they don’t give you anything at all? If that’s the case, you can try asking around to see if anyone from another law school has this information. It’s less than ideal but you can get some sense of the relative selectivity of firms and how strictly they abide by minimum GPAs.
Don’t Forget: External Factors
In determining how competitive you are as a candidate, you should also be aware of the context in which a particular firm is hiring. For example, a student interviewing with Cravath during the midst of the financial crisis in 2008-2009 should have been aware that getting a job with the firm would be a long-shot even if you were a top student at Harvard Law. Even though the historical data may have indicated that top HLS students were likely to land an offer, circumstances have changed. A well informed student would take into account that Cravath had over-hired their previous summer class and was looking to hire fewer students the following summer.
The Importance of Selling Yourself
The worst advice I received during OCI was when my career advisor recommended that I ask questions during the interview to find out more about the firm in question.
That’s just terrible advice. Everything you say in an interview should serve some strategic purpose that will help get you hired.
Interviews are not fact-finding endeavors. They are sales pitches.
Do not go through OCI hoping to figure out what you want or what law firms are all about. To be fair, what I think the career advisor was trying to say was: “Before you commit to a firm you should really understand its culture and how you fit into the culture.” This is reasonable advice, but again, not something you should be concerned about during the interviewing process.
If you do want to really learn about the firm, wait until after you’ve received an offer to ask these questions.
Example: “Do you have any questions for us?”
This advice is most applicable at the end of the interview, when the firm asks you: “So do you have any questions for us?”
Realize that the questions you ask are going to be evaluated to gauge your strength as a candidate. Don’t miss this opportunity to sell yourself. You should absolutely ask questions, but only those that signal to the interviewer that:
- you are sincerely interested in full-time employment after graduation, and
- that you care about your long-term development as a lawyer.
Two examples of good questions:
- What is your evaluation process like for summer associates? (Meaning: You care about producing high quality work and are wondering how the firm will recognize it.)
- What training programs are available for associates? (Meaning: You are thinking ahead about being an associate and aren’t going to bail out after your summer for a public interest job.)
It goes without saying that you should not be asking questions about vacation policy or work hours. But there are other questions that are relatively safe but shouldn’t be asked because they don’t really do anything to increase your chances. For example:
- When will I hear back from the firm?
- If there’s anything you would change about the firm, what would that be?
- What are your views on the economic health of the firm?
Do not ask these questions! They may seem harmless but you are giving up the opportunity to demonstrate how strong of a candidate you are.
Remember, interviews are meant for just one thing: Selling yourself!
How to be a Good Interviewer
I’ve always pictured a “good interviewer” being someone who was a back-slapping jock or fast-talking salesman. I imagined that a good interviewer was handsome, dashing, and charming. Because I was none of these things, I imagined I would be a terrible interviewer.
But I was wrong.
Being a good OCI interviewer wasn’t the same as being naturally charismatic. Look at the people who work at big firms. Do they fit the description of a jock or a smooth talking salesman?
To be a good interviewer you just have to be prepared. In some ways being a good interviewer is similar to being a top trial lawyer. They’re not the ones who merely look good in a suit and talk a good game. They’re the ones who have outprepared their competition.
So how do you prepare? First and foremost, you have to practice.
Everyone knows the importance of working hard to be prepared in law school. OCI is no different. Like practice law exams, the more practice interviews you do, the better you get at the real thing.
Practice interviews are even more valuable because unlike law exams, where you’re not sure what the professor will ask, you know what questions will be asked at an interview. Your career center probably has a list of potential questions. If not, you can easily look it up on the Internet.
Okay so you have your list of potential questions. What do you do next?
First, open up a word document and type out all the commonly asked questions. This might seem excessive, but trust me.
Second, go through each one of the questions and write out a script of your best response. You’ll see that the first thing you write out won’t be that great. That’s fine. Keep revising and editing until you have something you’re happy with.
Third, print out the document–this document will become your “script.” Read the answers in your script out loud a few times to get used to it.
Fourth (and this is really important) once you feel comfortable with reading your answers out loud, grab a mirror. Recite your answers while looking at yourself in the mirror.
Is practicing in front of a mirror necessary?
You’ll feel extremely awkward when you’re actually practicing because it’s weird to see yourself while talking. But you will thank yourself during the interview, because during the interview, you will have gotten to awkwardness and discomfort of talking about yourself out of your system. You will know exactly how you look, exactly how you sound, and exactly what you’re saying. During the actual interview, all you will have to do is focus on paying attention to all the non-verbal cues, like whether the interviewer is receptive to what you’re saying.
