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Networking: As Important As Ever for Law Students



The recession and non-recovery have made finding that first job out of law school as challenging as ever—and that means networking with potential employers is as important as ever. But many students find the process uncomfortable and don’t know how best to go about it.

“When people think of networking, they think of going to an event and handing out [business] cards,” says Ari Kaplan, of Ari Kaplan Advisors, who gives presentations at law schools across the country and has written books about networking, including The Opportunity Maker (Thomson-West, 2008). “You have to think about who you want to meet, as opposed to how many cards you can collect.”

“I differentiate between successful networking and making yourself very much a job seeker,” adds Lynne Coonan of Coonan Attorney Search. “The problem most people have with networking is they think of it as using people and they’re uncomfortable with it. But most people like to get to know other people. What we’re talking about here is real networking—giving people a chance to get to know you off paper.”

Recruiters, career services officers, and students dispense a wealth and variety of suggestions to 3Ls looking to nail down that first job before graduation and students earlier in their educations who need those all-important internships.

Think first about who you already know, professors, and internship contacts. That can also include family, friends, and teammates on a sports squad. “You want to understand their background, where they are, and what they like about their work,” says Margaret Reuter, assistant dean for career planning for New York Law School. “You want advice from them about what they see as the most important skills to develop and experiences to have. Then, you want referrals from them: Who else can I meet?”

If given contact names, students should make sure to follow up and show gratitude, Reuter says. “One of the most frequent disappointments with the alumni is, ‘I gave him or her one or two people to call, I called one person ahead of time, and I never heard back,” she says. “Learning the art of follow-up and the art of gratitude is really important to developing the relationships.”

When attending a networking event, research beforehand who will be there and how they might be valuable for you to meet. “I will tell them, look at the list, try to figure out who’s coming, identify some people you’d like to talk with,” says Rebecca Knowles, assistant dean of career services at William & Mary Law School. “Are they litigators? Are they in state court or federal court? You want to find out about what they do.”

Step outside your comfort zone and approach people whose body language suggests they’re ready to talk. “Students are scared, and they shouldn’t be,” Knowles says. “It’s usually not that hard [to start a conversation]. How did they get to do what they do? What do they like about it?”

That hesitancy is understandable but needs to be overcome, Reuter says. “Very few people, aside from maybe political candidates, are thrilled with the idea of going into a room of strangers,” she says. But “students walk away too fast. They approach a group to say hello, but if they don’t get a welcome when they’re 10 feet away, they break off too quickly. It’s important to gird yourself that, ‘I can do this.’”

That’s always easiest with small groups, Reuter says. “With two people, approach at the diagonal, not straight into the middle of them, and see if you can catch one of the conversant’s eyes. Then introduce yourself to both people.” A group of three can be easier because it’s already a more open conversation, although “you’re looking for a group that’s not so huddled in.”

Don’t ask directly for a job—or plan to hand out résumés. Recruiting attorneys who have been to networking events before can almost smell that coming, Kaplan says. “They always get, ‘I’m looking for a job as a first-year associate, and I’ll make conversation with you until I can get back to [talking about] me,’” he says. “Instead of figuring out how many seconds you have to wait to give your résumé … I want students to think about what the person does, what got them there, and now what can you do to build a relationship?”

“Résumés are generally bad because it looks like you’re trolling for a job,” Reuter agrees. “People want to be helpful, but you have to ask them something where they can be helpful. Everybody can give you information and advice, but not that many people can give you a job. If you’re relatively explicit right at the top, that ends the conversation.”

But talking about the job market more generally is fine—and can lead the attorney to bring up his or her own firm’s hiring picture, says Susan C. Robinson, associate dean for career services at Stanford University Law School. “At some point in your conversation, they may volunteer to have a longer conversation, or they may say, ‘Hey, send me your résumé, we’re looking for somebody,’” she says.

Maria Leone, a third-year student at Touro Law Center, sees no problem with asking how the local legal economy is doing, or how a certain attorney’s firm is faring. “I will talk about what interests me and get information from them about what I can do to better myself to become a trial attorney—and then [ask], ‘This is the stuff I’ve done. Am I on the right path?’”

Don’t just talk about your legal interests and ambitions—think about what else makes you distinctive. That’s something else students can think about before the event, Kaplan notes. “What about you is unique and distinctive and appropriate for a professional conversation—I play guitar, I coach little league, I participate in triathlons,” he says. “As opposed to, ‘I just won a case,’” to which the other person will be thinking, “Oh, great, here we go.”

It’s fine to talk about a subject like the movies, but think carefully about how to do so, Robinson says. “If that’s all you talk about, or if the way you talk about the subject is too casual, or full of slang—a good share of it has to do with the delivery,” she says. “Always keep in mind, if I were on an interview, is this the sort of subject I would raise, and how does it present me?”

Do discuss legal issues that you’ve read about to demonstrate your depth. If you’re interested in environmental law, bring up a recent case you read about in the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, Knowles says. “Don’t walk up to the head of the environmental law section at the and say, ‘Tell me about environmental law.’ That’s not a wise use of his time. Read about what’s going on in the field,” she says.

Liz Federowicz, a second-year student at UCLA School of Law, says she reads trade papers about media law and business law partly so that she “can have something topical to talk about with these people, rather than, ‘Hi, let me stuff my résumé down your throat,’” she says.

