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Tales of Big Law Interviews and OCI Trinkets September 29, 2009

Posted by admin in : Tales , trackback

head start Back in March when I just recently joined the 405 club, it was a shock to actually be interviewing again. See the way “Big Law, ” ELF recruiting works is that they hire candidates during their 2nd year of law school. Locking them up for two years in advance so no other firm rival can put their paws on them. This insanity, is part of the reason why we are in such a mess now. So I was hired in the Fall of 2006. Mind you the description that follows is for a good economy; but when the stars are aligned, the candidates sign up in advance with dozens of firms making an appearance at their law school in what is known as “On Campus Interviewing” or OCI. 

For OCI if the school has the space sometimes it is done right on campus, otherwise it is typically done at a hotel or Alumni Club. My New York OCI was hosted at an Alumni Club (which also served as a hotel), literally hotel room after hotel room filled with lawyers representing every big firm in the city. In a bizarre process that resembles speed dating the candidates scurry from room to room for 20 minute interviews that offer the prospect of making $160,000 for the first few years of their burgeoning legal career.

ClayMy guidance counselor gave a long speech about how at this stage in our career we were just “expensive clay.” Her point was that firms invest a lot of money in us and then eventually maybe three or four years down the line they are able to mold us into the makings of a high-powered attorney. The firms that participate in OCI were after the best “clay,” the easiest clay to mold, the clay that would hold the best shape. So although the lawyers they were interviewing knew very little about the type of law these firms actually practiced they were in theory worth large sums of money only because they could be easily trained in complex areas of the law. Many law schools do not even offer classes that teach the type of law that are the bread and butter of these firms (e.g. structured finance, project finance, derivatives, collateralized bond, asset backed commercial paper) yet these law schools feed off the fervor of the US News Rankings and being able to average out the 80% low salary earners of each class with the 20% high salary earners (see my example below)– however they make no effort to provide custom tailored course offering towards Big Law- it seems as if it is a love hate relationship. The law schools don’t want to seem like they are shoving all their students toward Big Law, however the Big Law numbers in the glossy brochures are often what lures students in the first place. Unfortunately, this is the case even in a good economy.



If a hypothetical law school enjoys the employment rates as shown above, or similar, as most do. They have a situation where the top graduates maybe 57 or so out of 300 earn jobs at Big Law firms paying the current going rate of $160K. The entire rest of the class, over 80%,  243 students could earn jobs paying less than 50,000 a year, which often times is the case (see the venting section of this website, or Tom the Temp’s Website, or Big Debt, Small Law , for a more realistic, albeit bitter, view of these numbers).   This heavily skewed break down allows Law Schools to advertise average salaries of over $70,000 (case-in-point John Marshall Law School , mind you this was during the Big Law, “NY to 190” nonsense hiring boom). Also worthy of note is the “range” in the John Marshall link, topping out at $240,000- bringing me to my next observation… not only is the data itself heavily skewed as reported, but it is self-reported and excludes students who are “not actively looking  for employment” whatever that means (seems like an easy way to exclude a chunk of unemployed lawyers in the statistics).  Anyone making $240,000 fresh out of John Marshal Law School, is either working for their father who happens to be the, CEO of Boeing, or is a fraud.  Another trick law schools employ is to report industry statistics rather than personalized statistics for their own graduates, instead of reporting the median income of the students they actually placed in certain size firms, they will report instead the average amount paid but these size firms (take a look at such an example here).  The games the admissions offices play are a form of fraudulent misrepresentation that if any publicly traded company perpetrated each and every shareholder would have the automatic right to bring a derivative action against the company,  these actions  are a travesty and I agree with Half Sigma that these statistics given their high stakes value should be audited  by independent accounting firms.

