Big Law Hiring, Resume, & Interviewing Tips for University of San Diego School of Law

What is big law?

"Big law" is a term used for the biggest multi-national law firms in the country.  A list of big law firms can be found at either Vault or AmLaw.  Generally speaking, there are about 150 to 200 big law firms in the United States.  Many of these firms pay  "market rate" for first year associates, which as of 2012 is 160k for first year salary.  Big law jobs are rare.  Summer positions with big law firms are also rare, and typically go to students at the absolute top of the class.

Statistically, What are the Chances of a University of San Diego School of Law Student Landing a Big Law Job?

Little to none.  Big law hiring has declined steadily from its peak in 2007.  As seen here, only about 18 University of San Diego School of Law graduates placed into large multi-national law firms (firms having more than 250 attorneys).  The typical graduating class for the University of San Diego School of Law is about 325 students.  This tells us that the top 5-6% (18/325) of graduates from the University of San Diego School of Law get jobs at large multi-national law firms that pay high salaries.  The actual number of jobs is probably smaller, given that a handful of University of San Diego School of Law students have PhDs in Biology or Chemistry, or have Engineering degrees.  Why is the number of PhD Chemistry or Biology law students relevant?  Because PhD Chemistry or Biology law students students will go on to work in the intellectual property departments (specifically patent law departments) of big law firms without being at the top of the class.  Typically about 5-7 of the graduating students from the University of San Diego School of Law who go on to work at large multi-national law firms have strong technical backgrounds.  This means that only about 10 non-science law students (top 2.5%) get employment opportunities at at large multi-national law firms.  As an FYI, not every attorney may practice patent law.  Patent law is one field where you MUST have a technical degree to practice.  You cannot file patent applications or correspond with the Patent Office as an attorney unless you have taken sufficient courses in science or engineering.  In most instances, sufficient coursework means you have acquired at least a B.S. in a science field, so this rules out about 95% of all law students.  This is why law students with unremarkable GPAs, but who have science and engineering degrees, still manage to pull down high paying jobs at big law firms.

Why Big Law Isn't Necessarily the End Game

Big law pays a lot.  This helps to repay student loans, but consider the following:  Most people who go into big law start making 160k per year.  In many  instances, 160k per year is more money than many mid-career attorneys make.  Furthermore, most of the people who go into big law don't stay in big law.  This means that if you start out making 160k a year, you probably will not make this type of money for more than 2-3 years, and your salary will actually decrease as you continue to practice law.  How does this happen?  You start working for 160k a year in a big law firm.  After 2 years at the big law firm, you are (1) laid off, (2) fired, or (3) you quit.  Your next job after biglaw will (99% of the time) pay less than your biglaw job.

Again, no matter how optimistic you are about your big law employment, chances are you will not keep your big law job for more than 2-3 years.  My big law class had 28 people firm-wide.  Within 2 years, 50% of every associate in my class that started had either left the firm voluntarily or had been fired.  When you work at a big law firm, there are many circumstances beyond your control.  If the partner who you primarily work with leaves the firm to go somewhere else and doesn't take you along, you may be laid off.  If you burn out from working too many hours, you may leave voluntarily to take another less stressful position.  If something goes wrong on a case or a client gets angry, the partners may use you as a sacrificial lamb (e.g. they may place the blame on your for a bad outcome at trial, for potential acts of malpractice, or for other faux paus that have made clients or other partners angry).

Managing Expectations: The Most Important Lesson

Before the discussion of the nitty gritty about big law hiring, read the following: Obtaining a big law job out of the University of San Diego School of Law is exceedingly difficult.  It's not impossible, but it's very difficult. University of San Diego School of Law students have obtained big law jobs in the past, and they will continue to obtain big law jobs in the future.  However, as a University of San Diego School of Law student, you need to BE REALISTIC about your big law opportunities.  Even at the height of the demand for attorneys, the University of San Diego School of Law only placed between 10% and 15% of its graduates into big law firms.  Do not expect to get a big law job and do not plan on big law as your only employment option.  Even if you scored a 175 on your LSAT and have a full ride, do not bank on getting a big law job.  Don't have a back-up employment plan if you don't get a big law job.  Have a primary employment plan that doesn't involve a big law job, but apply for big law jobs and hope for the best.

