The 7 dos and don'ts of virtual interviews for Big Law summer associate programs, according to hiring decision-makers at Skadden, Latham & Watkins and a top industry recruiter

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After a semester-long delay, many law schools’ on-campus interviews for summer associate programs are kicking into gear at last.

OCIs are typically held just before a law student’s second year, and are the first formal stage in the talent pipeline for many law firms. This year, due to the pandemic, many schools pushed their OCI programs to January, and have also moved them from in-person to online.

These shifts have left many students feeling uncertain about various aspects of recruiting, from hiring needs to what law firms are looking for.

Fortunately, the legal market has weathered the storm of the pandemic fairly well. “I’d say it’s pretty healthy and almost back to where we were, right when the pandemic began,” said Ru Bhatt, partner at the recruiting firm Major Lindsey & Africa, in a digital event hosted by Insider.

WATCH: How to land a Big Law summer associate job panel

In fact, hiring decision-makers at two Big Law firms, Latham & Watkins and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, said that their hiring needs haven’t changed as a result of the pandemic: Latham is looking to hit last year’s class size — around 213 summer associates — this year, while Skadden is looking to hire around 160 students.

Here are some of the takeaways from our insider panelists on the dos and don’ts of virtual recruiting.

Do be aware of the interview process at each firm

While first-round screening interviews are typically arranged by the school, callback interviews are more firm-specific. At Latham, callbacks are usually with six to eight attorneys, though students can also request to talk to others in specific practice areas they may be interested in, said Julie Crisp, partner and vice chair of the firm’s recruiting committee.

Skadden’s callback interviews are with four to six attorneys: two partners, two associates, and two junior associates doing more informal coffee chats. According to Carol Sprague, Skadden’s director of talent acquisition, the firm is piloting an additional component to their callbacks. Students will be asked to complete a performance analytics assessment using Suited, a recruiting platform that uses artificial intelligence, to determine more intangible traits like a candidate’s values and whether those align with the firm’s. Sprague noted that Suited will not be determinative this year, but instead serve as an additional resource for Skadden when evaluating a candidate.

Read more: Kirkland & Ellis recruiting chairs and industry insiders lay out how to get hired at the top-ranking law firm

Don’t fret over pass/fail grades

Many law schools implemented a pass/fail grading system in the spring semester due to the pandemic, causing students to worry about how firms will consider these grades. But hiring experts agree: fret not. 

While grades aren’t totally out of the picture, law firms examine candidates more holistically.

“Ultimately, we’re looking for self-starters that have a high degree of responsibility, judgment, maturity, and have excelled in rigorous academic and professional environments,” said Crisp.

Skadden’s Sprague added that legal experience is not a must-have, so long as a candidate is able to demonstrate the characteristics that they’re looking for.

Do take advantage of this year’s virtual format and network

Before an interview, it’s important to do your research by reading materials available online or speaking with people who’ve worked at the firm.

Bhatt suggests that students reach out to lawyers and any alumni working at the firm to see if they’re available for a ten-to fifteen-minute conversation. (He also recommends checking out this guide on how to not be a networking leech.)

“Lawyers are more available now,” said Bhatt. “Ask them questions about what they do on a day-to-day basis when it comes to different practice areas.”

Former summer associates are also great people to network with, said Crisp, who recommends reaching out to schools’ career services to help coordinate those connections.

If you feel daunted by the prospect of reaching out to busy lawyers, Sprague said that the recruiting department within a firm is another good resource for students, and can help connect them to other attorneys at the firm.

Don’t overprepare and do be yourself

“There is such a thing as overpreparation,” warned Bhatt.

Sprague agreed, adding that you don’t want to seem canned or over-rehearsed. “You want to be able to have a conversation. You want to be yourself,” she said.

Even though it can be tougher to make natural conversations over Zoom, making sure you’re giving good body language, making eye contact through the screen, and appearing professional can all go a long way in making a good impression.

Read more: How to stand out during Morgan Lewis’s individually-tailored virtual interview process, according to the Big Law firm’s recruiting manager

Do be on your toes for interview questions

So you’ve made it to the interview. What kinds of questions should you be prepared to answer?

Bhatt breaks down the questions into three main categories: “The first is ‘do I like you,’ or the chemistry test. The second is ‘are you smart enough to do the job,’ which is the math test. The third is the motivation question: ‘why are you interested in my firm and my firm specifically?'”

If you don’t know what the interviewer is going for, it can be helpful to try to categorize that question in your head to figure out how you should best answer a question.

Some of the standard questions asked during interviews include: Why did you go to law school? Why are you interested in this firm in particular? Can you tell me about this specific experience on your resume? (On that note, Sprague emphasized that it’s important to make sure you’re prepared to talk about everything listed on your resume — even if it’s at the very bottom and happened six years ago.)

Even some out-of-the-box questions are designed to gauge your abilities as a lawyer. For instance, one question asked at some Latham interviews is: “Which Harry Potter house are you?” Another one at Skadden: “What are your five favorite movies?”

“We want to make sure you can think on your feet, think of an answer, and communicate that to us,” said Crisp.

Don’t ask stupid questions

On the flip side of the table, candidates should also be prepared to ask thoughtful questions backed by prior research on the firm.

“Here’s the thing: I think there is such a thing as a dumb question — you want to make sure you don’t ask any of those,” said Bhatt. “These are questions that you can answer easily by looking at the firm’s website. Don’t ask where their other offices are, you don’t need to know exactly how many people are in a group.”

Instead, Bhatt suggests that you ask questions that are focused on the role and responsibilities you’ll be having as a summer associate. “Ask about training, ask about what summer associates are assigned to, whether you’ll need to choose a practice area. All of those things are important and show that you’re being thoughtful about this role that you’re potentially going to take on,” he said.

While students should be doing most of the talking, Sprague said that asking about the interviewers’ own experiences at the firm can be helpful in getting a feel for the firm and its culture.

“People love to talk about themselves, so always have a couple of questions that say: What made you choose Skadden or Latham? When you were a summer associate, what were the best things about your summer?” suggested Sprague.

Do know yourself when it comes to picking a firm and a practice area

It’s understandably a stressful time for law students who are looking at different firms and different practice areas.

Crisp said that she didn’t know if she wanted to do transactional or litigation, and, in part, ended up choosing Latham because it offered a rotational program, where she could try out both practice areas firsthand.

Read more: 9 recession-proof legal practice areas set to boom, according to top lawyers and recruiters

Bhatt advised that what’s most important is to focus on what your ultimate career goals are.

“Those first three years are essential and almost determinative for the rest of your legal career, so it’s really important to focus on what kind of training will I receive, and is it going to be something that can help me achieve my ultimate career goals,” Bhatt said.

Ultimately, Sprague said that it boils down to finding the firm that you feel is the best fit for you.

“Don’t overanalyze it. Just find a place you’ll be happy in,” she said.

SEE ALSO: The Big Law career guide for law school students, graduates, and young lawyers, from landing a job at elite law firms to picking a practice area

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