Be careful about touchy subjects like politics and religion. If, for example, someone brings up the straw poll, make neutral observations like, “Everybody thought Bachmann was going to win,” Reuter says. “Let the other person reveal [their opinion] if he or she wants to. You can take your read from there.”

Leone says she talks politics if the subject comes up to demonstrate that she’s well-versed in current events “and not just a law student who wakes up, goes to class, networks, reads case law, and repeats.” But she takes care not to say anything that would offend someone, even when exchanging views on a topic. When discussing politics with one attorney with whom she disagreed, Leone made sure to say, between the lines, “I’m not going to be intimidated by you, but I respect that you disagree with me.”

Listen more than you talk, and ask for plenty of advice. Coonan suggests asking about someone’s practice area or career path. “You learn a lot about practicing law by learning about what people have done with their lives,” she says. “You can never go wrong asking them about their career—where they’re working, why they’re working there.”

Open-ended questions help launch a fruitful conversation, Reuter says. “Tell me how you got there. Tell me why you did this. Not, ‘do you like your work?’” she says. “You don’t want to do it as if you’re a reporter asking a series of questions. You want to turn it into a conversation.”

“Students want to focus on the other person and listen carefully to advice being given,” says Beth Moeller, assistant dean for career services at UCLA School of Law. “Students will want to demonstrate their genuine interest and focus on gaining information about an area of practice, the qualifications required, bar associations, trade organizations and publications that focus on the area, tips for entering the practice, and names of others practicing with the same or related area.”

Find a way to stay in touch—getting someone else’s card works better than handing out yours—and a reason to do so other than asking for a job. At a networking event, asking for a person’s business card after you’ve chatted with them is perfectly acceptable, Reuter says. “You’re seeding the relationship with maybe a little bit of chit-chat, but you’re really hoping to follow it up,” she says.

New York Law School requires students to interview three attorneys and write profiles on them, which also provides an opportunity to stay in touch. “They now have an easy way to touch back with any one of those people or all of them when they’re making choices about classes for next year,” among other topics, she says.

Even when it’s not required, Kaplan suggests asking if the person would like to be profiled for your school’s alumni newsletter—or for your blog. “It’s an incredibly effective way to engage lawyers and build a network,” he says. “I would love to do five questions on this for my classmates.”

He also points out that asking for advice gives you a reason to follow up and let that person know you took their advice—and show appreciation for it once again. “Anything that will have a life after the conversation will be very effective,” he says.

There’s nothing wrong with handing someone your card, but if you don’t get theirs, you’re unlikely to hear from them, Robinson says. “What is that person going to do with that card, unless they’ve indicated they might have some opportunities?” she says. “I might ask them for a business card, and then say, ‘By any chance, would you be willing to let me buy you a cup of coffee and talk to you further about the Bay Area market? If so, I could e-mail you and set up a time to talk.’”

Follow up the next day—two at most—and keep keeping in touch. “That’s when they’re going to remember you best,” Reuter says. “Law students are much more cautious and concerned about being a pain in the neck than they need to be: ‘Oh, I don’t know, he doesn’t want me to bother him anymore.’”

“E-mail them afterward and say, ‘It was wonderful meeting with you,’” Knowles says. “Then try to stay in front of them, whether that’s every month or six weeks.”

Old school though it might seem, students might find it more effective to follow up a conversation with a handwritten note sent through snail mail, Kaplan says. “A lawyer who goes on vacation for a week might have 1,000 e-mails, but only 15 or 16 pieces of actual mail [when he returns],” he says.

When networking opportunities arise outside of traditional networking events, be tuned into the attorney’s interest level. If you meet an attorney at an on-campus speaking event, for example, remember that person did not attend the event because they’re looking to hire someone. “You would not want to be out there working it so hard that you turn people off by seeming like you’re using that opportunity to get a job,” Coonan says. “You do need to be sensitive and appropriate. That doesn’t mean you can’t get to know people.”

Don’t dive into asking the person about their practice quite so quickly if you meet them, say, at a ballgame, Moeller says. “The conversation may take on a more casual tone, where professional interests are not discussed as readily,” she says. “Those types of non-networking events often pose excellent opportunities to speak with someone and establish a connection on a more personal level.”

Leone recalls meeting an attorney at the airport in Toronto after the ABA Annual Meeting; they fell to talking while waiting in line to find out the latest about flight delays and cancellations. They talked about how they had liked the conference and “he gave me some really good advice,” but Leone did not think it wise to ask for a business card in that setting. “I thought, is this the right time and place?” she says.

More on point would be joining a bar association committee, which involves attending meetings and provides both regular contact and a natural set of conversation topics, Reuter says. “That helps it be a more natural relationship, which isn’t available in all kinds of settings,” she says.

“People get to see how you work and how professionally you interact with others,” Robinson agrees. “That, to me, creates a fairly strong network.”

Vol. 40 No. 2

By Ed Finkel
Ed Finkel is a freelance writer/editor in Evanston, Illinois.

Student Lawyer Student Lawyer magazine provides guidance on educational, career, and related issues for ABA Law Student Division members and other subscribers. It is published four times a year by the Law Student Division of the American Bar Association. Student Lawyer is available online to members of the ABA Law Student Division and to print subscribers.