Podcast - Back to School: Demystifying the On-Campus Interview Process for Law School Students
In this episode of The Eyes on Washington Podcast, Public Policy & Regulation attorneys Rich Gold and Marissa Serafino discuss the on-campus interview (OCI) process. They begin the podcast by explaining what the OCI process is and how Holland & Knight's Public Policy & Regulation Group has been participating in on-campus interviews for more than 25 years. As leader of the firm's Public Policy & Regulation Group, Mr. Gold shares valuable insight on what he looks for in applicants when doing on-campus interviews. Ms. Serafino shares her experience in the OCI process and gives law school students advice on how to prepare for interviews and how to take full advantage of what the process has to offer. The podcast ends with Mr. Gold talking about his favorite interview question that surprisingly involved Betty White.
Marissa Serafino: So we're here today to talk about the OCI process.
Rich Gold: Yes we are, and we might want to start this podcast by explaining what OCI means.
What is the On-Campus Interview Process?
Marissa Serafino: OCI is the on-campus interviewing process for law school students that is set up to help you as a law school student find your desired employer. Holland & Knight has participated in this process for a long time. Rich, you have hired many associates through this process, right?
Rich Gold: That is correct. We have been doing on-campus interviews for the policy group for about 25 years now. We interview all over the D.C. area at law schools like American University, Washington College of Law, The George Washington University Law School, Georgetown University, as well as other schools across the country that have significant policy operations. However, we don't recruit every year. We do try and look a year or so ahead to try and anticipate what our needs will be, and so we don't have a summer associate every year with the group, but I would say certainly every other year.
What Does a Group Leader Look for in Applicants During an OCI?
Marissa Serafino: When you go through this process, what do you look for in applicants, and how do you pick out the few that you want to interview?
Rich Gold: It's pretty rare for our policy group to be looking for somebody with like a particular skill set. We're not normally looking for somebody who wants to be a healthcare lawyer or somebody who only wants to focus on regulations. What we're really looking at is the raw skills and the components of what it means to be a good lawyer. I would sort of lay those out in the following way. The first one is a little unconventional for what some people would think, but social intelligence is really important. The Holland & Knight policy group is very much a team environment. It's really important that we bring people into the team who understand that and who are capable of working well with other lawyers and professional staff. We need someone who will work well with not just our group, but with other groups across the firm, and of course we look for legal research skills, oral and written communication skills, a good intellectual background in terms of what a government practice is, how it works and then sort of the softer stuff. Like do we think the person we're interviewing really knows their own mind and is committed to, in our case, coming to a public policy group and working on regulatory and legislative issues? We put a lot of time and effort into training someone, so you don't want somebody who midway through the training decides, you know, they really wanted to be a chief or more likely, they really wanted to be an M&A lawyer. By that point we've spent 18 months training them and committed all that time and effort. So we do try to kind of suss out in the interview process how well you know yourself and how committed you are, not just to Holland & Knight but also to the practice of law involving public policy.
What we're really looking at is the raw skills and the components of what it means to be a good lawyer.
What Does the OCI Process Look Like?
Rich Gold: Marissa, what was your experience in the OCI process? I know you didn't have the classic experience because you were going to school at night and working during the day. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience?
Marissa Serafino: I went to The George Washington University Law School at night and worked as a lobbyist in the Public Policy & Regulation Group during the day. For me, I loved Holland & Knight already, so I think that the one thing that was really was important to me was that I'd be able to do policy and legal work. However, once I did my research, I realized that was not actually a thing that was offered at many firms in Washington, D.C. I knew that I wanted to stay in D.C., and so that really narrowed my interest. I remember you telling me to apply anyway, even though I said I didn't want to. So I only applied to one other firm...
Rich Gold: Who shall remain nameless.
Marissa Serafino: Who shall remain nameless. I think that my heart wasn't fully there anyway.
Rich Gold: When does it all kind of start in the school year?
Marissa Serafino: It starts in the spring, but you should start networking as soon as you get to law school.
Rich Gold: In the midst of panicking about law school and taking tests, that is the time to start thinking about a job. Is what you're saying?
Marissa Serafino Exactly, but I think networking cannot be understated. The actual application process starts right when you finish finals after your first year if you're a sort of a conventional student. That summer, you'll put together your application process, and then you'll have actual interviews in July and August. They sort of go throughout the summer, and it's a pretty quick process, but there are several parts to it. You have your initial screener interview, which is like 20 minutes, and then you potentially get called back for a longer interview with multiple partners. Maybe you do a lunch, and then you essentially wait to hear back from the firm. And then you have a certain amount of time to accept or reject their offer. I actually did a little bit of research before this podcast to remind myself of this process, so I texted a few of my fellow law school students, and the responses were hilarious. One of them responded, "Apply, interview, stress, get rejected, repeat." So there you go.
