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OCI advice: How to stand out from the crowd

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Imagine you are sitting in your ninth on-campus interview of the week, talking to yet another potential employer about the unique attributes of this particular firm. The attorney sitting across from you earnestly describes her firm’s associate training program: “We give summer associates real client work, not make-work. And once you join the firm as an associate, you will get plenty of experience right from the start because we staff our cases leanly.”

Yawn. That’s the same pitch you’ve heard in your previous eight interviews, and it’s the same thing you’ve read in every employer’s recruiting material.

Now imagine you go to your tenth interview, and the hiring attorney says this:

“We give summer associates real client work. For example, last month one of our summer associates did some key research on how the Sixth Circuit interprets the elements of a RICO claim for a 12(b)(6) motion I was preparing. I was so impressed with the memo he produced that I asked him to draft the argument for the motion itself. I worked with him to revise it and we are filing the motion next week.

And this:

“We staff our cases leanly. In fact, just last week in one of my cases, a third-year associate jumped in to take a deposition of an important witness, because I was called away on an emergency and no other attorneys were staffed on the case. We could have rescheduled the deposition, but I knew that the associate could handle it because we had worked together on the case from the start, she had written the outline for the deposition, and she knew all of the facts and legal issues. So I counseled her on her deposition strategy and I sent her off to do it. I read the transcript on the plane on the way here yesterday, and she killed it.”

When you are sitting at home later trying to remember each firm you interviewed with, which one do you think is most likely to stand out? Those firms whose attorneys merely spouted bland platitudes about their associate training, or the firm that provided memorable examples of its training in action? And which firm do you trust most to actually provide the kind of experience that all 10 firms insisted they provide? The ones that didn’t produce specific, credible examples of associates taking on important work, or the one that did? Plainly, firm number ten rose to the task of describing its associate experience in a convincing way.

You should think of your own task as the interviewee in much the same way; your job in the interview is to present a convincing and memorable picture of yourself as an outstanding future associate. And one way to do that is through specific, credible examples of your experiences that illustrate the characteristics you want the interviewer to remember about you.

Every law student interviewing during OCI wants to come across as a hard worker, one who eagerly delves into thorny legal issues, enjoys the intellectual rigor of law practice, takes initiative, exhibits leadership, and employs impeccable judgment. After all, those are qualities that nearly every firm is looking for in new hires. But you want to set yourself apart from all of those other law students.

OCI days are a marathon for attorney interviewers. They might conduct as many 20 interviews in one day, which makes it easy for all of the law students they meet to run together in an interviewer’s mind.

So prepare specific answers – anecdotes, stories, examples – in response to questions you are likely to encounter in an interview. That means being able to say not just “I’ve worked hard to become an excellent legal researcher,” but also, “Here’s an example” – and then providing a memorable example of a thorny research problem you tackled with gusto.

Have a few of these stories at the ready to use in response to likely questions. Think about what personal characteristics you want to emphasize and what questions you are likely to receive, and prepare specific examples that cover that range. Importantly, this doesn’t require that you already have experience with legal employment to point to. For example:

  • Maybe you have a story about how your passion for civil procedure developed when you found yourself staying up until 2 a.m. researching cases online – for fun! – after a class discussion in CivPro sparked your desire to track down the precursors to Twombly and Iqbal that your professor only touched on briefly on in class.
  • Think about any job you have held where you demonstrated initiative, leadership, or tenacity. For example, imagine a law student who, while working as a lifeguard in college, realized that the scheduling system for employees was confusing and inefficient. The law student took it upon himself to develop a universal on-line scheduler, one that enabled the manager to ensure every lifeguard received an equal number of hours and established a way to quickly find a replacement for a sick lifeguard. And his was boss so impressed that she deployed it at every public pool in the city. That law student has a great narrative about his resourcefulness and leadership skills.
  • You can even use a memorable anecdote to explain why you are interested in a particular law firm. When I was interviewing during OCI, I met with attorneys from a firm that was known for its tax practice. I explained that I had taken Taxation as my 1L elective because I wanted to get it out of the way since I assumed I wouldn’t enjoy it, but quickly discovered it was one of my favorite classes. I was able to describe in detail what aspects of the class I enjoyed so much and how that translated into my interest in tax practice. And I could point to my transcript, which showed that I had already registered for an upper-level tax class in my eagerness to learn more. My strategy was admittedly risky; a firm might not be interested in a law student who had initially written off its major practice area. But at my call-back interview, several attorneys told me that they heard my story of the law student who ended up loving a class she was sure would be her least favorite. It was a different story than that of most of the students they had interviewed – those with finance or math backgrounds who came to law school already set on studying tax – and it stood out for that reason.

Whatever your examples are, practice describing them in a way that uses detail to convey your tenacity, judgment, work ethic, creativity, etc. But make sure your answers don’t sound too practiced. You want to come across as natural, not rehearsed.

One former “Big Law” hiring partner recently advised on Twitter that law students should remember to interact with the interviewer: “We can tell when you’re just pushing ‘play’ on a canned story. We can also spot an over-rehearsed witness.” This attorney reminded students that it is important to listen to the interviewer’s questions and make sure your answers are actually responsive.

You might think of interview preparation like oral argument preparation in this way: your goal is to anticipate and prepare detailed answers to likely questions, but you still need your answers to sound conversational, not canned, and responsive to the actual question. And as with oral argument, it’s fine – and often advisable – to pause briefly to collect your thoughts before responding.

And one more thing: This advice applies not just to interviews you schedule through your law school’s OCI program, and not even just to call-back interviews at law firms, but also to any interviewing situation. You want to stand out from the crowd, and providing specific examples of qualities you want to emphasize makes you memorable and believable.

Beth Wilensky Beth Hirschfelder Wilensky is a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan Law School, where she has taught legal analysis, research, writing, and communication since 2003. Prior to that, she practiced law at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP in Washington, D.C.