Surviving and Thriving in OCI

BY MARK WEBER

As sure a sign of fall in New England as the brilliant foliage is Harvard Law students spotted in suits, hurrying toward the local hotels, clutching printouts of employer websites and glancing desperately at their watches. The sense of excitement is palpable. Hundreds of students and hundreds of employers meet for a common purpose – to make a match. Employers are looking to tap Harvard’s rich talent pool and students are seeking an opportunity to take the next step toward a legal career by entering the world of practice.

This decades-old tradition is the fall On-Campus Interview Program, the most visible of the Office of Career Services’ numerous job search programs. The purpose of this article is to de-mystify the OCI process and help students prepare for the intense, exciting and stressful weeks ahead.

Sorting Fact From Fiction

With more than 700 employers participating in OCI, Harvard Law School hosts the largest legal recruitment program in the country. Despite the economic slowdown, the demand for Harvard students remains strong. With such a large, intense and complex process at work, there are sure to be rumors and misinformation circulating. Let’s address some of the common fears and misperceptions that we hear from students:

In this market finding a job will be impossible. While this will still be a challenging market compared to a year such as 1999, there is also ample reason for optimism. An August headline from the Legal Times announced, “Law Firms Increase Hiring”- noting that some firms in some areas were feeling the effects of recovery and responding by hiring. This is consistent with what we have been hearing from employers throughout the country. The economic upturn seems to finally be underway; it’s not yet clear how this will affect OCI, but the worst seems to be over. Students should approach the hiring season with confidence. Even in the heart of the recession, the 2002 OCI program was very successful. Students may need to compromise on firm, region or specialty, but a well thought-out effort should yield a great job.

Firms won’t even look at students who don’t have certain grades. There is no pre-screening in the bidding process. OCS guidelines require that all HLS students should have an opportunity to interview with the employers of their choice during OCI. Employers will not see your grades until they receive your transcript at the interview (remember to bring a transcript!), so you have an opportunity to overcome less-than-stellar grades by impressing them in person. Most employers consider grades as only one factor among many in the hiring process and, since they are well aware of the rigorous selection process for the HLS class, they take intelligence as a given and look for other factors such as drive, commitment and effective interpersonal skills. This is not to say that grades don’t matter. The most sought-after employers in the most selective markets have an abundant choice of highly qualified students. Keep this in mind when you choose employers for interviews. If you are concerned about your grades, come in and talk to an OCS advisor who can suggest strategies, such as paying attention to firms interviewing in the third week or looking at branch offices, considering firms that may not be as well known in practice areas that you may be particularly interested in and even contacting firms that do not participate in Fall OCI that can maximize your opportunities.

You don’t get to interview with the employers you want. OCS uses a lottery system to assign interviews to students after the process of selecting employers or “bidding” for interview spots occurs. There is no pre-screening. A scheduling algorithm in the bidding program attempts to maximize students’ top choices, taking care not to conflict with academic class schedules, which are exported directly from the registrar’s office to the Career Services system. A breakdown of past statistics shows that overall students typically get approximately 75 percent of the interviews they request. In addition, resumes for all the students who bid on an employer are forwarded to the employer. A student who does not get an interview is placed on a waiting list and may get a spot after the period for modifying schedules. In addition, you can contact an employer directly to try to arrange alternatives.

The best way to ensure success is to interview like crazy. OCI bidding is limited to a maximum of 35 bids. Remember this is not a suggestion of how many firms to bid on but a maximum. A more thoughtful targeted approach is likely to be more successful than frantic interviewing and is certain to be less stressful. As a reference point, 2Ls on average interviewed with 18 to 22 employers, 3Ls with nine to ten employers. (Many employers do not interview 3Ls.) Rather than signing up to fill every available waking hour, be realistic. Taking into account the market and your law school record, sign up for an appropriate range and number of firms.

There is no way to know what my odds are. Unfortunately, the OCI process can only provide opportunity, not certainty. The Office of Career Services maintains recruitment statistics that record the number of students who bid on each employer, the number of interviews, the number of callbacks extended, and the number of offers. This is available on the OCS website (under “Researching Employers,” look for “Statistics from OCI”). Unfortunately, the statistics can’t provide information about many important factors that influence firms’ decisions, such as how a student interviews, or his or her academic performance, previous experience and general levels of achievement. The statistics can give you a general sense of how many seek, how many are called and how many are chosen.

With a more accurate understanding of OCI you are ready to take the next step: preparing for the bidding process.

Getting Ready for OCI

There is more than one way to tackle the OCI process. A surprisingly popular method goes something like this: A student looks up and sees the OCI calendar above his desk and remembers that he had better get his OCI bids in since the deadline is a couple of days away. On the night before bidding closes, he sits down at his computer. Based on a general sense that he would like to be in a city and on comments from his classmates that the best jobs are in D.C. and New York, he opens the site, searches by city and then looks over the list of D.C. and New York firms to pick names he recognizes. Since he only recognizes two or three names in each city, he surfs over to the AmLaw 100 to get the names of other “top” firms. Satisfied that he has selected the best firms, he submits his bid.

This is not the method Career Services recommends.

That said, it might well work out for this student. He may stumble on a great firm, well suited to him, in a city that he enjoys. But, if he does, it will be purely by chance. Of course, there is always an element of chance and uncertainty in the job search process, but your goal should be to reduce the element of surprise and shift the odds in your favor. Here is what we suggest you do to help yourself succeed.

