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The Waiting Game—Understanding the Interview Process in Law School

Darlene Ricker


  • How can you make it through the often excruciatingly long process of waiting? Career counselors say the best thing you can do is use the time to your advantage.
The Waiting Game—Understanding the Interview Process in Law School

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While you’re on pins and needles this semester, awaiting word about the permanent job offer you’re hoping for, you can’t help but wonder: What’s taking so long?

“Waiting is a source of tremendous stress for students. It can be a long, lonely wait, especially if your classmates already have jobs,” said Lauren Dubin, director of public sector careers in the Office of Public Interest and Community Service at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, DC. Nonetheless, she added, “Just knowing that there is a long waiting process alleviates some anxiety.”

Understanding what’s going on behind the scenes in the halls and offices of employers that are mulling whether to extend an offer to you also alleviates some anxiety.

Get Inside Employers’ Heads

While getting a job offer is in hyper-focus on your radar, “for employers it’s a back-burner item,” said Nancy Glazer, manager of Legal Launch, LLC in Chicago. It’s not that employers are callous or unaware of your feelings—many of them navigated the same waiting game in law school, too. But now their concentration is elsewhere: getting and keeping clients and managing their caseload. It has to be, or there won’t be any jobs out there for anyone down the road.

“These attorneys have [shed] blood, sweat, and tears to get clients; they’ve fought tooth and nail. They’re thinking of the client 100 percent of the time. They’ve been on a treadmill, and they’re exhausted,” said Glazer. It is little wonder, then, that their focus isn’t necessarily on job applicants. The sooner a student recognizes that, the better. During the waiting game, “You can save yourself a lot of heartache and stomachaches if you throw yourself out of yourself. You have to let go of the ‘poor-little-me’ [mentality] and brainwash yourself to think like the employer.”

Although employers are client-focused, they do try to make hiring decisions as quickly as possible, both for their sake and that of the applicants. That is true in both the private and public sectors, including law firms, government agencies, corporations, nonprofit organizations, and public-interest groups. Employers across the board know they are competing with other employers for many of the same job candidates, and the more time that passes, the greater chance a student may accept another offer.

As Alan Abes, a partner in the litigation department and chair of the recruitment committee for Dinsmore & Shohl LLP, a 500-plus attorney firm with offices in 16 cities, underscored, “We don’t want to miss out on someone we really want to become part of the firm.” Therefore, he said, the committee makes every effort to reach decisions and extend offers as soon as possible. “If we have a need and we like you, we may even make an immediate offer after your interviews on callback day. Typically it doesn’t happen that way, “but it has happened,” Abes said.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

The waiting game can also vary geographically. While the pace may be different in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Abes is based, New York firms tend to make decisions to do callbacks very quickly, sometimes within 24 hours after the on-campus interview (OCI) and a candidate may be asked to come to the firm for an interview almost immediately,” said Marcia Shannon, assistant dean of career services at Georgetown Law in Washington, DC. Most firms, she said, try to have their new associate hiring done by October 1, although “If there are holes, the process may continue. Sometimes students get callbacks as late as November.”

The scenario at large and midsized firms usually unfolds this way: After candidates are interviewed at OCI, callback invitations are extended. Then, said Abes, there is usually a lag time of one to three weeks while the firm coordinates the schedules of all the attorneys who will be meeting with the candidate. This can be protracted, for example, if you are interviewing for a litigation position and key players who will be interviewing you are preparing for trial or, heaven forbid, in the midst of it.

After the callback, everyone who has met the candidate confers. Although not the case at every firm, Abes, as chair of the recruitment committee makes every effort to personally meet with each candidate before a final decision is reached about making an offer. Then he and the department chair review the recommendations of other attorneys in the practice group in which the candidate would be working. Abes and the department chair make the decision together, and one of them makes the call to the candidate. The news is usually, but not always, a yes or a no. In some cases, said Abes, it’s a maybe. “A candidacy could be put on hold for anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of months while we’re waiting to hear from other candidates who are holding offers” from the firm, he said. On the other hand, when you’re one of the firm’s top picks, “Sometimes we find a way to hire a candidate even if we don’t have a position available.”

Such randomness can, of course, be nerve-racking. Add to that the personal subjectivity factor at law firms. You may have waited it out and be equal to other candidates or even at the top of the list, but then another candidate may come along whose uncle gives Celtics tickets to the managing partner every year or who belongs to the same golf club, said Glazer. If you get bumped, you’re back to the waiting game with other firms.

Case Study: So You Want to Be a Los Angeles County DA?