The actual application process starts right when you finish finals after your first year if you're a sort of a conventional student. That summer, you'll put together your application process, and then you'll have actual interviews in July and August.
Rich Gold: There you go. Well, I can give you the Chelsea Gold experience. For those of you who don't know me, the two of you out there listening to us, Chelsea Gold is my eldest daughter who went through law school here in D.C. and is now working as a compliance lawyer at Google. She went through this summer process while she was a legislative assistant at Steptoe. When she started this process, she put together a spreadsheet and started doing a little research. She knew she wanted to do public policy at the time, so she kind of focused in on the 12 firms who were going to interview at her law school and that looked like they would have a public policy summer associate opening. She spent several months reaching out and having coffee with six degrees of separation, people she knew at each of the firms, and that gave her a sense of the culture. Ultimately, I think that helped because it was able to lift her resume out of the pile. If she could call to so-and-so and say, "Hey, I sent it in, and I'm really hoping I get an interview," then that person would call down to the recruiting person and say, "Hey, this Chelsea Gold cat is pretty cool." She's going to be so mortified when she hears this by the way, Marissa. Anyway, she ended up interviewing with a dozen firms, and other than the couple of weeks before taking the LSAT, I don't think I've ever seen her that anxious. I mean, the few days before doing OCI interviews, she was just incredibly anxious. It's like you said Marissa, when you were going through the list, the stress part of it is real, and I'm not sure it's voluntary and I'm not sure you can avoid it. It is definitely one of those periods where whatever you do for stress relief, you are definitely going to need it then. However, like everybody that goes through the process, Chelsea got a number of offers, and she was very happy with what the process produced for her, but it certainly wasn't easy in terms of getting there. Marissa, you actually came to Holland & Knight at the end of all of this, so tell us what was it about Holland & Knight that made you join other than the people here having such a great sense of humor?
Marissa Serafino: Yes, they have a good sense of humor, and they are great humans in general. I just knew that this was the place where I wanted to be. I'm not just saying that because I'm doing this podcast with you. It really is a great environment. You want to work with people you like, and that was really important to me. Like I said before, just the split of issues that I would get to work on and sort of the entrepreneurial spirit of the group where it is really up to me to create my own destiny in many ways within the public policy and regulation space. I thought that was very cool and wanted to be in that type of environment.
Rich Gold: So you actually knew midway through law school the areas that you wanted to practice? How did that all kind of mesh up?
Marissa Serafino: They don't perfectly align, and I have developed more of a legal foundation since graduating, but I do quite a bit of the data security, cybersecurity and data privacy work. I'll sort of add some national security work into that and then environmental work here and there as well. I've worked on a bunch of different issues since coming to Holland & Knight. I initially worked on local government issues, which was sort of the best education I could have gotten for issues more broadly. I then sort of focused in from there after having spent time on the Hill where I did environmental work. About midway through law school, I knew where I thought I could potentially add the most value based on my personality and skills and that type of thing.
Rich Gold: Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was in law school, most of us just wanted to do one thing. You kids today seem to be in a place where you want a number of things on your plate and don't want to just like narrow down to do X, and that's OK. You can do that in the OCI process, and you can do that now as an associate.
Marissa Serafino: I think long term I do want to develop a focus and a niche. I think that one area doesn't actually offer you the broader legal education that I wanted to have. I think that especially in the public policy and regulation group, where I can work on a herbicide issue one day, a political question the next and an insider threat issue for a defense company the next day. That's really exciting to me, and I like to be doing those different projects at this point in my career.
Rich Gold: And you feel like the OCI, your actual summer associate experience, sort of helped you sift through that? Talk a little bit more about what that summer associate summer was like for you. You get the job offer, you say yes, the summer pops up and you become an associate. What does that mean? I know certainly there were a lot of baseball games, happy hours, being taken out to dinner and all that kind of stuff. What else other than the glory stuff?
Marissa Serafino: I had a great summer associate experience because I already worked here and had a portfolio and was able to build off of that. I didn't necessarily have to go through the process of starting from square one, which I think is a little bit different than others. It was still really new in that I was working with different people, sort of expanding the partners that I worked with a lot because I think I did some international trade work. I did a lot of political law work. I did some environmental legal work. Everyone just really took the time to go over the work with me. Any questions I had were answered. I had a great review and feedback process. I felt that I was actually learning.
Rich Gold: So it wasn't all just about getting a job the next year? There was there was a lot of development packed into that summer that was important to your legal education.
