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Preparing for an On-campus Law Interview

published July 24, 2013

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The on-campus interview is a critical component of the fall recruiting season. Your chances of securing second-year summer employment will be much greater if you successfully tame this wild animal. But students are usually not privy to some of the decisions that are made inside law firms prior to their on-campus visits, such as how schools are chosen, why firms stop going to some schools, how firms rate job fairs and consortia and why they don't attend many of them, and how students are selected for callbacks after on-campus interviews. These issues may seem irrelevant, but they are crucial to your success.

Why Firms Visit Some Schools and Not Others

Understanding why firms visit only certain schools is beneficial if your school doesn't attract the firms you're interested in interviewing with. If you understand what factors keep firms from visiting your campus, you may learn not to waste your time with that firm, or you may be able to overcome the obstacles that keep firms from your campus in the first place. Let's face it, if you consider that there are 180 American Bar Association-approved law schools and the median number of campus visits per firm was nine in 1994, you quickly see that many schools don't attract a large number of firms to their campuses. Also, keep in mind that many small firms don't go on-campus at all. So what factors are important to firms when they decide which schools to visit each fall?

The Geographic Pull

Statistics from the National Association for Law Placement tell us that firms routinely visit schools that are geographically convenient to them. For example, many Washington, D.C., firms visit the abundant number of local law schools and therefore don't have to venture outside of the Washington metropolitan area to fill their positions. The same scenario exists in the Boston and San Francisco area markets.

The NALP form will tell you which schools a firm visits each year. As you review each form, the geographic pull quickly becomes apparent. It's unrealistic to assume that the New York office of Brown & Wood is going to make an on-campus visit to the South Texas School of Law unless someone has a connection to South Texas. But also realize that firms make these decisions independently, and what works for one firm may not necessarily work for another.

This obviously makes it more difficult for students in more remote areas to find employment. Students at the University Of Maine School Of Law, for example, have an easier shot at jobs in Maine than in Dallas, Texas. Once you enroll at a school, there isn't much you can do about the geographic pull. Just be realistic about your opportunities when you begin your job search.

Repeat Performances

Firms tend to select schools that have proven, over the years, to offer them an abundant number of summer associates. If a firm has successful recruiting trips at a school, year after year, it is likely to continue using that school as a hiring source. And in this age of economic belt tightening, firms are eliminating all but those schools that supply them repeatedly with summer associates who accept their offers and ultimately become good associates.

A Firm May Have Alumnae Connections

Some schools are chosen because influential partners or a large number of attorneys in the firm attended them. For example, one medium-sized firm in the Southeast employs a large number of attorneys from Yale. Year after year, the firm interviews and hires from Yale, and no other firm in the area attracts as many Yale students.

Also, if a partner is a member of the board of visitors at a school or has a son or daughter attending that school, you sometimes find the firm interviewing on-campus. But economic belt tightening has slowed this practice.

Firms Like to Visit the "Top" Schools

Law firms are snobs. They like to hire the best and the brightest from the top law schools. Many people will argue that the students at less prestigious schools are equally as bright as those in the Ivy League, but lawyers want to fill their offices with their perception of the "best and the brightest," whatever that is. As snobbish and narrow-minded as it may seem, law firms, especially the large ones, will continue to recruit from the top schools in this country no matter what.

Why Firms Quit Going to Some Schools

Understanding why firms quit going to certain schools is equally important. Knowing these "whys" may again help you overcome the obstacles that keep you from getting the interviews with the firms you want. But the process may take some work on your part. For example, if Smith & Jones quit coming to your law school because they were having trouble attracting the students they wanted to hire, you may be able to get an interview if you can convince them that you're genuinely interested in the firm. Firms are hiring fewer students, which means less on-campus interviewing. You have to play smarter and be more realistic about your odds during the on-campus interview process.

Cutting Back to Save Money

Law firms are watching the bottom line like hawks. If a school doesn't deliver after a few years, firms divert their resources to other schools. Look at the statistics in your placement office. If a particular firm's batting average is low, you may not see that firm the following year on-campus.

