Many of Jeremy Feigenbaum’s Harvard Law School classmates spent August running the gauntlet of law firm summer-associate recruiting known as on-campus interviewing — or "OCI." Feigenbaum, on the other hand, spent the month volunteering for the New Jersey Democratic Party and attending the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. The 23-year-old 2L had already accepted a coveted summer-associate position in Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan’s New York office.

"That was a wonderful reprieve," Feigenbaum said of his summer, noting that many of his friends described the on-campus interview process as exhausting and painful. "Sitting in law firm interviews is not how you want to spend a month."

Quinn Emanuel created a buzz in March when it announced it was abandoning the on-campus model — in which firms show up on law school campuses in August or September for several days or a week of back-to-back, 20-minute interviews with second-year students seeking summer-associate jobs. Instead, the firm hosted spring cocktail receptions for students at six top law schools, where first-year students mingled with Quinn Emanuel attorneys. The attorneys kept an eye out for the students they thought would be a good fit for the Los Angeles-based firm — which, in addition to being a litigation powerhouse, is known for its relatively laid-back atmosphere.

Students who wanted to summer at Quinn Emanuel were encouraged to send in their résumés, and the firm brought in the top candidates for callback interviews in June and July. That meant prospects had offers from the firm in hand before the traditional on-campus interview season even began. Quinn Emanuel allowed those students the option of interviewing with other firms, but some — including Feigenbaum — committed early.

"There was no sense that it would look bad or that they would be offended if you received an offer and continued through the OCI process," said Peter McLaughlin, a 2L at Northwestern University School of Law who landed a summer offer after attending a joint reception with University of Chicago Law School students last spring. "For me, I didn’t see the point of going through OCI."

The firm’s hiring experiment was a rousing success, according to name partner William Urquhart, and produced a summer-associates class with unusually high credentials. "We must have put our best foot forward, because the kids we saw last year were much better," he said. "Our incoming class is mind-boggling."

Turnout for the receptions was unexpectedly high; Urquhart estimated that three-quarters of Yale Law School’s first-year students showed up. McLaughlin recalled thinking that almost the entire first-year class from Northwestern attended the Chicago recruiting party.

RELAXED ATMOSPHERE

Quinn Emanuel is one of the few large law firms that have been willing to experiment with summer-associate recruiting. The idea to forgo on-campus interviewing came from partner Susan Estrich, who also is a professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law. She reasoned that meeting partners and associates in a more relaxed atmosphere would give students a better sense of what the firm and its attorneys are like than would a formal interview. The firm’s leaders agreed.

"You can take a look at a résumé and transcript and know pretty quickly whether or not they are smart enough," Urquhart said. "It’s much more difficult to find out if these people have basic social skills. And I think the wine helps a little bit."

Feigenbaum found himself chatting about the firm’s appellate practice with name partner Kathleen Sullivan during the Harvard cocktail reception. Although summer jobs were on the line, "I was surprised by how casual the reception was," Feigenbaum said. "I felt like the attorneys there were very friendly and outgoing."

Students at the University of Chicago were excited by the new tack, said Abbie Willard, associate dean for career services. "I think this kind of thing appeals to the type of candidates Quinn is looking for — someone who thinks outside the box, someone who is entrepreneurial and someone who is a go-getter," she said.

The revised hiring plan offers additional benefits, Urquhart said. For one thing, on-campus interviews are a grind not just for the students — who may meet as many as 30 firms over the course of several days — but also for the attorneys conducting the interviews. It’s much easier for both sides to remain enthusiastic and engaged during a two-hour cocktail reception than a long day of 20-minute interviews, he said. And the commitment doesn’t require the attorneys to step away from billable work for days or weeks to meet individually with 2Ls.

Finally, moving summer-associate recruitment into the spring of the 1L year made Quinn Emanuel — at least for a while — law students’ sole object of attention. "You could tell that the students put more research into it, and that was a benefit I didn’t fully appreciate until after we went through the process," Urquhart said.

The problem is that recruiting students during their first year of law school means simultaneously hosting a crop of summer associates and seeking out their replacements — something many firms would be loath to do, said Baker & McKenzie recruiting director Kristina Gajewicz, who chairs the recruiting section of NALP (formerly the National Association for Law Placement).

"NALP has looked very closely at other viable alternatives to OCI, but ultimately ended right back with what we have now," Gajewicz said. "The majority of AmLaw firms are on board with it, in part because it allows the firm to get their summer associates out the door, evaluated, and offers extended before you start recruiting again. It also allows students to get through their first year without the pressure of researching law firms." She referred to AmLaw 200 firms, the nation’s highest-grossing as reported by NLJ affiliate The American Lawyer.

For Quinn Emanuel, the new recruiting system came with a learning curve. The firm initially thought its lawyers would discreetly take notes about students who impressed them, but that proved impossible in practice. Instead, attorneys ended up passing out their business cards and asking standout students to follow up by email. The students could hand out their own cards to the attorneys they met.

Urquhart occasionally had to prod attorneys to circulate, but most are involved in business generation and understood how to work a room, he said.

"The biggest benefit to the process was that they made it easy for you to choose them," McLaughlin, the Northwestern student, said. "They’re different from other big firms, and I was drawn to that."

Urquhart said he was initially hesitant to talk publicly about the firm’s new strategy — he didn’t want competing firms to steal a page from Quinn Emanuel’s playbook. But, according to Willard, skipping on-campus interviews might be a hard sell at other firms.

"I think there are firms that feel this is not appropriate for their culture," she said. "They prefer the traditional approach, where they get to know a candidate during the course of a 20- to 30-minute interview."The leadership at Vinson & Elkins took notice of Quinn Emanuel’s recruiting experiment but isn’t poised to follow suit, partner Thomas Leatherbury said. "We’re aware of it and we’ve discussed it with some of our law school career services contacts, but we’ll be signing up for OCI again this year," he said. "There are great benefits to coming on campus and seeing a bigger cross-section of students all at once. Your undivided attention is on the student for that 20 or 30 minutes, and I’m not sure you can replicate that at a cocktail party."

Karen Sloan can be contacted at ksloan@alm.com.