Remember, people don’t remember what you say, but how you say it. Practicing in front of a mirror will help you with both. The peace of mind you gain is priceless.
Following these lengthy mirror speeches, do a mock interview.
If you can’t, you can set up your interviews so that you will be speaking with firms lower on your priority list before you get to your dream law firm. Remember: practice is no substitute for actual experience.
If practicing sounds like an excessive amount of work, it’s because it is.
If you don’t have the time or energy to do all this, at the very least, you should be absolutely comfortable answering these three questions:
- Why do you want to be a lawyer?
- Why did you choose XYZ law school?
- Why do you want to work for ABC firm?
But honestly, you will be doing yourself a great disservice if you don’t prepare fully for the interview. It won’t take more than 10-20 hours in total. Imagine how much time you spend studying, outlining, and practicing for law exams. 10-20 hours is nothing in the grand scheme of things.
Find Out What Makes the Firm Different
Law firms, like your significant other, want to feel like they are unique and special. Part of the reason why students who are stellar on paper don’t get callbacks from some firms is because lawyers can tell they don’t really care.
Believe it or not, firms do actually care about how much you want to work there. But how do you show how much you want to work at the firm?
Research the Distinguishing Features of your Target Firm
Show them you know what you’re talking about. Read their website and use your career center’s resources.
For example: You should be able to explain to your Paul Hastings interviewer they’re good at Labor & Employment; to your Kirkland & Ellis interviewer how stoked you are about the Kirkland Institute; to your Quinn Emanuel interviewer how you dream about Summer Mock Trial.
You should know what the firms pride themselves on and weave it into your interview response.
You can learn these things by browsing the Vault guide to law firms. But the Vault guide shouldn’t be the only resource you use. You should also check out the Chambers USA guide. In it, different firms are sorted into practice area “Bands”; Band 1 includes the best firms, Band 2 has the next best, and so on. The main difference between Chambers and the Vault is that the former relies on client surveys while the latter relies on associate/partner surveys.
Tip: You should rely more on what you read in Chambers and less on what you read in The Vault since some lawyers may regard The Vault as a glorified tabloid. If you really want to go the extra mile, you should also read the American Lawyer website to get a sense of what’s going on in the big firm world, which will add to your understanding of the law firm business model and how you, as a potential summer associate fit in.
During your interview, resist the temptation to flaunt your research. You want to come across as an interested student, not an obsessive stalker. Try to stay away from describing the partners you want to work with or discussing cases you know your interviewer is working on. (These comments and questions reflect a lack of judgment.)
And cross check what you know about the firm with the specific office you are interviewing with. For example, stay away from discussions about wanting to be part of Davis Polk’s world-class white collar practice if you’re also telling them you want to work in the London office, where they only practice corporate law.
After finding out information regarding the firm’s practice area strengths, you can work that information into your response. Let’s assume that you’re interested in ABC firm, which is well-known (and prides itself) on its securities litigation practice. What else can you do to sell yourself effectively?
Reach Out to the Firm’s Lawyers
After gaining information about the firm from external sources, you should speak with actual attorneys at ABC firm. To illustrate why, take a look at the two example responses below:
Student A: Your firm is extremely reputable, well respected, and does some of the most high-end legal work. I am excited about the opportunity to work with the talented attorneys at ABC firm.
Student B: I want to practice litigation in Los Angeles. I’m interested in the firms with the strongest securities litigation practices in the area. But it’s hard to tell the differences among the various firms in the area, so I thought it would be a good idea to talk to lawyers who work there. Associate Jane Doe was kind enough to speak to me, and during our conversation I could tell that she was quite enthusiastic about ABC firm. She talked about the firm’s litigation strengths, including defending BigCo in mortgage-backed securities cases. That sounds like exciting work to me, and makes me excited about the opportunity to work at ABC firm, which is one of my top choices.
In one single response, Student B has made several important points:
- First, she explains why she is interested in the firm–for its securities litigation practice.
- Second, she acknowledges that it can be tough to differentiate between many firms, and in doing so, gains credibility with the interviewer.
- Third, she shows initiative by going out of her way to contact ABC firms’ associates to get an inside look at the firm.
- Fourth, she gives specific reasons why she wants to work at the firm that is connected to reality.
- Fifth, she lets the firm know that she thinks they’re special, worthy of being one of the student’s top choices. (If a law firm is your top choice and you would go there if given an offer, tell them.)