Some firms are simply cutting back, despite their success ratios at particular schools. One well-known East Coast boutique firm is now going to fewer schools every year but is making a stronger effort at a smaller number of schools. The firm's reasoning behind this, according to the recruiting coordinator, is that "those students who really know what they want find us."

While interviewing less on-campus, this firm considers most students who write in who are in the top 5 percent of their class.

As mentioned earlier, firms are looking at their numbers, and if they aren't successful at a school, they're going somewhere else. Some schools act as "feeders" to certain law firms, supplying those firms with large numbers of students. When the "feeding" stops, the firms are packing up and taking their goods elsewhere.

Firms are Creating Their Own Strategic Plans

Firms often include recruiting in their strategic planning efforts. Sometimes firms have their own ideas about recruiting, and they experiment. One well-known large firm decided to visit a larger number of schools, hiring almost exclusively from that pool, eliminating interviews from mailed unsolicited resumes. It was more economical for the firm to select candidates using this method, rather than bringing in large numbers of candidates who simply looked good on paper, taking hundreds of hours of expensive billable attorney time. This plan worked very well for the firm, and it achieved its long-range recruiting goals.

Why Job Fairs and Consortia Are Valuable Recruiting Tools

Job fairs provide an economical alternative to the on-campus interview for both students and firms. You come to one location and interview with multiple firms, usually in one day. Often, there is a specific group sponsoring the job fair. For example, there is a Texas in Washington Job Fair for students who attend school in Texas who want to work in the nation's capital. Minority groups also sponsor job fairs, and many schools host job fairs in large cities for their students, often with other area schools. Job fairs also bring together students who are interested in one area of law-intellectual property or litigation, for example.

It makes good sense to meet with firms at job fairs. In a day's time, you may be able to meet with ten or fifteen firms. And the purpose of job fairs, from a firm's perspective, is a little different from that of an on-campus interview. Yes, firms come to job fairs with the intention of hiring students, but they also view job fairs as a marketing tool. You also go to be seen and get your name out to a wider audience.

Firms are often less stringent in their academic requirements at job fairs because the structure is less rigid, and students tend to get in to see firms they may not be qualified for "on paper." I can think of many times that I interviewed students at job fairs whom I would never have seen on-campus, really liked the person, and sometimes ended up hiring. You might mistakenly think that more small firms attend job fairs than large ones. The 240 firms providing data for NALP's fall 1994 survey reported participating in 280 job fairs or consortia. But surprisingly, firms with over 100 attorneys participated in job fairs more often than their smaller counterparts. About half of offices of 100 attorneys or fewer reported no job fair participation compared with 24.3 percent of larger offices. Over one-third of larger offices participated in two or more job fairs.

How to Get Your Resume Selected for On-Campus Interviews

If your school allows firms to prescreen resumes and select the students they wish to interview before coming on-campus, it's helpful to understand how firms make these initial selections so that you'll have a better chance of getting your resume selected. The selection process varies among firms, but most firms establish basic standards, which are usually academic, that most candidates must meet.

Students have little control once the resumes are in the hands of the law firms. Your job is to deliver a clear, concise resume to the firm, following the firm's basic criteria. This means paying attention to the academic guidelines as well as knowing the areas of law in which the firm practices. It is much more difficult to predict the more intangible features firms may look for. Don't try to second-guess what these things might be. Simply do your homework ahead of time, and follow the basic guidelines already established.

How the Resume Review Process Works
  1. Resumes are reviewed and sorted. Resumes are typically mailed to the recruiting coordinator in large firms and to the hiring partner or administrator in smaller firms. This individual typically reviews the resumes first. This is a daunting task if the firm receives a huge number of resumes. It's not unusual to receive 75 resumes from a class of 350 students. The recruiting coordinator will often take the first cut, eliminating resumes that do not fall into the same galaxy as the initial criteria set by the firm. He or she will then sort the resumes, putting aside those that fall short academically but are otherwise acceptable and those that fit academically and appear to have suitable backgrounds for the firm.

