By Alnisa Bell • July 05, 2017•Writers in Residence, Careers, Firms and the Private Sector
I recently participated as a mock interviewer to prepare rising second year law students for their on-campus interviews (otherwise known as “OCI”). OCI begins right about now when rising second year law students are also learning whether they have been accepted to write for a law journal and/or will compete on Moot Court -- both of which are important in garnering a coveted summer associate position. To put it simply, it is a very stressful and competitive time. The OCI interviews are very quick -- about twenty minutes or less -- and serve as the initial screening process for law firms. The general thinking is that a law student has very limited time to sell him or herself to the interviewer as a good fit for the firm in order to be invited for a “call back” interview, i.e., to interview in-person at the law firm.
I remember the feeling of just wanting to land a law firm job. I would tell myself, all you need to do is get your foot in the door -- any door -- at the time, it did not matter what door so long as it was a solid law firm. I am now ten years removed from the OCI process, and I wish I would have known then that while it was important for me to sell myself to a potential employer, it should have also been equally important that I selected a law firm that was a good fit for me. While I did land a summer associate position and then went on to work at that law firm following graduation, I voluntarily left after one year of practice because I did not enjoy the area of law that I was assigned. I participated in a typical summer program that allows summer associates to rotate among different practice groups in order to experience different areas of the law (in theory, this can be great for law students who are not certain about what area they want to practice, but as will be explained, there are some things to keep in mind). At the end of the summer, I ranked my three preferred practice areas.The law firm then, from a business perspective, selected the area that I would be assigned to practice. Process that: that means someone (most likely a group) sits in a room and decides for you the type of law that you will practice from the law firm’s business perspective. But what about you? What do you want to practice? Why did you go to law school?
I wish I knew then what I know now. If I could tell my rising second year law student-self anything, I would say, do not forget about yourself in the process. Yes, the conventional wisdom is that you must sell yourself to a law firm and there are countless articles on the web telling rising second year law students to do just that, but you still have agency in the process and as much as you are interviewing for a summer position, you should also be researching and asking the interviewer pointed questions about the law firm to assess whether you want to work there. Also speak to current and former attorneys who have worked at the law firm and other practitioners outside of the firm to gain an even deeper perspective. What is the law firm’s reputation and does it align with yours? Know the type of summer program you are entering and the amount of input you will have in selecting the practice area that you will be assigned to following graduation. Gain an understanding of macro-firm dynamics. For example, are you entering a law firm that has recently merged? How has the merger affected the philosophy of the firm? How has it affected the practice area in which you will work? You should also know who the key players are in your practice group -- Will you be working directly with them? Do you want to work with them? What is their approach to attorney development and mentorship?
These are the types of questions you should be asking -- not only during the interview -- but as part of your background research. I wish I would have asked at least a few of these questions. Perhaps my decision would have been different -- or maybe not -- but at least I would have been prepared knowing what to expect. For a year, I felt “stuck,” but admittedly, it was not a completely lost year because I gained valuable training and made some lasting friends and grew my network. Thankfully, I was able to quickly chart a new course at another law firm in a practice area that I find interesting, challenging, and rewarding. Certainly, I could have saved myself the stress by asking the important questions during OCI.
Re-imagine that the “I” in OCI not only stands for interview but for “I.” As in, what do “I” want in a law firm? What do “I” want to practice? Will “I” be able to develop myself at this law firm and is this a good fit for me? In hindsight, I would tell myself: Be less concerned about getting your foot in the door and be more concerned about what lies behind that door and whether it’s a good fit for you.