OCI survival guide

Worried about your upcoming on-campus interview? Read on for some OCI tips straight from interviewers and firms themselves

OCI survival guide

Updated: 22 Apr 2024

On-campus interviews (OCIs) are like speed dating: you have a limited amount of time to impress someone else.

Where law firms are in a rush to find the perfect candidate, law students must impress them during this short interview.

In this article, we’ll give some of the best OCI tips for law students to conquer these interviews. We spoke with 3 leaders in legal development for their insights and experiences.

What is an on-campus interview?

An on-campus interview is the last stage to be hired for a summer internship for a law firm.

These interviews are great opportunities for students to sell themselves and eventually network with law firms for the future.

Background of the OCI process

Mary Jackson, Chief Officer of Professional Resources at Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP, shared some history of the on-campus interviews. She was involved in creating the on-campus interview system in the late 1990s.

Before the on-campus interviews, students would send résumés to the firms, who would then decide who they would meet with.

With this process, those who had weak résumés may not have a good chance of being selected. However, we also know that, sometimes, those who are good on paper won’t necessarily make a good lawyer.

“So, basically, you just had résumés and interviews in November,” says Jackson. “So, you would take those résumés, and the tendency was to take the top students, and they would be your 18 to 20 people from the University of Toronto.”

“But there would be all these great people who you’d never meet. If you could see people’s résumés and meet them, you could make a more informed view as to who would work well in your firm.”

How to prepare for OCIs

To help you ace these interviews, here are some OCI tips that you can use:

Start with a good application

To help you prepare your CV, reach out to your school’s career-development department.  You must be done preparing your applications in the summer for the on-campus interviews in the coming fall.

During the interview, familiarize yourself with your CV, so that you can confidently answer the interviewer’s questions based on it.

The bulk of having a good application is having an impressive CV and good grades. These will land you the on-campus interview, as it’s often impossible for firms to meet every interested applicant.

“There’s more to it than just academic excellence, although that is kind of the gateway, if you will,” says Linda Brown, a partner in the Vancouver office of McCarthy Tétrault LLP. She is also the head of the student committee.

“You have to have a certain base, but the best grades don’t necessarily mean the best lawyers, and we know that.”

Prep for the interview

Once you’ve landed a few interviews, it’s all about you. This is where the hard part begins, where you’ll have to repeatedly make a good first impression in every interview.

Show what’s on your application

One of them is learning how to show in the interview what you've written on paper. “It’s quite competitive and the first threshold is marks,” says Don Higa. “After that, it comes down to great rapport and being an engaging person.”

Higa is the director of professional development at Calgary’s Macleod Dixon LLP (which merged with Norton Rose in 2011). Their firm gets about 300 to 350 applications a year for about eight summer spots.

“If you have somebody who on paper is a stellar student and is involved in things but totally comes across without humour and gives monosyllabic-type responses, that’s not a person we’re interested in. That’s not a person we want to work with and socialize with after.”

Higa says interviewers are obviously looking for good-quality lawyers, but they’re also looking for people they would want to spend time with.

Connect with people

Jackson says Blakes is essentially looking for people who have good judgment, present well, are articulate, and connect with people.

“I always look for bravery as a quality. Making sure they’ve done things where they have had to stretch themselves.”

“I think a good lawyer must make decisions all the time, so you often explore that. That’s something that’s difficult to ascertain in a résumé — just like connecting with people is a quality that’s difficult.”

Expect the unexpected

There are times when what you’ve researched or practiced might not come up. This is only natural since on-campus interviews may not go as planned.

Jackson says she’ll often try and knock the interviewee off-script a little, and this often involves exploring what’s not on the résumé. “People come in very prepared and want to say what they want to say, and I think I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what they’re not saying.”

In these off-script scenarios, the best thing to do is to be honest, respectful, and answer the interviewer’s questions as genuinely as possible.

Check out this video for other OCI tips:

Bookmark our Multimedia page for more videos on Canadian law firms, top lawyers in their fields, and many more.

One size doesn’t fit all

Another OCI tip is not to go for a one-size-fits-all approach. Even if two law firms may look the same, each of them will have its own unique approach and standards to look at when looking for potential candidates.

To help you know about the firm, you can:

  • read their student brochures
  • look up their websites
  • talk to former or current summer students to get a feel for the firm

“We’re looking at students to see if these are the characteristics we can see,” says Janine Denney-Lightfoot, director of professional development at WeirFoulds.

