When “OCI” Stands for “Oh, Crap, Interviews?!?”: Applying to BigLaw

This is the third in a four-part series on BigLaw jobs. Find the first installment describing BigLaw here and the second installment here on parsing through BigLaw firms to generate an application list.

Okay, so now you know which firms interest you, how do you make them interested in you? What does the application process look like for BigLaw? And what’s the deal with this OCI thing? Is that something everyone has to do? The BigLaw search can leave first gen law students frustrated and teeming with questions, but hopefully this article should provide some answers.

What Does the BigLaw Application Process Look Like?

In broad strokes, there are four stages of the BigLaw application process: (1) application submission, (2) a screener interview, (3) a call-back interview, and then (hopefully) (4) an offer.

1. Application Submission

Applications typically consist of a cover letter, resume, transcript, and writing sample, but each firm may ask for something a little different. Abide by those requirements to the letter, and don’t submit any more or less than was requested. You can largely reuse application materials between firms with minimal tweaks to the content of cover letters to make sure it remains tailored to each firm. BUT, if you’re reusing materials, make sure you’ve addressed everything to the right firm. (I forgot to change the addressee on one cover letter, and let me tell you: getting called on it is very much not a great way to start an interview.) Here are some great tips on crafting the perfect resume and cover letter

2. Screener Interviews

Screeners— whether held on-campus or at the firm itself— are typically 20 minute conversations with one, sometimes two, associates at the firm. There will usually be a few open-ended questions posed to you about your resume, why you want to join the firm, or why BigLaw; but a bulk of the interview is driven by your questions, so come prepared. 

3. Callback Interviews

The callback is usually a half-day affair. Anywhere from three to six members of the firm— ranging from entry-level associates to high-level partners— will interview you for approximately 20ish minutes each. Again, the interviews will be part their questions and part yours’, but prep for it like you would any other interview. The only caveat for these sorts of multi-round interviews is to remember that each new interview is almost like starting fresh. For instance, you can recycle the same answers and the same questions from one interviewer to the next because (a) no one will know if you also asked the prior person about mentoring programs and (b) you still might get a different answer. Many callbacks often include lunch or coffee either before or after the interviews themselves with an associate; these are less formal opportunities to talk to folks at the firm, but they are still a part of the interview process, so you should definitely still be polite and gracious and abide by the rules of propriety.

4. Offer(s)

And then it’s just a waiting game for the offer. Within anywhere from 24 hours to a few weeks after your callback, firms will decide if they’re interested in offering you the position. The timetable is not an indice of your candidacy, so don’t get antsy if a few days go by without an answer; it’s almost entirely about where they’re at in their hiring process, and has nothing to do with what they thought of you as an applicant.  

What are the Paths to BigLaw? Does Everyone’s Path Look the Same?

BigLaw is one of the most easily chart-able legal career paths in that it is the closest to having a clear list of steps to achievement. But, even then, it is far from a singular path: if you aspire to BigLaw, there are still multiple means to attain your dream job.

  • The most standard path is OCI— the On-Campus Interview process; my 2L summer associateship is a product of that process.
  • Other students primarily used job fairs through affinity groups; Tatiana Laing found her 2L summer associate position through interviews at the National Black Law Students Association Job Fair.
  • And other students went directly to firms, flexing their networking skills; Mai Hamid made contacts at firms to land her 2L associateship.

Of course, even though our paths were distinct, to some extent, we each mixed and matched methods, using multiple avenues in our application process to find our job. And, to make matters even more confusing, these three ways hardly form an exclusive list, so other folks may take a different path entirely. The point here is this: the path to BigLaw is a choose-your-own-adventure (remember those? Good times.), and you get to design that path to fit you. 

The OCI Path

Since my path was the most cookie-cutter of the three, I’ll offer it first. I spent my 1L summer at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, a non-profit policy advocacy organization based in Newark; and I will be at White & Case as a Summer Associate in 2019.  

In applying to BigLaw, I relied almost exclusively on the OCI process and resume referrals (also through my law school), although I also submitted some applications directly through firm websites. I narrowed down my list of firms in NY and NJ based on their pro bono profiles, their diversity, and the quality of their international law practice using the aforementioned AmLaw and Vault master lists. And I made a giant spreadsheet (as previously noted) of each and every firm that might fit my criteria and applied to each one— through OCI if I could, but also through resume referrals and directly to the firm if it was the only way to apply.

And then I just took basically every interview I was offered. So, for reference, I submitted 40 applications, was offered 11 initial interviews, participated in 5 callbacks, and ultimately had 4 offers, of which I seriously considered 2. 

The most valuable lesson I learned is that you have to make your candidacy stand out; the OCI process does that for you because the firm will select a few interviews necessarily from a small pool of candidates, but if you’re just submitting through resume referral or a firm website, it is inordinately helpful to find an alum or other connection at the firm who can make sure your resume gets before the right people (more on networking in a moment from Mai). Most of the interviews I received actually came from Career Services or a professor sending my resume to a partner-alum at the firm because it put a more personal touch on my resume and also came with a little “seal of approval” from whomever had advocated for me. I also did a limited amount of networking on my own, looking through firm employee directories for alums from my school to connect with and discuss their experiences at the firm. I was offered an interview at one firm because I had previously met an associate there at an alumni networking event, and I was able to send my application materials directly to her (with her consent) and she then put them before the hiring committee. And I will note that every single one of the offers I ultimately received either began through OCI or from someone submitting my materials directly to a partner alum or my submitting materials to an alum to take to a partner on my behalf. 

