I once worked with a law firm candidate who was the first in her family to go to college and law school. She didn't know any lawyers in the rural South where she grew up. She transferred law schools to a top-14 school but was not savvy about the on-campus interview process.
Her grades were fine, but not great, and she wasn't an effective consumer of the on-campus interview offerings at her new school. She ended up at a small firm where she isn't paid very much and isn't doing work she cares about. She effectively missed the bus.
Having spent the last few weeks coaching rising second-year students in preparation for the fully remote interview process, I've fielded many important questions, but the most pressing one is this: How are firms going to judge candidates in the absence of a year of grades?
Grades have historically been a deeply important metric in the on-campus interview process, a way to rank and rate students who are all superstars. Many firms would bristle at that assessment, but their halls are littered with magna cum laude talent. So, with law schools going pass/fail last semester due to the pandemic, what impact will that have on on-campus interviews?
Representatives from firms are quick to point out that grades have never been everything, but in the absence of the normal transcript at this point what else can law firms lean into? My hope is that a mostly gradeless on-campus interview process will encourage firms to assess talent more holistically and allow for more candidates to shine.
One potential tactic for firms to more holistically assess academic accomplishments is to look farther back at students' undergraduate transcripts. Some students will bristle at this, but it is a rational choice. If firms feel they need to assess academic track record, this is a concrete way to do that.
Firms should be aware, however, that this works less well with second-career students, who may have gone to college many years ago, and will need to account for the fact that a law student who is now 35 is likely a very different academic animal than that same person as a college student at 20.
One recruiting manager I spoke to mentioned the possibility of using online testing — i.e., personality surveys or psychometric testing. Another internal law firm colleague suggested the use of a firm-engineered online hypotheticals test similar to a final exam. Firms may consider tests that are not law-specific, but instead are about an applicant's creativity, resourcefulness, emotional intelligence and personality.
Other industries, including recruiting, have long relied upon psychometric testing as a barometer of a candidate's future performance and where they might fit into the established structure. Getting some data about how a candidate would tolerate uncertainty and the challenge of remote work would seem to be a net positive for firms in the COVID-19 era.
Without transcripts to rely on as a primary metric, firms may need to devote more time and resources to interviewing a larger pool of candidates who appear to meet their criteria.
Interviews being weighted more heavily seems like a positive for students who are fully new to the law, didn't grow up with lawyers in their network and may not have the same social capital as their peers. More interviews may sound exhausting for all involved, but those with strong social-emotional communication skills will benefit from this chance to shine.
Conventional wisdom suggests the more interviewers the better. In our Zoom-based reality, this is likely still true — but not all at once. An interviewee's screen should not look like the "Brady Bunch" logo.
The candidates I work with say more than two interviewers per call leads to a lot of time spent with partners talking over each other. This may mean more rounds are required.
Firms may be tempted to make the first round a brief initial screen, but I think that this would backfire — it would cause students to put so much weight into a very abbreviated first impression that many talented candidates might flame out.
Pen to Paper
Another law firm recruiting manager mentioned the possibility of an introductory essay, in the vein of a law school admissions essay. This is separate and apart from the legal writing sample and is a potential chance to advocate for yourself. These are unlikely to be free-form, but instead to ask a targeted question.
Some potential queries include: What is the role of lawyers in our society? Should the bar exam be a gating element for practice? When you retire, what do you hope is said about your legal career?
Those who enjoy narrative writing will shine here in a way in which they may not during finals. Further, those from diverse backgrounds may have an opportunity to demonstrate how their unique vantage point could contribute to a firm.
Students who have joined affinity groups, journals or moot court during COVID-19 — and gained leadership roles within those organizations — are demonstrating gumption. So firms should pay attention.
Firms should ask students specifically what they have done to help the groups they are part of to adapt to our remote reality. How are they fundraising, meeting or being activists? The answer would likely be demonstrative of how students would find ways to make remote working and training effective.
Tactics to Avoid
Firms may be interested in getting several reference letters. I believe this could backfire, chiefly against those who come from less privileged backgrounds. Candidates who can have a judge attest to their work ethics are more than likely those who also went to prep school.
Professors can't ably step into the reference role as they haven't had much chance to get to know the current on-campus interview class due to COVID-19. Firms should avoid weighting references too heavily.
One firm mentioned basically holding a mock law school class and employing the Socratic method, wherein the "professor" asks questions about case law by cold-calling on students. Again, I fear that this would benefit primarily those who are second- and third-generation law students, who have debating in their blood. I worry for the shy but whip-smart law student who abhors public speaking, competition and being put on the spot.
In a world where grades aren't everything, or even most of the thing, can firms actually look more holistically at candidates? Does an on-campus interview process that can't heavily weight grades actually create a more diverse and balanced summer class? It's possible that, in the absence of grades as a gating factor, students from varying backgrounds will get more of a bite at the apple than they have in years past.
Law school is a huge adjustment for everyone, and for those students who did not grow up knowing lawyers or being raised by them, it's bigger yet. First year grades can suffer as a result. If there's a silver lining to a fully remote on-campus interview, it could be that law firms have to look more carefully at the whole person, not just the transcript.