On the other hand, Student A’s response is generic, and is something ABC firm likely has heard throughout the day from all law students. Student A won’t be memorable, and unless he has a 4.0, is unlikely to be hired.
You obviously can’t come up with a response like Student B’s on the fly. You have to put in the work during your preparation.
You have to look up lawyers on the website, e-mail them asking if it’s okay to talk on the phone. Then you have to call them and ask them questions, while taking down notes when they respond. If you don’t take notes, you might forget what the say. Then, you have to work those responses into your scripted interview responses in a way that doesn’t sound awkward. Then, you have to do all that practicing in front of a mirror.
It’s an incredibly time consuming and research intensive process. You have to begin doing all this weeks before OCI.
But if you do it right, you will stand out among all your law school peers.
Minimizing and Spinning Your Weaknesses
Whether it’s low grades, lack of a law journal, or simply bad interview presence, there’s usually some weakness you probably want to minimize.
So before you walk into the interview, the first step is to come up with strengths to counteract that weakness.
For example, my biggest weakness was my grades. I was prepared to concede that my grades were less than stellar, but had two ways to spin my weakness. First, I had strong legal writing grades. I made sure to highlight them whenever I could. Second, I did better my second semester. If asked about my relatively weak grades, I was prepared to explain that law school required an adjustment, but I nevertheless made substantial efforts to improve my legal analysis and writing.
Here are some additional suggestions, depending on your particular weaknesses:
Mixed/Low Grades: Find something in common between the classes you did better in, and relate it to why you did better. For example, you can say: “I do better in classes that rely on codified statutes, like Civ Pro and Evidence.” But be careful with your explanations. Avoid saying you only did well in subjects you were interested in, because dull subject matter is common at big law firms.
Poor Grades in Legal Writing: Explain that you had a rough time adjusting to legal writing, but that you still put a lot of effort into it. Cite your strong grades in doctrinal courses (if you have them) as evidence that you can write, and explain what efforts you are putting in to improve your legal writing, like taking an upper level legal writing course. Stay away from blaming the inherent subjectivity of writing courses, and from making disparaging comments about your legal writing professor.
Lack of Journal: This is an easy one if you’re going into transactional practice. Say you’re only interested in subjects like contract drafting, secured transactions, and commercial paper and want to spend your time taking those courses instead of being a journal editor. To make up for the academic writing experience of a journal, you’re going to take a business law seminar where you’ll write a lengthy academic paper.
Lower Second Semester Grades: Why did you get lower second semester grades? If you have a good story, briefly explain that and discuss why your first semester grades are more relevant. If you don’t have a good story, spend time on what steps you’ve taken to try to improve your grades your third semester. Maybe you can talk about how you’ve spoken to your professors to gauge your exam taking weaknesses.
Remember, as with all weaknesses, wait until the interviewer asks you about your shortcomings. Don’t waste precious time during the interview trying to explain away your weak points. Focus on the positives and highlight your strengths instead.
And finally, always be aware of what real weaknesses are. For example, you should NEVER apologize for having a 3.8 instead of a 4.0. That’s not a real weakness.
The Bigger Picture
When it comes down to it, there is no guarantee you’ll receive an offer or a callback, even, from a firm that normally doesn’t hire students with your grades. Even if you execute everything perfectly, you are never fully in control; you can only put yourself in the best position to do well. But that doesn’t mean you can’t punch above your weight. If you prepare rigorously and take the process seriously, you’ll do better than your classmates with similar grades.
In the past I’ve heard about a lot of reluctance regarding these methods. Some students feel that landing a job they don’t “deserve” based on their grades will lead to underperformance when they start working full-time. It’s certainly possible-after all, someone who has the ability to get a 4.0 in law school will have an easier time with legal analysis and writing than someone with a 3.2. But that doesn’t mean the 3.2 student doesn’t have useful skills and talents that would be valued at a top law firm. The truth is we don’t know what will or won’t cause underperformance. Grades are just one measure. It’s possible that there are many others that we don’t know about.
Other students believe that using tactics to sell yourself is somehow shady or misleading. That’s BS. As a practicing litigator I can tell you that everything we do involves sales. All cases have strengths and weaknesses. A good lawyer will emphasize the strengths and downplay the weaknesses. Doing this for OCI is no different.
You’ve probably slaved away at trying to do well your 1L year; don’t throw it all away by neglecting to adequately prepare for OCI.2