Mind Your Business

Reimagining the OCI Process: What we learned from the pandemic

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On-campus interviews have long been a staple of law firm recruiting. But when the pandemic hit, law firms, like everyone else, had to adapt by taking this time-honored tradition virtual—in many cases with great success.

Despite the massive disruption of the pandemic, 73% of candidates in 2021 received more offers for associate roles than in the previous year, according to a March 2022 law student perspective survey released by the National Association for Law Placement.

Competition for strong early-career legal talent is fiercer than ever. As William Dougherty writes in his recent Mind Your Business article: “Law had an attrition problem before the pandemic hit. Now it’s in hyperdrive.” Innovation, Dougherty asserts, will give firms the competitive advantage in the war for talent.

When you consider that Generation Z are digital natives but traditional recruitment practices require students to operate in an analog world, it’s no surprise that the NALP survey found that 56% of students had reached out to employers outside of their school’s OCI program last year. Over 70% successfully secured screening interviews via direct outreach outside of OCI. In other words, the pre-pandemic OCI model appears to not be reaching everyone it could.

So as OCI slowly returns to schools nationwide, it may be time to assess what the last two years have taught us about recruitment and see if a new model might provide deeper and wider engagement for students and firms alike. This model would incorporate the online tools, such as strengths-based assessments and job simulations,that became indispensable during the pandemic (67% of students reported using them) to bolster the best parts of OCI going forward.

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A strengths-based approach to recruitment

Even before the pandemic, many firms were looking for ways to evolve recruitment of early-career candidates with an increased emphasis on assessing strengths, behaviors and skills in addition to academic achievement or work experience. Research bears out that this approach is a strong predictor of success.

So what traits should firms be looking for in 1L and 2L candidates? Across 20-plus legal firms that I’ve worked with, job analysis data has consistently shown these five strengths to be essential:

    Resilience – One of the most predictive strengths, demonstrated resilience is a good indicator that you’ll thrive in a demanding role and be able to stay motivated every day.
    Critical thinking – The ability to analyze data sources.
    Judgment – The ability to use that analysis to arrive at sound decision making and be confident in those decisions.
    Collaboration – The capacity to work on projects with others.
    Communication – Knowing when to utilize the best medium for the best outcome, e.g., when to send an email versus when the more personal touch of a phone call is needed.

By building assessments around these behaviors as well as core competencies specific to each individual law firm’s values, candidates can be evaluated for their alignment to the firm. That data can then inform subsequent interviews, making the entire process more efficient and effective. Clyde & Co., for example, found that it has reduced candidate completion time by 50% and assessor time by 70%. That means less time away from clients, a more productive OCI cycle and a better candidate experience.

The impact of reimagining OCI

One of the biggest benefits we’ve seen from these solutions—for instance, in Latham & Watkins’s case—is that these assessments can provide firms with a fuller picture of the candidate. Latham’s solution combines a behavioral assessment with an immersive job simulation based on a real-life pro bono matter. The job simulation is broad enough to give any candidates an opportunity to showcase how they would approach the problem. Hiring teams can observe behaviors and gain a more tangible view of how students would perform at Latham, while students gain a more tangible view of what it’s like to work at the firm.

These evaluations inform subsequent interviews and provide a way to connect with prospective candidates over a longer period versus the usual condensed two-week interview period of OCI. So while the process is more efficient, it’s also more thorough. Having multiple sources of evidence from different mediums to measure against results in a more objective and complete view of the fit and a more confident hiring decision. OCI provides one data point about a candidate and can be a valuable piece of the picture, but by incorporating additional data points from assessments, firms will have a fuller picture of the candidate and deeper engagement.

James Boyle, director of recruiting at Latham & Watkins, notes that no preparation for the assessments is necessary. “It’s designed to help us understand a candidate’s natural approach to work.”

These assessments impact the candidate experience, as well. After completing Latham’s job simulation, candidates receive a feedback report noting their strengths and areas for development. Such insights provide the candidate with an opportunity for personal growth and can go a long way in building long-term relationships with them. Demonstrating a respect for candidates’ time and effort can be a differentiating factor in firms winning the battle for talent. In fact, the NALP survey respondents named firms’ culture as the most influential factor in deciding where to apply and accept offers.

This window into firm culture is important for another reason: retention. A crucial factor in hiring decisions today is how to determine which candidates have the skills, grit and pro-client mindset to thrive in the long run. But it’s also up to firms to establish realistic job expectations. Being transparent up front about those expectations with a work simulation can help avoid later dissatisfaction.

Expanding OCI’s reach: Diversity and inclusion in law

Virtual engagement can also bring greater inclusion to OCI. In the past, law students who had to work jobs while going to school might have missed out on OCI opportunities that conflicted with their work responsibilities. Similarly, some first-generation law students might not be aware of OCI’s potential benefits. Virtual engagement, on the other hand, can accommodate students’ unique needs and therefore reach candidates who might never have been considered in the past.

Nicky Garcea HeadshotNicky Garcea.

Casting a more inclusive net can be just the kind of forward-looking approach that differentiates a firm. For example, in the case of the student who is the first in their family to pursue higher education, it’s quite possible that they’ve had to overcome more challenges in life and are more resilient than many other candidates—a key predictor of success.

These evaluation tools also level the playing field within the selection process. By offering supplementary evidence that is objectively measured, recruiters can reduce unconscious bias. As Boyle says, using these tools to ensure Latham is hiring “the best and brightest talent, regardless of background is a long-term strategic focus of the firm.”

Looking forward: The future of OCI

OCI has a strong tradition in legal recruiting. For many future associates, it’s a way to get a sense of a range of possible firms at which to start their careers. But as law firms continue to experience record levels of attrition from Millennial and Gen Z associates, all areas of hiring should be evaluated for ways to improve recruiting and retaining early-career hires, including OCI.

The pandemic and the unanticipated shift to virtual recruiting showed us the many benefits that tools like realistic job simulations and other strength-based assessments have to offer. By incorporating them alongside traditional criteria like GPA, firms can promote greater DEI in the legal sector, accelerate hiring and provide a strong start to employee onboarding, setting new associates up for long-term engagement and success.

Nicky Garcea is an accredited industrial and organizational psychologist, and co-founder and chief customer officer at strengths-based talent recruiting solutions provider Cappfinity.

Mind Your Business is a series of columns written by lawyers, legal professionals and others within the legal industry. The purpose of these columns is to offer practical guidance for attorneys on how to run their practices, provide information about the latest trends in legal technology and how it can help lawyers work more efficiently and strategies for building a thriving business.

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This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.

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