Winston & Strawn’s Hiring Committee Chair William O’Neil offers advice to help aspiring lawyers stand out from the crowd during OCI and make the most of their summer associate experience.
Vault: What are the key things you look for on a law student’s resume?
William O’Neil: There’s a clear set of qualities we want to see in a summer associate candidate. Of course, we look for strong intellect and academic accomplishments. But we also look for things that demonstrate a student’s depth of character, initiative, leadership abilities, and interpersonal skills. We value community involvement and differentiating experiences that will enable a student to bring varied perspectives to the practice of law. An internship with a government agency or other public service experience is regarded favorably. The summer after 1L year is a good time for students to do something that will help differentiate them heading into BigLaw recruiting season at the beginning of the 2L year.
Vault: What can a student do to make a strong impression during their interview?
WO: When Winston decides which candidates to invite back to the firm, we ask ourselves if they demonstrated three particular qualities. Like most law firms, we’re looking for intellect. We also want grit, which is a quality that we believe separates us from other firms. Those who have grit in their character tend to do well in an environment where they are faced with challenging cases and clients who expect legal excellence on every level. We want people who have not shied away from challenges, but rather have looked adversity in the eye, overcome it, and shown the ability to persevere. The third quality we look for is leadership and interpersonal skills. We want people who not only can do the job well, but who are personable and would fit well in Winston’s collegial environment, as well as inspire a client’s confidence.
Vault: Are there other qualities you look for in a summer associate candidate?
WO: Every law firm has a cultural identity, so “fit” is really important. The compensation, offices, and clients are impressive at all large law firms, but each one has a unique culture shaped by its people. This job can be challenging, so you want to work with people you trust and respect and whose company you enjoy. While we look for bright people and hard workers, we also look for people with varied interests and hobbies, who we will enjoy having as both respected colleagues and friends.
Vault: What can summer associates expect in terms of hands-on experience?
WO: Winston’s summer program is designed to help students focus on the practice areas they enjoy most and what aligns best with their strengths and interests. Students gain hands-on experience from opportunities to assist with and attend transaction negotiations, deal closings, depositions, hearings, arbitrations, and government meetings. Additionally, students have opportunities to shadow attorneys for designated periods of time. We also offer practical training programs to provide experience with different aspects of practicing law, including negotiating a deal and presenting a case in a mock trial. Our free-flowing assignment system provides our summer associates with many opportunities to do meaningful, engaging client work with a variety of partners.
Vault: How can someone stand out as a summer associate?
WO: Summer associates should focus as much on relationship building as the legal work. The natural mentoring relationships that summer associates develop serve them well years later. Success in a large law firm has a lot to do with relationships, and the connections students make as summer associates are really valuable when they begin their careers as practicing lawyers.
Vault: What are some other ways that a new lawyer can gain deeper involvement at their firm?
WO: Today’s associates are tomorrow’s partners and clients, and we are committed to helping associates succeed by reaching their highest potential and making meaningful contributions. We value the differing perspectives that new associates bring to Winston, so we provide numerous opportunities for new lawyers to have a voice in our firm’s initiatives. We have an active Associates Committee of elected representatives from all offices that truly has the ear of firm management. Feedback from our associates through this committee has led to changes in non-billable-hours credit, the evaluation process, parental leave policies, transition back to work programs, and transparency of firm financials, to name a few areas. Associates are also encouraged to make a positive impact on the firm’s future by participating in Summer Program Committees and our affinity groups for LGBTQ, Black, AAPI, Latinx, and women attorneys.
Vault: What is your firm doing to promote diversity in recruiting?
WO: Winston has a strong focus on recruiting and supporting diverse law students. For our 2021 summer program, we hired 11 diverse 1L law students through the Leadership Council for Legal Diversity IL Scholars program. We have awarded more than $1 million to diverse law students since 2004 through Winston’s Diversity Scholarship Program. Recipients participate in our 2L summer program and receive $25,000 to help offset the costs of their legal education. Diverse summer associates attend the firm’s annual Diversity Roundtable and actively participate in our firmwide affinity groups for Black, Latinx, AAPI, LGBTQ, and women attorneys. These groups play a key role in hiring, advancement, retention, and promotion of diverse attorneys. Winston also supports and participates in numerous hiring events and career fairs sponsored by diverse student organizations such as the Black Law Students Association, the National LGBT Bar Association, and the Hispanic Law Students Association, to name just a few.
Vault: Are there pro bono opportunities available to summer associates?
WO: Community service is ingrained in our firm’s culture, and we encourage our summer associates to participate in Winston’s substantial pro bono activities. This work serves a critical need in the community, while providing valuable legal experience. Many of our incoming associates volunteer through Winston’s Pro Bono Fellowship program the summer after their law school graduation. This program provides a $10,000 stipend for incoming associates performing 300 hours of pro bono legal services at local public interest law organizations of their choice.