Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The OGI Post #1: To Prescreen, or not to Prescreen?

Among USNWR Top 14 law schools (T14), UVA Law has a peculiar institution, the prescreened OCI (or, here, we say OGI = On Grounds Interview).  No other top 14 school does it, and although many lower-ranked schools do, the career opportunities there (simply expressed by how well you have to do in the class to get the elusive BIGLAW status).   Any event, it's worth noting, before we continue into this any further, that at a school like UVA, the 2L fall on-campus interviewing process is  way that students find jobs.  No, not everyone uses it, but at UVA, a solid plurality if not a majority of students will be getting jobs this way.

What "prescreening" means is that the firm gets to choose whom it wants to interview during OCI.  To do this, it uses two pieces of information: a student's resume and his/her resume. (NB: A few firms, such as Covington and Burling also request a writing sample and references - we missed it at first too, best to *actually read* the "comments" section of those opportunity descriptions . . .).  The conventional wisdom here is that a student's first year grades will be the primary determinant of whether or not a student gets an interview.  Additionally, each firm is required to set aside a small number of slots (about 1/3) for the "lottery" - in which students can bid a certain number of pre-assigned points in hopes of getting an interview with the firm.  The firm interviewer theoretically won't know whether the people its interviewing were lottery winners or prescreened.

At every other T14 school, the process is different: basically the entire OCI is done by lottery and students simply place bids on the firms with whom they want to interview, usually ranking their choices, and the students are assigned interview based only on the number of interviews available with the firm and the order of their preferences.  

So the question is: Which system is better for students? 

The "for students" part is key - employers by and large prefer the prescreening system to the lottery system.  For many schools, employers wouldn't come unless they could prescreen.  At UVA, there is little doubt that the one of the reasons that it boasts the second largest OCI in the nation in terms of the number of firms coming to interview is the fact that it allows employers to assign the majority of interviews via prescreening.  Quite simply, employers feel prescreening allows them to use their interviewing time more efficiently, and not waste time in a screening interview with someone who, because of his or her grades, they have no intention calling that person back for further interviews or giving them an offer.  [The argument as to what extent employers should rely on grades in making this distinction is for another day - though we do touch on it tangentially below].

This, of course, is one tally in the positive side for students as well.  No doubt that having a larger OGI with more firms is beneficial to students - at least insofar as students are actually able to interview with those firms.  Moreover, it is argued, the fact that firms are only interviewing with people whom they want to interview means that those interviews are more likely to go somewhere (I couldn't really find any data on this, but it may stand to reason). 

The critique, then, is that prescreening doesn't benefit the class evenly.  Students at the top of the class can interview with whomever they use and are likely to get all the interviews they want - thus they can take advantage of the large number of employers and can usually get more interviews with the most prestigious firms than they may have been able to get with the lottery (because they would have had to rank firms in order of preference, meaning that they might have to pick and choose and therefore loose out to someone with lower grades who *really* wanted to interview with the firm).  

[NB:  It's worth noting that UVA Law Career Services has specifically taken measures to prevent students at the very top from gaming the system to much - i.e. selecting a lot of firms to interview with for prescreened interviews to take the slots from people around the median and below - when they aren't even really interested in the firms, and probably won't even interview with them, because you can only interview with 25 in the first phase but you can selected an unlimited number to be prescreened by.  And if that sentence sounds like a huge mess, complete with clauses ending in prepositions and all those other abhorrent things, it's because it really is quite complicated.  UVA Law people know what we're talking about.  We would have posted the actually policy on this from career services, but there was some scary language on their LAWWEB page about it not being for people outside the LS community . . . or something.  DITTO on the published information for the average GPA of people selected through prescreening by each firm].

Moreover, even with such policies to prevent - eh, we'll call it gamesmanship - in place, they seem at the moment to basically rely on the honor system (someone with a 3.9 + LR could sign up to be prescreened by all 200+ employers from DC and NYC, and there isn't much anyone could do).   And as far as the lottery goes, many students report only getting a few (1-4) phase I interviews via the partial lottery (for this year).

Finally - what about the kid who has something that doesn't come through in his resume or transcript.  We all know just how arbitrary law school grading is - the argument is that the school should "stand by" the entire class and give the kid with a 2.5 GPA a chance to make his/her case to [insert prestigious firm here]?  And if UVA really is such a great school, the argument runs, shouldn't employers be willing to come whether or they have the ability to choose with whom they spend those 20 minutes?  

The conventional wisdom is that prescreening benefits the top of the class at the expense of the bottom and, to a lesser degree, the middle.  It's probably a bit more subtle than that, as we hope the above indicates.  Ultimately the problem stems from the fact that grades (+ prestige of law school) are super-determinative in the private law firm hiring practice.  As such, the question becomes how the school's interview policies embraces that system - do we choose a system that's tailored to that reality and begins the stratification process very early, scoring some benefits vis-a-vis other methods, or is the better system the one which allows students a chance control their own destiny, let them - the people who are paying the school a not-so-small fortune - decide whether or not they want to choose to spend 20 minutes attempting to demonstrate qualities that don't come through on paper?

There's probably not an easy answer - but we wonder what accounts for the different attitude of UVA Law from its peer schools on this matter.  Anyone know?

(EDIT: We're sure we missed some points here - that's what the comments section is for . . .)

(EDIT #2:  Someone pointed out that at UVA many student use the lottery for firms that they probably would have gotten screening interviews with anyway, at least if the numbers published by career services are any indication.  So . . . note that wrinkle.)


Anonymous said...

i didn't read this whole long post, but other T-14 schools, e.g., boalt, don't have grades, therefore they can't prescreen. everyone lotteries into their interviews. i think that's weird. because while i may not be getting the interviews, at least i know it's because of my crappy grades & not on luck. it would suck not to have any control over the process.

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