But it’s not that way with all legal employers, particularly governmental agencies, where decisions are governed by a more objective process. Time frames and procedures are almost invariably set in stone, and the number of jobs is controlled by a preestablished budget. In fact, said Dubin, “It’s the rare person looking for a job in the public sector who finds himself on the same timeline as friends who are applying to private law firms. The process is completely different—it’s apples and oranges.”

The application deadlines, hiring windows, and procedures for jobs with public agencies and nonprofit organizations are “all over the map,” she said. To find a permanent job in the public sector, you have to do very specific searches. “There is no ‘one size fits all.’ Say you want to be a district attorney (DA) in Los Angeles. You can’t assume that California will hire the same way as the New York DA’s office. Every office is different.” That can be true even within the same state. The hiring process and timetable, for example, is far longer at the DA’s office in Los Angeles than it is in some of the smaller counties in Northern California.

Here’s how the waiting game plays out at the Los Angeles County’s District Attorney (LADA) Office:

Be Prepared for a Very Long Wait

For starters, a candidate should be prepared for a very long wait. You can’t even apply until after you have passed the bar. The application process opens every other year in December. Because the last hiring cycle opened in December 2013, the next opportunity to apply won’t come until December 2015. After that, you may find yourself waiting another two years, sometimes longer, until you are hired, according to assistant district attorney Pamela Booth, who is in charge of the hiring program.

That’s owing to several factors. First, the applicant pool is enormous, often attracting 1,000 applicants for fewer than 100 positions. Second, the process is lengthy and has numerous steps. Applying for a position takes an incredible amount of effort and diligence. Don’t expect to see the LADA’s office on the list of OCI recruiters. Except for interviews during the final stage, the application process is done completely online. Deadlines are rigid, and the application period is only open for three to four weeks. If you miss that round, you’ll be waiting another two years until you can apply. And regardless of how much experience you may get working for another employer in the interim, you will only be considered for an entry-level deputy district attorney position (DDA-1).

Twenty-Minute Oral Exams

After the application process closes, everyone who qualifies is invited to the office for a 20-minute oral examination that usually focuses on hypotheticals with legal and ethical issues. Then the applicants are “banded,” with their names placed in one of seven “bands” (levels), and applicants are informed of the results. A certified list is generated with the rankings, and the DA’s office begins the interview process.

“If you aren’t in one of the top two bands you won’t get an offer,” but you can reapply during the next application period, said Booth. The reason is the sheer numbers and the strictly proscribed process. There are usually hundreds of people in the top band, and the DA’s office is required to start from the top and work its way down. As Booth explained, “We can only leave four people in a band before we go down to a lower band.”

Level-Two Interview

Then begins the selection interview process, known as the level-two interview. Two prosecutors meet with each candidate for what Booth described as “a more casual conversation” than the oral exam. In the current hiring cycle, about 500 candidates received interviews at level two. Of them, 124 were selected for the final level-three interview with two DAs, Los Angeles DA Jackie Lacey (yes, “the” district attorney) and the chief deputy. Lacey extended 39 offers.

At each stage, the process takes a little less time because the pool of candidates narrows. The oral exam phase takes the longest—about six weeks—because prosecutors have a lot of steps to follow: draft the exam questions, get them approved, schedule and conduct the oral exam, score the results, generate a certified list, schedule and conduct level-two interviews, and then arrange the final round of interviews with the DA and the chief deputy.

Complete Background Checks

After the offers are made and accepted, yet another waiting period begins, as a complete background check has to be made before the hiring can be official. Unlike the routine criminal background checks done by large law firms, which generally involve just a database search that can be done within days, a background check for a prosecutor’s office takes weeks or sometimes more than a month because personal inquiries have to be made about a candidate and the information independently verified.

Conflict Checks

At law firms of any size, there is yet another piece of the waiting game. A conflict check has to be conducted to ensure there is no conflict or potential conflict between the candidate and one of the firm’s clients. Conflicts arise fairly regularly when students have clerked or worked at other firms. “It happens all the time,” said Abes. Even at a small firm, where hiring decisions are usually made more quickly than at a midsized or large firm because there are fewer people involved in the decision, a conflict check is still required.

The conflict check takes more time than you might think. First, you fill out a conflict form, listing matters you have worked on. The information is compared to a database that generates a report of the firm’s open matters. The report goes to an attorney who has been trained to do conflict review. If a question comes up, you will be asked to provide more information, and then the conflict reviewer will follow up with the attorney in the firm who has the conflicting matter. Depending on the nature and seriousness of the conflict, the firm goes on to investigate whether the conflict can be waived or an ethical screen put in place to separate the candidate from the matter.

Despite the many uncertainties that may keep you up at night throughout the waiting game, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. “Don’t get thrown off by the word ‘no.’ Keep at it. ‘No’ is just part of the process,” said Shannon of Georgetown Law. And Glazer concurred: “Even some at the top of the class don’t get jobs right away.”