trinketsIn any event the worst part about OCI, is that despite the fact that you may be at a top law school (or performed well enough at a non-top law school to participate), and are on your way to the big bucks (or at least so you think) all of the HR departments try to lure interest in their firm by using little useless little trinkets that you might find in one of those jam-packed annoying party favor books your parents ordered from when you were probably about four.  If you want an idea of what I am talking about go to the Oriental Trading Company website click on toys and novelties,  just about everything you see there was at my OCI except they items had firm names airbrushed all over them.  I kid you not, magnetic dart boards, plastic water jugs, foam stress balls, mint tins, gumball machines just to name a few of the items. I mean just think of it, here comes the editor of the Yale Law Review, order of the coif, ranked 1st or 2nd in his class, who spent his summer setting up the new constitutional framework of  Ecuador walking down the hallway and he passes by some HR employee of “Firm X.” The employee sticks their hand out and offers him a… firm branded Chinese yo-yo !

All kidding aside, back in the 2006 heydays where firms actually drooled over bright law students (instead of pooping on them), one completely invalid measure of a firm’s mettle (yet still actively employed) was to evaluate the firm based on the size of the USB key the Firm handed out, that’s right to all the firms reading this, if you were that firm that decided to go with the 50 MB standard USB key, you were in serious trouble. The firms that got attention were the ones that slapped 1GB flash drives into a Cross pen (some serious James Bond stuff), now that sure beats a heavily branded stress ball. At least firm documents could be pre-loaded onto the USB drive and it could be argued that it is a “recruiting tool,” this argument fails when applied to stuffed penguin plush toys (ahem… Stroock).

I had just about 25 interviews spread across three days during my OCI.  While I could write several blog posts on the process (and may in the future) I just want to quickly highlight some of the characters I met from that day and some tips for those who may be going through it, about to go through it, or are going to go through it.

The Cast of Characters:

The Softball Thrower

The softball thrower started the interview off with a few personal “get to know you” type softball questions, (i.e. where did you grow up, what line of work are your parents in etc.), nothing unusual about this. Except The Softball Thrower never stopped, not one single substantive interview question was asked during the 20 minute interview (“How about those Yankees,” “What movies do you like,” “What is your favorite book,” What do you do for fun” etc. etc. etc.). I kept waiting for resume or law school questions to come. They never came, and neither did an offer from The Softball Thrower’s firm.

The OAF-Lite

The OAF-Lite, was a large ferocious litigator but unlike the OAF his questions had a purpose and his interview while tough was fair. He asked me if I remembered my 1L writing class brief topic, and grilled me on detailed questions about the stance I took and why I reasoned the way I did. Luckily someone who had interviewed earlier in the day gave me a heads up and I was able to think back to my topic, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to field these detailed questions about a paper I had drafted a month ago. He then asked me to argue the other side of my original position against him. I respected the OAF-Lite and because I was prepared I did get a callback and an offer from the OAF-Lite’s firm.

The Ass

The best way I can describe this guy is an Ass. From the minute I stepped foot in the room he went on and on about how much money he made. “You wouldn’t believe how much money I made last year” he said. He went on to explain how he started the Russia practice at his firm, interjecting “it’s really sick how much money I make.” This meeting wasn’t an interview as much as it was a pompus soliloquy. No callback was awarded here but I did make it out of the interview without punching the Ass in the face.

The Lazy Eye

Nothing too exciting here except the Partner’s blood shot lazy eye was impossible not to stare at during the interview. Kind of like flipping past the Discovery channel and catching a glimpse of two animals engaged in acts you never really cared to think about animals performing, yet even though you know you really shouldn’t be staring at it, you just can’t help it. I tried my best to stare at a dot on the wall behind the partner’s head but I knew eventually he would catch on. I couldn’t help but think of what put him in that state and I kept coming back to the notion that it must have somehow resulted from large amounts of reviewing documents. Despite this setback the partner was actually quite cordial and we managed to have a productive interview and I got an offer.

