Law group takes aim at on-campus interview process

By Amanda Becker
Monday, May 10, 2010

The annual courtship of law school students has always been an intricate and drawn-out dance as firms and candidates participate in the mutually selective process each fall known as On-Campus Interviewing or OCI. Students entering their second year of law school compete for a slot in firms' summer programs -- the traditional entr?e into Big Law -- and typically accept an offer six or more months in advance. Barring disaster, nearly all walk away at the end of the summer with an offer in hand to return after graduation.

Much of that tradition changed when the recession forced firms to delay start dates, shorten summer programs and hire fewer associates. Law schools reported a near universal decline in the number of firms recruiting on campus in 2009. The median number of summer offers made by large firms dropped to eight from 30 just two years before. Only 69 percent of summer associates received offers of permanent employment -- the lowest rate recorded since National Association for Law Placement started collecting the data in 1993.

Panicked law students reacted by hoarding offers, worried that those on the table could be rescinded. Firms in strong hiring positions insisted students accept offers immediately instead of within the normally allotted 45 days. Top law schools, including Harvard and Northwestern, said firms could not recruit on campus if they did not plan to adhere to guidelines developed by the nonprofit NALP, which was formed in the 1970s to guide legal recruiting during another period of industry change.

"You saw some law school members threatening to punish firms that wanted to vary from the organization's 'voluntary' guidelines due to the extreme change in economic conditions," said K&L Gates Chairman Peter Kalis.

During a series of NALP-sponsored roundtable discussions on recruiting at firms in Washington, San Francisco, New York and Chicago, a consensus emerged that the on-campus model, which effectively requires firms to estimate hiring needs nearly two years in advance, is outdated. Many hiring partners suggested the process be moved to the spring, after another round of grades is released and just before students start summer jobs.

Others suggested a common offer date, matching a procedure akin to the one used by hospitals and medical schools.

NALP announced in January that its recruiting commission would recommend the adoption of a common offer date approach, which would prohibit the extension of offers before a January kick-off date and give students 14 days to decide. More than 800 interested parties weighed in during the public comment period leading up to the board's vote.

"The notion of pushing on-campus recruiting until the spring of students' second year made a great deal of sense to us . . . but the commission believed that was unworkable," said Jones Day Hiring Partner Gregory Shumaker. "Then, they came up with waiting until January, which to us was implementing something for all the wrong reasons."

In an eight-page letter to the commission, Shumaker argued that the kick-off date was a rash decision prompted by the economy and that it penalized firms ready to extend offers earlier to top students. Others pointed out that pushing back offer dates several months did little to alleviate a firm's difficulty estimating staffing needs two years in advance. Based on the feedback, the board voted in February to reduce the 45-day window to a 28-day rolling response deadline and leave the larger questions for another day.

"People will make decisions sooner, let offers go sooner, and the theory is it will free up more offers later in the season," said NALP Executive Director James Leipold.

Though the work of the commission is ongoing, Leipold said it is "specifically not looking at the timing guidelines this year" and would focus on alternative interviewing models and the processes used in other industries.

"[Firms] are still being forced to recruit a year and a half prior to an anticipate start date, what other industry tolerates such a crazy hiring model?" Kalis asked.

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