The Job Fair Path

Tatiana will proudly be a Summer Associate at Paul Weiss in 2019, after having spent her 1L Summer at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. She found her job primarily through the National Black Law Students Association (NBLSA) Job Fair, a free one-day job fair for NBLSA members, which she learned about via email. She describes her path:

When I started getting emails from Career Services only a week or two into my summer internship, I realized I had to figure out what I wanted to do for my 2L summer. So the first thing I did was sign up for my school’s OCI process and the National Black Law Students Association Job Fair. I knew that I would at least have a lot of options between those two avenues.  Then I spent several days on a deep dive internet researching spree. I looked up every law firm I could find within an hour and a half commute from where I lived. I created a spreadsheet and kept track of things that were important to me like diversity, commitment to pro bono and of course prestige. I wanted to know which firms were in the news for taking a stand on social justice issues. I wanted to know where my legal idols spent their 2L summers. Honestly, a lot of firms look the same online.  But since I was focused on 2 or 3 things that were important to me, I was able to narrow my list to 15 firms where I could at least see myself interviewing.

A couple of those firms were participants in my school’s OCI process, so I submitted my application materials through my school. The rest of the firms were all participants in the NBLSA job fair so I submitted my applications to them through that system. I was offered interviews through my school and the NBLSA job fair and accepted the opportunities. While my school’s OCI process required me to come on two separate days, all of my interviews took place on the same day at the NBLSA job fair. The fair was overwhelming, but ultimately I appreciated being able to get through the majority of my first-round interviews in one day. Also, the firms that interviewed me at the fair got back to me within days to set up second round interviews. From there, the process of going to second round interviews and visiting firms again after an offer is pretty uniform no matter how you initially submitted your applications. In total, of the 15 or so applications I submitted, I received 2 OCI screeners and 8 NBLSA screeners; from them, I received 6 callbacks and 3 offers.

My biggest advice for other first-gen law students during this process is to ask questions. I didn’t know much of anything about working at a law firm, and I really wanted to know what it would be like before deciding what to do. In every interview I took the opportunity to ask about the culture, day-to-day, and the interviewer’s own career path. I asked to speak with particular attorneys who shared my ethnic background or whose biography included accomplishments or activities that I could relate to. I asked for what I truly wanted to know, and I was myself every step of the way. That’s why I am happy with what I’ll be doing my 2L summer! 

The Maverick Path

Mai is going back home to Texas to join Baker & McKenzie’s Houston office for her 2L summer.  She applied directly through Baker & McKenzie’s site, without participating in OCI. She credits her accomplishment to the valuable advice and support of her mentors at Verizon (her 1L summer position) and career services. Mai explains: 

I believe a combination of hard work, good grades, and maintaining a solid network enabled me to get my big law job. Over the summer, between my 1L and 2L year, I set a schedule for myself— pretty much an attack plan of getting a job as soon as possible.  There was also a twist in my story: I was a law student studying in the Northeast attempting to land a job in the South– it might sound like an easy task, but it is not.  I had the grades needed but I was facing the issue of exposure because majority of the firms I was seeking did not recruit from my school.  So, each day after work I spent anywhere between two to three hours researching firms and making an excel sheet of the required qualifications for each firm. 
My method was to speak to as many attorneys as possible in these law firms. I made a list of law firms where I could see myself fitting in. Note, “fit” could be anything from the types of individuals who work there, to the departments and work the firm does. Over time, however, that definition changed for me as I noticed different environments to each firm. Now, fit for me means a work space that fosters learning and growth and coworkers I am able to tolerate being around my co-workers 15-hours a day if needed.  
Next, I made a ‘point of contact,’ this was the initial contact made to the firm via email, career services job posting sites, LinkedIn, etc. Normally my point of contact person became my go-to person whenever I had questions during the process. Here is where my networking skills had to flourish, I had to maintain my contacts with professionals who wanted to simply guide me through the process. I am a Muslim woman of African and Arab descents, and a first-generation immigrant and law student thus my professional contacts consisted of any one or more of those categories. This was a daily endeavor, and consistency was key because each day something new needed to be done and I really could not afford to fall behind.  
I remember one day after work the attorneys invited the other interns and I out for dinner in NYC and despite the built-up lack of sleep from a busy work week, I accepted the invitation. And, after a long day, I was commuting back to my apartment across town when I checked my email only to find out that a partner at a major law firm had emailed me back asking for specific documents to add to my application and for his review. It was close to 11 PM, and his email came in a few hours prior while I was at dinner so I could not sit on that email until the next day. I remember getting home and running to my computer to produce the requested documents in order to submit them before the night was over. Technically, I could have waited until the next day, but I was hungry for the fruits of my labor already and the opportunity to interview at his firm so I could not wait.  This is one instance of many, where I found myself working tirelessly to balance my daily demands and maintain your network. All I can say now is that it was all worth it. I applied to around 22 law firms, received an initial interview from 9, and call-backs from 7 (some in Houston, TX and others in NYC).  
Looking back, I realize that each BigLaw firm settles for nothing but the best in a way and that each contact was an interview.  Each email sent to an associate, each phone call with a recruiting office, each document submitted, were all reflections of myself and knowing what I know now, they were all the real interviews. But I say this now and I will say it again and again… It was all worth it because there is no substitute to hard work.

Regardless which path you choose– OCI, job fair, or maverick networking– or if you choose an entirely new path altogether, you can make the BigLaw application process work for you. There are underlying threads of commonality between each of those paths (like the need for networking, or the value of making each connection with a firm count, or the importance of asking questions and finding a firm that fits your needs), but it’s really a DIY process.

Once you’ve gotten through the application and interview process, if you’re lucky enough to be holding on to one– or, hopefully, more– offer(s), check out the fourth and final installment of our BigLaw series here to help you weigh your choices and land your ideal Summer Associateship.

2 thoughts on “When “OCI” Stands for “Oh, Crap, Interviews?!?”: Applying to BigLaw

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s