Also Note: What's written below is based on my own personal experiences as a University of San Diego School of Law student who:

The reason I note that above is because I think the information below is highly relevant to the USD law student.  Although career services is there to help you, sometimes career services staff don't know first-hand what it's like to be a candidate interviewing for a big law job from the University of San Diego School of Law.  The career service advisor may have never worked in a big law firm or participated in the big law firm interview process.  Conversely, the career service advisor may have graduated from a top 10 law school pre-2007 and therefore had a multitude of job offers and dozens or more OCI interviews and call back opportunties.  The goal here is not to criticize the tough job career services has, but rather to provide a free resource that offers relevant information about the big law hiring process.

How Most Big Law Firms Hire Out of the University of San Diego School of Law

Big law firms having a progression of events that lead to an extension of a job offer.  First big law firms will solicit resumes from law students.  Then big law firms will interview 15-20 students during On Campus Interviews (OCI).  A few students from the OCI will then get called back by the firm to participate in a call back interview that lasts about one day, or a half day.  After a call back interview, the firm will either extend an offer to participate in a summer program, or the firm will decline to extend a summer offer.  Most firms hire associates for full time positions based on performance during the summer program.

Nearly every big law firm has a set of hiring criteria determined by the hiring committee.  The hiring committee consists of partners that evaluate resumes and determine how many associates the firm wants to hire for its summer program.  It is helpful to think of big law hiring criteria as an equation with more than one variable.  For example, most big law firms will, at a minimum, look at 3 variables:

  1. X = Law School Ranking (the higher, the better; you have little or no control over this unless you transfer to a higher ranked law school after your first year)
  2. Y = Law School GPA (the higher, the better; you control this variable)
  3. Z = Personal Interview score (pretty binary, either you do well during the interview, or you don't do well)

The sum of these variables adds up to a number, and different firms have different numbers.  We therefore have X + Y + Z = firm's hiring number.  Any score above a firm's number gets you hired, any score below a firm's number results in the firm not extending you an offer.  Again, firm's don't really use equations like this, but it's helpful to think of the model as an equation for several reasons.  First, most big law firms have school ranking cutoffs and GPA/class rank cutoffs.  So the lower ranked school you attend, the higher your GPA/class rank must be to get hired.  The converse is also true.  The higher ranked school you attend, the lower your GPA/class rank can be.  In my experience, there isn't a huge difference between schools ranked 30-70.  If you're going to a school ranked 30-70, the GPA/Class Rank cutoff will be fairly high (top 5-10%).  Once you get into the top 30, some firms may lower the class rank to top 20%, and inside the top 14, you may still get interviews and offers if you're in the top third or top half of your class.  If you're applying from the University of San Diego School of Law, the ranking of the school is not going to change enough anytime in the future to alter the X + Y + Z equation.  Therefore X will be constant, and we can simplify the equation to simply Y +Z.  Since Z is binary, everything will depend on your law school GPA/class rank.  There is no way around this for getting into big law.  It's a one-dimensional analysis, and your GPA/class rank will serve as the gatekeeper.

If you're applying from the University of San Diego School of Law, you will need to pass several hurdles to get your foot in the door at a big law firm.  The first hurdle is getting an On Campus Interview (OCI).  Believe it or not, getting an On Campus Interview isn't a big deal (even if only very few students get interviews).  Many people get On Campus Interviews.  Few people get big law jobs from their On Campus Interview.  This isn't because a majority of the people who get On Campus Interviews are horrible interviewers or wore a shirt that didn't match.  This is because big law firms will send partners to interview candidates in 6-7 hour blocks that occur on a single day.  The interviews last about 20 minutes.  Therefore, big law firms will interview 20 people for 1-2 spots.

  The realistic breakdown usually follows the pattern described here.  Each firm that interviews on campus will post a set of criteria they use for screening candidates.  If it's a big firm, the criteria for students from the University of San Diego School of Law will specify that you need to have a class rank in the top 10% or the top 5% of the class.  Anybody who applies that doesn't have this criteria gets pre-screened out and doesn't receive an invitation to attend OCI.  Firms considering students from the University of San Diego School of Law usually look to hire the top 1-2% of students (everybody wants "the best").  What happens is that a few students at the very top of the class will receive many employment offers from most firms that have interviewed on campus, but people just outside the very top will interview many times, but receive zero offers.  Imagine if you're ranked in the top 6%.  Your top 6% will get your foot in the door for a screening interview because firms interview 20 candidates from the University of San Diego School of Law (20/325 students).  However, your top 6% won't get you past the pre-screening stage, because all the firms interviewing will only extend offers to the top 1-2%, with a few offers going to students in the top 3-4% or maybe the top 5%. 