The Easy Guy

I believe the Easy Guy gave a callback offer to every person he saw the day I interviewed with him. If not everyone nearly everyone. But he came prepared, the business cards he handed out were pre-prepared callback invitation cards. It stated right on the card that you were invited to come back for an interview at the firm and the number you should call to schedule it. The interview at one point hit a dead halt, prior to that we were discussing where my apartment was in relation to the school’s campus, he then asked me to draw a map showing my apartment and the distance from the school. He then handed me a call back/business card. I guess their strategy was to cast a wide net and then weed out students during the callback process. I was one of those weeded out later in the process.

The Big Tobacco Guy

About ten minutes into a stellar interview, where I was actually told by the Partner I was interviewing with that I reminded him of his good friend, another Partner at the firm. He looked up from my resume and said oh “I see you worked for the National Institutes of Health on a smoking cessation project” you know… Phillip Morris represents a significant portion of the firm’s business.” He explained, “the science is inconclusive on whether smoking causes cancer at all.” “It is?” I thought silently to myself, at that point for some reason I immediately thought about my favorite legal movie A Civil Action where Robert Duvall’s character is trying to demonstrate that pollution in the drinking water in Woburn isn’t the cause of the abnormal rates of Lukemia in the town. I started listing all the alternatives Duvall did in the movie… teflon pans, coffee, sugarless gum, silver fillings, hair spray… etc. I thought this approach was rather crafty and exhibited quick thinking; I tried to assure him at this point that my work for NIH was merely analyzing smoking cessation advertising to see how effective it was and that I wasn’t participating in an anti-smoking campaign at all, he didn’t buy it and in all honesty, neither did I.

“I could Tell Guy”

This guy kept me waiting in the hall for 15 minutes of my 20 minute interview. When he invited me in we had a quick conversation, at one point I said I think I want to go into “Litigation.” He said back to me: “you didn’t need to say that” “I could just tell.” I asked him what he meant by that and he said litigators “just have a certain personality.” At the time I took this as a compliment, now after meeting the OAF I’m not so sure. In any event, 5 minutes of exposure to my legal prowess was all it took to get a callback and later an offer from this firm.

The “Puzzler”

After this mediocre interview is coming to an end the guy gives me a cylinder shaped object, with a small hole in the bottom. He says “what do you think it is.” He waits for just about a minute as I think to myself “I have no #$#$% clue.” I didn’t really care either, but I think my final guess was “a paperweight.” He then looked at me as if I failed the test, then he instructed me to place my hand on the top right corner and left bottom corner at the same time and squeeze… it was a flashlight… whoopie. Tricked by a trinket = no offer.

The Shiny Object Guy

This guy a patent litigator spent 12 of our 20 minutes talking about how juries are fascinated by shiny objects. He said that once while he was putting on a case for a panel of “mock jurors” he left his pen inside his suit for one speech and used it to point in another, he said the juror’s eyes followed it when it was used and that they paid more attention to the pen then to the him (I could see why). He explained he had decided to put the pen away during his opening when the case actually went to trial (I thought great use of firm money, I’m sure you discovered the smoking gun evidence the case hinged upon). Since he did all the talking, and probably bored himself, no offer was awarded here.

The other 14 interviews were fairly normal. Except the awkward pause I got when I tried to make a joke about my alma matter in one—it was a joke she didn’t get since it was not her alma matter.  You could say it was a “failed rhetorical flourish that fell flat” (anyone catch the reference?).

Of the 23 interviews I received 11 callbacks and of the 11 callbacks, I declined 3 interviews (I was actually in a position to decline interviews from major firms, it’s so far removed from today I can’t even remember what it must have felt like— now I take interviews from any firm that will listen to me for a half hour without billing me). In any event I declined 3 interviews, of the 8 remaining callbacks I went on I got 5 offers to join summer programs at firms. I think ultimately, I picked the wrong one—although there is no way to know for sure what my fate would have been along any of the other paths.