  2. Some resumes are given a chance even if they don't fit the firm's set criteria. Because the numbers are often so huge, firms are forced to establish general academic criteria when selecting resumes, although this process is not always absolute. For example, a firm with a strong tax practice might consider the resume of a student with a significant accounting background and related work experience even if the student's grades are slightly lower than their target level. But if a firm says it wants to see resumes from the top quarter of the class and this student is in the bottom quarter, it's unlikely that this student will make the cut. Rules are bent but usually not broken.

  3. Firms look for traits on resumes that may indicate future success at that firm. They look for other facts on resumes outside of grades, educational history, and work experience. For instance, at Baker & McKenzie , we looked for students with international backgrounds or entrepreneurial promise. One student was hired because the firm liked the entrepreneurial spirit demonstrated by his college-based business. A litigation firm might look for aggressive personality traits that may indicate a potential for trial work-debate team experience, for example. Some firms may look for community service experience if that trait is a strong indicator of future success there. The weight of this factor will vary with each firm. Hiring exclusively on this type of criterion is the exception and not the norm.

  4. "Inside information" on candidates is sometimes gathered. Occasionally, attorneys contact professors for inside information on candidates if there is a personal connection. If a promising resume comes through and an attorney knows the student's contracts professor, the attorney may take the liberty of calling that professor for more information on the student. Also, professors are sometimes contacted to help make the call on borderline candidates.

  5. An alumnus may make a final review of the resumes to ensure that nothing is missed. Sometimes, an attorney in the firm who attended the school will review the resumes. For example, a student may have a good record with one low grade from a professor who has a reputation for being extremely tough. Exceptions are made with complete information in many instances.

  6. The final cut is often handled by the hiring partner, hiring committee, recruiting coordinator, or a combination of the three. Sometimes, however, this job falls to the attorneys designated to go on-campus to that school.
Who Does the Interviewing?

Firms often send hiring committee members to interview students on-campus. This makes sense, as committee members are usually interested in recruiting, knowledgeable about the process in their firm, and often trained in interviewing. If committee members aren't available, alumnae often go. And don't be surprised if you have a last-minute fill-in at an interview. Client demands sometimes force attorneys to change their plans at the last minute. Some firms are now sending two interviewers on-campus. Interviewing is so exhausting that two people instead of one make the day go much easier. And if a firm has a very large practice area, you'll often find someone who is knowledgeable about that area on-campus. Another trend is sending recruiting coordinators on-campus, since they generally run the program anyway.

Helpful Hints to Prepare for the On-Campus Interview

In recruiting, preparation is nine-tenths of the law. As you prepare for on-campus interviews, keep the following tips in mind:
  1. Pay attention to deadlines. Nothing irritates a firm more than receiving a resume after the on-campus interview. In most cases, if you missed the boat, it won't come back to pick you up.

  2. Accept your fate. If you are denied an interview, accept it and move on. Firms are unlikely to reverse initial decisions when prescreening is allowed, especially for candidates who don't meet their hiring criteria.

  3. Pay attention to hiring criteria. If a firm wants to interview students in the top third of the class and you are in the bottom third, don't waste your time or theirs. "If they could only meet me" just isn't enough. Be realistic about your chances.

  4. Listen to your placement director. If you find yourself with no interviews, talk to your placement director for guidance and direction. He or she is a pro and can help you. But listen to what you are told and follow the advice you're given so that you end up with some choices at the end of the fall.

  5. Don't rely exclusively on the on-campus interview process. A common, regretted mistake is taking the easy way out and relying almost exclusively on on-campus interviews. Many students fail to get jobs using this vehicle. Make sure you have other options available to you. Put the burden on yourself to have a contingency plan in case your on-campus plans don't go as expected. Look to positions in the government sector, nonprofit organizations, and the corporate world.

  6. Plan, persevere, and don't procrastinate. Even the best laid plans can go awry, but you won't be successful if you wait until the last minute to research firms, create a resume, and decide with whom you really want to interview. Time is of the essence in the recruiting process.

See the following articles for more information:

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