Marissa Serafino: Yes, and I will say having an intern or a summer associate class was great. I really enjoyed getting to know the other summer associates as well. We all sort of came from different schools and backgrounds and had different levels of experience but were all going through it together. And I think you always have connections with those people after that summer, and they have gone on to be great colleagues.
How to Prepare for the OCI Process
Rich Gold: If you're summing this up for people, what are sort of the key elements that people should think about in terms of applying for their summer position, and what should they focus on once they get it?
Marissa Serafino: I would do the Chelsea Gold method in terms of really educating yourself on the different firms, to the extent that you can pick a practice group where you think you would be the best fit. That will probably be your best ticket to success. It's always hard to go into an interview and not have an answer of why you want to be there. I would say do the homework upfront and just make those connections far in advance, probably right when you start getting to a goal. Once you're in the experience, make sure you're doing the homework again. Look at the bios of all the partners in your group, even outside of your group. Look at what they're working on. Send them relevant articles if you want to work with them. Try and make the most of that experience. No one will give you a hard time for being ambitious or interested.
Once you're in the experience, make sure you're doing the homework again. Look at the bios of all the partners in your group, even outside of your group. Look at what they're working on. Send them relevant articles if you want to work with them. Try and make the most of that experience. No one will give you a hard time for being ambitious or interested.
Rich Gold: I think it's really important to try and match who you are and what you want to work on with the firms who you can apply for. Really taking the time to do the work up front and do the research on the web and looking at who the firm says they are. You also really need to find six degrees of separation and grab a friend of a friend for coffee who's already an associate there and kind of figure out how to make those connections, because they make a difference. The other thing I would say is what we do for a living is advocacy before Congress in the executive branch. That's one of the things — at the end of the day, [what] we're looking for is people who can be good advocates. I always respect when I get a phone call out of left field from somebody who's a friend and tells me that Jim Smith put a resume in for your summer program. You should know he's definitely somebody you should look at. I don't view that as intrusive at all. I view that as it's putting a face on a cover letter and resume. That's something you should be striving to do in the process. Make your credentials three dimensional and personal. That's an important element in the process. Any last-minute bits of advice, Marissa? Put your Sarah Klock hat on. Sarah is one of our political and FDA associates, and there is no topic about which Sarah does not have an opinion, let's just put it that way. So put your Sarah Klock hat on. Pretend you're at Fort Klock. What's your last bit of advice?
Marissa Serafino: I'll say make sure that you get to know your colleagues or the people that you're working with that summer. I think that ties into the networking piece, too. Everyone wants to work with people that are also good people. I think that's an important part of it. I have a one last question for you, Rich.
Rich Gold: OK, good.
Marissa Serafino: What is your favorite interview question?
Rich Gold: My favorite interview question. There was a time in my life not too long ago where I felt like I had to suss out in the interview, would this younger person be somebody who was committed to the firm and stay here if they came here? Because like everything we read about millennials and generation Z having no loyalty and they hop around from job to job — well, that's not our culture, it would dilute our culture and blah, blah, blah. So I came up with this question, which I'm sure I read online in some brilliant article that ran in the National Enquirer or something. The question was basically, "Tell me the most important lesson you ever learned from your parents." It is an amazing question at the end of day, only because a number of people interviewing would look at you like, I didn't learn anything from them. What are you talking about? That's their first reaction. The best answer to that question — and I will leave that person out of it — but it was the ultimate answer. I mean, literally, by the end of this answer, I was crying. They said, my parents died when I was very young, so I was raised by my grandmother. I would come home after school every day and do my homework until 5:00 and then eat dinner from 5 to 6. Then I would watch two back-to-back episodes of Golden Girls with my grandmother, and she would explain to me life lessons from Golden Girls. That is where I learned a lot of what became my moral fiber. Like, how are you not crying right now listening to this, right? Of course, I hired the guy, and the other partners and colleagues who interviewed the person were like are you sure? I mean, yes, I know that was a really good answer, but should we hire someone just based on that? I was insistent that it was the way to go. It does go to show one thing: An individual answer to an individual question and prepping for interviews is very important. That part of the process is not to be overlooked or diminished.
Marissa Serafino: Well there you go, folks. You now know the secret Rich Gold's heart.
Rich Gold: To be honest with you, the funny thing is I'm not even that big a Golden Girls fan.
Marissa Serafino: I do love Betty White
Rich Gold: Yes. Everybody loves Betty White. May she rest in peace.
Marissa Serafino: Yes, exactly.
Rich Gold: I don't think there's anything more to say.
Marissa Serafino: I don't either. Thanks for being here.