I remember right before I interviewed at OCI Big Tobacco Guy’s firm put on a panel where 6 new associates gave presentations on OCI. The one thing I remember is one of the girls, after giving some BS advice about wearing “comfortable clothes” talked about how she went through an entire interview with toilet paper stuck to her shoe. I thought to myself who could be so silly… then during my OCI I’m rather convinced although I do not know for sure that I gave at least one entire interview with my fly open, possibly more. Luckily , i think, my suit jacket covered the area so I don’t think it was an issue.  Although the interview rush can cloud your mind, make sure to check that you are put together before starting the day.

For those of you reading the article for my sagely wisdom, below are my 5 tips for a successful OCI. As you can probably tell my advice for interviewing outside of an OCI process hasn’t been perfected yet, but as far as OCI goes I think I can help.

The Tips:

1.Create an Attractive Portfolio:

Instead of handing each individual document over like piece-meal during an interview, it is nice to have a folder to present. I created 25 packets for my OCI. Each one had a transcript, a resume, a writing sample, and references. I used a little business card with directional arrows in the tab of the folder flap to direct the reader where each document was, sort of like an index. I admit it was a little anal retentive, but it made for a nice professional presentation. Instead of digging through papers during each interview you simply hand over one folder and finish the exchange.  Showing strong organization skills during an interview is always a plus.

2. Ask for a Business Card and Take Notes on the Back.

Ask each lawyer you interview with for a business card. On the back of each card as soon as you leave the interview room quickly jot down a few things you remembered from the interview. “Likes the Mets and Golf.” “Structured Finance Partner, Head of the firm’s Pro Bono Committee” etc. This will be useful information and will help you personalize your thank you letters.

3. Have 3 Key Stories

At least 3 in depth experiences or stories that demonstrate your lawyerly skills. These snippets will be almost like pre-rehearsed speeches (except you will not deliver them in such a way), whenever the conversation allows you will pull one of these stories out and make sure to play it up as best you can. Remember these are your three best stories from all your legal experiences so make them good, highlight the relevant law and legal rules involved and if it can be entertaining as well all the better. Each interview will take its own course, but look for opportunities where you can naturally work in these key experiences. This is especially needed for interviewers who talk more than you do. If you get one of these interviewers make sure to get in as much about you as you can so they have something to remember you by, if you don’t they will have no reason to remember you as they talked the whole time and you didn’t. My best story involved a case where I had to look up the ownership and origin of the copyright on Rudolf the Red-Nosed reindeer, it turned out despite our initial suspicions Rudolf is not in the public domain!

4. Follow up with an E-mail that Night

Strike while the iron is hot, when the interview is still fresh in both you and your interviewer’s head. Use the notes you took on the business cards to create personalized thank you notes. This re-emphasizes your interview and if you are good with capturing key buzz information in the interview the interviewer will instantly remember your meeting while reading your thank you, getting you extra attention—which is almost always a good thing.

5. Familiarize Yourself with Writing Samples and Law School Papers

Some lawyers, like OAF-Lite, love to have an intellectual discussion and spar with you based on either your writing sample or something you wrote in law school. Be able to talk intelligently about these topics off the top of your head. Sometimes the interviewer will ask you to frame the topic just by saying “explain to me what you argued in your first legal memo” without giving you any specific details. If this re-quires you to go back and re-read these documents then you should do it. Just in case. The more you know about it the better you look, and heaven-forbid you should cite a case off the top of your head you will score major interview points.

Here are the names of any of the specific firms I discussed above: LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae LLP, Blank Rome LLP, Bryan Cave LLP , Nixon Peabody LLP, Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP, Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP, Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP, Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, Chadbourne & Parke LLP, Jones Day.

  • Chris M.

    Those are some great interview tips for attorneys at any stage of their legal career. I love the ide of taking notes on the back of the business card. I will pass these tips along to my law school friends who are in the process of interviewing now.

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