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Stop Squandering Opportunities – Master the Follow-Up

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Students listen to lawyers present on career panel. The end.

Students attend class with lawyer as guest presenter. The end.

Students attend a Student Bar Association event and mingle with lawyers. The end.

Does your story end with being in the same room as a lawyer and never following up? Ignoring chances to build relationships with lawyers is quite frankly one of biggest mistakes you can make while in law school.

You owe it to your career to capitalize on introductions. I talked with a student who volunteered over 250 hours of service at a legal clinic. Each of the 250 hours he worked side by side with practicing lawyers. He estimates he was assigned over 20 supervising lawyers. And he blew it. In terms of relationship building, his stats are abysmal. He’s 0 for 20. Zero thank you’s sent, and zero meetings requested. He showed up and worked with attorneys and never thought to benefit from their proximity beyond the task at hand. Don’t be this student. Recognize situations to make connections with professionals and take action. Your career needs it.

Make the effort.

You’ve got it all wrong if you think relationship building is hard or you’re not good at it (the two most common excuses I hear from students avoiding it). You’ve been building successful relationships for years. In kindergarten, your approach may have been sharing your name and age and asking someone to be your friend. In college, you may have made many friends by throwing a keg party. For professional relationships, neither approach is right, but it is only the semantics that have changed. The concept is the same. Present yourself as someone who is excited to get to know others. Show interest. It’s really that easy.

Be on the lookout.

Access to lawyers isn’t what’s hindering you from building connections. Lawyers are part of your world as a student if you pay even the slightest attention. It’s hard to get through the halls of most law schools without tripping over lawyers and judges on their way to speak to or teach a class, present to a student organization, or meet for an alumni committee. If you’re insecure with relationship building, these are the folks to start with—the professionals who are delivered to you.

Take action.

What’s critical—and where most students fail—is what happens after the initial introduction. Relationships require action and commitment. Building a professional network is different from building an empire of friends on social media. Professional relationships require an investment of self and time.

Below are several ideas for how you might follow up with lawyers. The action you choose should be appropriate to the context of the meeting and the stage of the relationship.

Express gratitude.

Saying “thank you” is easy and makes the recipient feel valued. After attending a presentation, listening to a guest lecturer in class, or meeting an attorney at an event, follow up by thanking the individual for his/her time and comments. The correspondence only need be a few sentences that state with sincerity an interest in what the person shared. If you’ve connected on a personal level, mention that, too. This small gesture attaches recognition and goodwill to your name going forward. A thank you can be as simple as this:

Dear Ms. Bergman,

I enjoyed talking with you last night at the IP after 5 student reception at your firm’s offices. Your recommendations for courses will be useful as spring semester registration approaches. I also enjoyed connecting with you on our mutual love of knitting. Please do share my e-mail with the attorney you mentioned who organizes lawyers to knit winter hats and mittens to be distributed at area shelters.

Request a meeting.

When you’re introduced to a lawyer with whom you really connect, ask her if she’d be willing to meet. Doing so isn’t bold or presumptuous. You’re asking a person to share her experiences, knowledge, and work, which is very flattering. You needn’t arrange for anything more than 20 to 30 minutes to get coffee or to talk in the lawyer’s office. The purpose of these meetings is for you to learn. This means the agenda is yours—ask questions about the following: career trajectory, where the practice is heading, what recommendations the lawyer has for you as a student who is considering the field, what associations or organizations you should join, etc.

Don’t request a meeting with every lawyer you meet. Pursue meetings with lawyers when your interest is genuine and you anticipate a good chemistry. An example e-mail meeting request:

Dear Ms. Fischer,

I enjoyed your contributions to the panel presentation at XYZ Law School on Tuesday. I am a second-year student, I have a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering, and I hold a pilot’s license. Prior to your comments, I hadn’t given a lot of thought about how I could parlay my love of aviation into a legal career.

I do have some follow-up questions and would like to arrange a time to meet you for coffee or at your office if you are willing to do so. I am excited to discuss your aviation law practice and your participation in the Lawyer Pilots Bar Association (which I didn’t know existed). I know I will benefit from learning about your experiences and any recommendations you have for me. Thank you for considering my request for an informational meeting.

Give an update.

Once rapport is established, continue to foster a relationship. Look for occasions that present natural opportunities for follow-up. For example, the beginning of a new semester is a time to thank an attorney for any insight or guidance he gave you the previous semester, to let the contact know what classes you’re enrolled in that connect with his work, to share an internship placement, academic success, a leadership role in a student organization, etc. Other times for reconnecting may include shared holidays. An e-mail providing an update might read as follows:

Dear Mr. Morris,

I wanted to touch base with you as the new semester is under way. The suggestions you offered to me when we met in October have been very useful. I enrolled in the contract drafting course you recommended, which will begin next week, and I have already begun volunteering on behalf of Wills for Heroes. The experience has been rewarding on a number of levels.

I recall you plan to attend the upcoming lecture and reception at the law school. I will be there as well. In the meantime, enjoy the winning streak the Packers are on . . . I know you’re a fan!

Give back.

One-sided relationships have a short shelf life. If you find that you’re only connecting with lawyers to ask for help or to talk about you, you’re missing an important part of the relationship—it needs to be about them, too! Take an interest in your contacts and follow their professional accomplishments. Every few months check biographies and employer websites for updates such as presentations given, awards earned, cases decided in their favor, etc. Send a link to an article you read that relates to their practices. Stay connected when there’s nothing in it for you. A brief e-mail can be as simple as follows:

Congratulations, Juan! I see on your firm’s website that you were named to the State Bar’s Diversity Committee. I hope all is well with you, and I look forward to our paths crossing soon.

Connect via professional networking sites.

Request a connection to a lawyer you’ve met using LinkedIn© or other credible professional networking sites. Personalize the request in a manner that will let the attorney recall who you are and where you met. Going forward, use the connection to check in on the attorney’s accomplishments and professional movements.

The following e-mail is one I received from an alumni and shows how networking sites can be used effectively:

Hi Erin,

LinkedIn suggested that I wish you a happy work anniversary; congratulations on 7 years writing for the ABA and 11 years with Marquette next month!

I hope the new semester is off to a great start. If any opportunities come up this semester to bring in a panel of graduates (perhaps to talk to 2Ls and 3Ls about job searches or about non-firm legal work), could you keep me in mind? My company encourages me to present both internally and externally, and I think that would be a fun way to stay involved at Marquette.

I enjoyed catching up with you at the WISACCA conference in May. If you have any free time in the near future and want to venture for lunch, let me know.

Relationship building can be this easy. And just so you know, the examples in this article come from real-world situations, so you can’t be dismissive of the suggestions. Take action. Be proactive in reaching out to lawyers beyond the initial introduction and watch your network grow.

Vol. 42 No. 4