“Students need to do their research before the interviews, find out about the firm, and be prepared to show why you’re interested in that particular firm and how you’re going to fit and what you can bring to the firm.”

Brown says that every firm has its own dynamic and personality, and you’d be wise to know this in advance.

“Because we tend to be on the bigger deals and the bigger cases, the ability to work side by side and together on a team is a really important concept for us.”

Diversity may be the key

While conformity might be the first instinct to cling to when researching how to ace an open-campus interview, diversity may also be the key in some cases.

It’s the intangible, esoteric, and often misleading term “fit” that can make or break or you. But “a good fit” isn’t the same as a “dutiful conformist,” even though the two are easily confused.

“I don’t want to send people out to hire people who are just like us. I think the word ‘fit’ is problematic,” says Jackson.

“I would say our firm is extremely diverse in terms of its personalities and backgrounds. We don’t make people drink the Kool-Aid here. I intentionally try to hire a broad spectrum of people into each year because I think that reflects our firm and creates a better student group,” she explains.

“If you pick everybody who is the same, they’re not going to get along either.”

OCI tips: what not to do

Here’s what you should avoid doing in an OCI:

Bragging

So, what is one of the turn-offs for firms during on-campus interviews?

“Bragging,” laughs Higa. “That is probably the one and only mistake I see, to be quite honest. It’s a double-edged sword here; we’re talking about you and asking you questions, but on the other hand you can’t talk too much about yourself and how good you are.”

To distinguish between the two, he explains that “[i]t’s a fine line. Humility and modesty are great virtues. Overselling yourself and thinking you’re a big cheese are not.”

“It’s one thing to sell yourself and show that you’re engaging and smart and socially adept, and it’s another to go just that one step more where you’re irritating.”

Coming off a little too strong

Bragging and being confident are different things, and interviewers will know when they see students crossing the line between the two.

“We’ve declined invitations back to see us because people came on a little too strong,” says Brown. “The difficulty is that in the team concept that we have here there’s no room for arrogance — at any level.”

Being evasive

Brown also explains that being evasive is a huge turn-off. “If somebody doesn’t look me in the eye when they’re talking to me, we’ve got a bit of a problem.”

If you’re being interviewed by a pair of lawyers from a firm, make sure to address and look at both. Brown recalls interviewing a student once with a male partner, who was about the same age as Brown but looked older. The student completely ignored her and conducted the interview with the male partner. Not surprisingly, that student didn’t get a callback for the interview week.

Being too nervous

Sometimes, you can blow an on-campus interview — or fear that you will blow it — because you’re completely racked with nerves and about to have a panic attack.

It's understandable because there are a lot of things at stake from your perspective. Where you summer can determine where you article, which can determine where you become an associate, which can determine the rest of your life, and so on.

Calm down, says Jackson. “You can’t let your nerves overwhelm your personality. That is the one thing: you do have to get rid of that nervousness. If you meet someone who’s really nervous, that’s all you notice about them.”

Higa also says it may help to think of the on-campus interview as more of a social conversation, rather than a formal job interview. “It’s easy to say these things, but I think people must realize that we’re normal people — some very close in age and others not so far apart in age. You must think of us at the same level.”

“I know it’s incredibly hard to do so, if not impossible. But in terms of your mindset, you’re engaging in social conversation and if you think of it that way, rather than a work interview, that may serve to quell your nerves,” Higa explains.

“I think you must go into it knowing that it’s not a formal job interview and asking you about how you would act in a certain situation. It’s not that type of interview — it’s a general conversation talking about interests and experiences.”

Other practical OCI tips

Here are other practical OCI tips when preparing before, during, and after:

  • proofread: double check your application before sending it, or have another person check it for you
  • check your attire: dress professionally but also dress for comfort
  • nourish yourself: have something to eat and rehydrate as much as possible – there will be a lot of talking
  • use breaks wisely: take the time in between interviews to rest and prepare for the next one
  • send thank you emails: by sending your interviewers thank you emails, you’re discreetly following up on your application

A key takeaway on OCIs

Much like dating, you know you’ve clicked with a firm when you feel it — you can’t always explain why. And while you are tested by interviewers during on-campus interviews, know that you’re also looking for the best firm for you.

What happens if you’ve blown an interview? Our biggest OCI tip: shake it off. Try to move onto the next on-campus interview unfazed.

Just like dating, there are other fish in the sea.

Check out our page on Legal Education for more articles that law students can use on their law school journey

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