So naturally you think, "why do firms waste the time interviewing 18 or 19 candidates when they only want to hire 1-2 candidates?"  Or you're thinking, "why waste an entire day of a partner's time to superficially interview one student for 20 minutes in between interviewing 18 or 19 other students for 20 minutes?  Why not just invite the student the firm is interested in to the office and have a more substantive interview?"  Mostly it works the way it does because intense competition among big firms exists for graduates from the top 3-4 law schools.  At a top 3 law school, many students will have days of back-to-back of interviews with dozens of firms.  Similarly, firms will actually want to interview 30-40 students from a top law school (not just 1-2 at a lower ranked school), so firms will try to interview as many students as possible from a top 3 school and then extend offers to as many students as they can.  Since every law school tries its best to mimic what goes on at the top 3 law schools, we end up with the absurdity that is OCI at a school like the University of San Diego School of Law. 

I should note here that many non-big law opportunties exist out of OCI at the University of San Diego School of Law.  This page deals solely with big law hiring from OCI.  Public interest positions, District Attorney Positions, and a few regional firms will have a different OCI stucture that emphasizes more than just GPA/class rank.

General Tips for Big Law Interviews

On Campus Interviews (OCI)

The OCI interview is very superficial.  Unless you come across as really unpleasant, this interview probably won't hurt you or help you.  In all likelihood, your OCI interview will go well, you will talk about sports, living in San Diego, 1L classes, or what types of law you're interested in.  The conversation with the partner will be pleasant and short, and you will leave.  If you have held a conversation during this brief interview and not disqualified yourself, the hiring committee will then take a closer look at your resume and either (1) invite you into the office for a call back interview, or (2) send you a letter politely turning away your interest in the law firm.  Most students from the University of San Diego School of Law will get rejected at this point in the process (see above).  In an overwhelming number of cases, the rejection is not because the interview went poorly, it's because your class rank wasn't high enough.  In the current legal hiring landscape, nothing outside the top 1-2% is guaranteed.  Even when times were good, nothing outside the top 5% was guaranteed.  It's a buyer's market for employers because far too many legal candidates exist for far too few associate positions.

With that said, the one area that firms consider as important during the initial OCI phase is geographical ties.  If you want to work at a law firm based in another city (e.g. LA, SF, San Jose, Atlanta, NYC, etc.), make sure to emphasize that you have strong ties to the city, for example emphasize that you have:

Note: saying that "the legal market is terrible and I'll take a job anywhere" usually isn't a good response to "why do you want to work in LA."  In the rare case that you're a borderline candidate, having no geographical ties to the city where you're trying to get hired may result in having your resume moved into the rejection pile.

Call Back Interviews

Call back interviews comprise a series of short interviews with associates and partners and usually involve a longer lunch or dinner portion.  Call back interviews are more substantive than your OCI interview and usually focus on your outside interests and what type of law you're interested in practicing.  If you're at the call back stage, your academic credentials have already gotten you in the door and if your personality fits, then you should get a summer offer.  The goal of a call back interview is to establish a good rapport with the partners and associates that you meet. You want to leave partners and associates thinking, "I could work and get along with that person."  Many times, if you're at the call back stage, the job is yours to lose.  However, firms hire on a rolling basis, so even if you have a good call back interview, your resume may get  leap frogged by another candidate with better credentials or a lateral hire.

Be prepared to answer the following generic questions:

The good thing about call back interviews is that the law firm will provide you with the list of attorneys you will interview with and have lunch with. This enables you to prepare for your interviews by learning a little bit about what attorneys you will speak with during your call back.  It's good to note if you have anything in common with any of the partners and associates that will interview you.  Did you go to the same undergraduate institution?  Did you go to the same law school, etc.  Coming from the University of San Diego School of Law, you probably won't interview with many University of San Diego School of Law alum.  At large firms, even those with major offices in San Diego, most partners and associates will come from law schools all over the country.

Have good answers prepared for the above questions!

What types of things sink candidates at the call back stage?  Most of this stuff is ridiculous, but it still happens occasionally.  None of this advice is good advice because you probably aren't this clueless, but stories always persist about horrible call back candidates.  Back in the day, people who had a multitude of offers would sometimes accept call backs at firms that they had no intention of working for so that they could travel to a different city, get drunk and eat an expensive meal on the law firm's dime, and then fly back to law school.  Even in when big law firms hired in record numbers, not many University of San Diego School of Law students fell into this category.  Still, stuff below still happens and still tanks candidates.

Thank-You Cards

Some people advise that you send "Thank You" cards to the attorneys you interview with.  I don't know how effective this is, and I don't know whether you should do it.  In my experience a "Thank You" card doesn't help or hurt you.  If you feel like sending a card, do so.  Otherwise, it's probably not a big deal.