Career Counselors on How to Cope with Anxiety

How can you make it through the often excruciatingly long process of waiting? Career counselors say the best thing you can do is use the time to your advantage.

For starters, find a distraction from waiting. “You need something positive, like learning about the industry you want to work in. When you’re waiting, it’s totally out of your control. Do something within your control that makes you feel better. And keep applying to jobs,” said Nancy Glazer, manager of Legal Launch, LLC in Chicago.

Glazer urges candidates to take their focus off waiting and on the place where they want to work. “Take some of the time you’ve allotted for study and use it to find out what’s going on in the real world and what attorneys care about.”

For students who are waiting for an interview or a second interview, Glazer recommended that they read up on the issues impacting the particular organization or firm they are seeking to join. “Read Crain’s Chicago Business, read the Wall Street Journal, read everything that the people who will interview you are reading,” she said. “When you walk into the interview, you should know what keeps these guys up at night.”

Marcia Shannon, assistant dean of career services at Georgetown University Law Center, said, “As you are waiting, there are other employers you want to start considering. Regional firms may do hiring after OCI [on-campus interviews]. You want to think about OCI as just the beginning of the recruiting process, not the only one. Keep networking, etc. Think about this as a full, complete strategy.”

Assistant district attorney Pamela Booth of the Los Angeles County Office of the District Attorney suggested that students “Spend your waiting time becoming very well prepared for the interview. Anticipate the questions. The biggest one for us is, ‘Why do you want to be a prosecutor?”

No matter how proactive you are, said Lauren Dubin, a director at Georgetown Law’s Office of Public Interest and Community Service, “There will be times when you’ll feel your job search has gone dormant. You don’t have to always be sending out letters, but there are other things you can do. Outreach is critical. Cultivate relationships, ask for advice, go to social settings like Starbucks where you may meet potential employers.”

She also suggests contacting former employers, telling a professor that you’re looking for a job in his area of law, and joining online listservs in your practice area and location so you’ll receive new job announcements right when they come out.

Finally, accept the reality that there will be some waiting. “Waiting is SOP [standard operating procedure],” said Shannon. “I tell 3Ls it can take anywhere from September through the following September. You can’t think, ‘I’ll get my job (offer) in October.’ You’ll get it when you get it.”

Post-Interview Etiquette

What should you do if the process is taking longer than expected? Is it appropriate to call or email those you met with to further follow up?

In a nutshell, yes. Most employers say it’s fine for a job candidate to keep in touch, as long as you don’t come across as desperate or demanding. The best approach is to call or send a brief email, politely reiterating your appreciation for the interview and reaffirming your interest in a position with the employer.

“I always think follow-up is appropriate,” said Jessica Winters, an attorney involved in hiring at the Getty Law Group offices in Lexington, Kentucky, and Rome, Italy. Most people don’t send a thank-you note, but it definitely helps. Email is fine, but even in this day and age a handwritten note goes the furthest.”

In the view of Alan Abes, a Cincinnati, Ohio-based partner, and chair of the recruitment committee for Dinsmore & Shohl LLP, “It’s a two-way street. It’s fine to stay in contact and tell us your status, particularly if you are considering another offer or if you have an acceptance deadline approaching. We appreciate that. We don’t want to lose someone because they didn’t stay in contact.” When it comes to thank-you notes, just make sure you keep it professional, Abes said.

As the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) guidelines on student professionalism during the interview season state, “Some students hesitate to reject an offer—even when it is not of interest—because they are reluctant to ‘break the bad news’ to an employer. As sorry as employers might be to receive your rejection, they will respect your professionalism—and your awareness of their firm’s interests—if you reject on a timely basis and do so by phone or email (not ‘snail mail’). Employers need to be able to extend new offers as promptly as possible, and other students are waiting and hoping to receive those offers.”

You Received an Offer! Now What?

Once you have an offer in hand, the ball is in your court—for a while, anyway. But it won’t last indefinitely. Under NALP guidelines, your time frame to make a decision depends on several factors: the size of the firm; whether you have been employed there, typically as a summer associate; and whether the offer comes during the fall interviewing season or at another time of the year. You will normally have at least two weeks and up to a month to accept or decline. Be sure to determine the applicable time frame by reviewing the NALP timeline for offers and decisions:

However, if you receive an offer that you have no intention of accepting, you should decline as quickly as possible so the employer can continue its search and so that the job opens up for other candidates who are waiting.

“If you decline, be respectful during the process,” said Alan Abes of Dinsmore & Shohl LLP. “You should be prepared and willing to answer questions the employer may have. “We like to know why a candidate declines, so we may ask where you’ve decided to accept.”