Do a Basic Self-Assessment

First take some time to think about what you truly want. The OCI process is a whirlwind experience, even for the most organized students. Resist the forces that cause you to lose sight of what makes you happy and focus instead on where you think you are most likely to succeed personally and professionally. Sorting through these kinds of complex and personal issues is a highly individual process. Use the methods that work for you. Some suggestions:

Try to recall what you liked and disliked about previous employment. Sit down and get the list on paper. Try to capture the underlying qualit
ies that were important. For example, if you enjoyed editing your school paper, was it because the deadline pressure was invigorating, or because you like the detail work of copyediting, or because the people were great?

Engage in active discussion with friends, family and professors. Listening to the experience of others, as well as trying to clarify and articulate your own thoughts to others, can be enormously helpful.

Talk with the career services professionals here at the Law School. All of the OCS Career Counselors have J.D. degrees and have worked in a variety of practice areas and geographic locations. Take advantage of their experience and expertise.

Attend panels, programs and receptions offered in conjunction with OCI and engage visiting attorneys and panelists in discussion. You can also use the alumni resource network available in OCS and the various mentoring files maintained by the Office of Public Interest Advising.

If you still find yourself uncertain, the Office of Student Life Counseling offers professional counseling to assist you with self-assessment.

Research and Select Employers

Although the legal marketplace has slowed, OCS has seen only a small reduction in the number of employers participating in OCI. You will still be faced with a daunting task as you try to sort through hundreds of employers. A number of strategies and resources exist that can assist you in learning more about employers.

OCSWebsite: To begin your research, be sure to visit the OCS website at

www.law.harvard.edu/ocs. The website provides links to a variety of useful online resources as well as descriptions of hard copy resources available at the OCS office. Available online through the OCS website are the HLS On-line Employer Directory, HLS Student Summer Job Evaluations and various Vault Report guides for firms and cities. Available on the web are the National Association for Law Placement Directory, Lawmatch.com, Lexis, Westlaw and Infirmation.com. These resources, as well as others available in the OCS office, provide detailed information so that you are planning your career based on considered information, and not simply the perceived prestige of your potential employer.

Employer Websites: Admit-tedly you would find it a challenge to look at the website of every potentially interesting employer before you make bid decisions, so you may need to be selective at this stage. However, you should never enter an interview without first looking at the employer’s site and the firm’s listing either in the HLS Online Employer Directory or the NALP Directory. If time is limited, look for certain basic information so you will not appear obviously unprepared. Suggested areas: employer size, practice areas, location of branch offices, any information about summer programs (if that is what you are interested in) and whatever they showcase on the main page. If time permits, a Lexis-Nexis search would also highlight if a firm has recently been in the news.

The Callback

Callback interviews, the second round of interviews, when an employer invites you to the office to meet and interview with a number of other attorneys, offer a unique opportunity to assess firm culture and get at least a sampling of personalities with whom you may work. But to take advantage of this opportunity you need to be prepared. Perhaps the major student complaint about callbacks is that they seem undifferentiated – one firm seems like the next. The problem is usually that students take the wrong approach; they ask questions and listen for the replies. Because answers are likely to be shaped by an understanding of what students want and expect to hear, replies can sound remarkably similar. A better approach is to trust your instincts. Look beyond the words to get a sense of the place. How do people interact with each other? What are the offices like? How does the employer’s work setting feel to you? Formal? Quiet? Intense? Collegial? What adjectives would you use to describe the people? Equipped with a good sense of the firm, you need to determine whether this is a good fit. Ask yourself some crucial questions. What type of people do you enjoy working with? What environment is most comfortable for you and/or what environment promotes your success and productivity? Bearing these questions, and others, in mind during the callback process, you will likely make a more informed employment decision.

Create a “Plan B”

In light of the current market, after you have identified your ideal employers in your ideal market, you should also follow the old adage to “assume the best but prepare for the worst.” If your first choice options do not work out, what do you want to do? Again this is a personal decision that demands that you prioritize your desires. Which is most important: a firm’s prestige, the city, the practice area or something else? Where will you compromise? You may prefer a national firm located in a less sought-after city or you may be determined to settle in a given area even if you must compromise on the employer.

Finally, Take a Moment to Think Outside the OCI Box

Are there places you should be looking outside the OCI process? Many law firms and other employers that may interest you will not participate in OCI. Many smaller firms do not have the resources to make the trip to Cambridge. Other mid-sized or more geographically remote employers feel they cannot compete for your attention, so they allocate their resources elsewhere. If you need help locating these employers look for the OCS programs on “Finding a Job Outside OCI” offered in the fall or make an appointment to see an advisor. Rest assured these employers would love to receive a resume and cover letter from you. Please seek them out.

The First Step on a Long Road

You are at the beginning of your legal career, and it is unlikely that you or anyone else can predict exactly where your professional journey will lead. Gone are the days when your first job upon graduation was one you would keep for many years, perhaps even retire from. Think of the OCI selection process as the beginning of your journey and navigate thoughtfully. Your career path is unique and individually paved by you, not by the Vault reports, American Lawyer or a consensus of your classmates or relatives.

Through the job search process, you will learn to take charge of your career. Take advantage of the abundant career advising resources at HLS, from counselors to panelists, publications to websites. One of the most distinct advantages of attending Harvard Law School is the unsurpassed quality, potential, character and sheer number of your classmates. Over time, they will become your most effective network.

Soon, campus life will return to normal, the suits will disappear and OCI will be behind you. In the meantime, remember that at no other time in your career will you go about finding a job in quite the same way. So, relax, be yourself, learn a lot and enjoy!

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