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Ask the Hiring Attorney: How do I stand out at a law firm holiday reception while still playing it safe?

Holiday Party

Q: I’m a law student getting ready to attend holiday receptions hosted by law firms. I hear so much about what I shouldn’t talk about, what I shouldn’t wear, what I shouldn’t do. So what can I do? How I can stand out in a room where everyone’s wearing a black suit and talking about safe topics?

A: Let’s start with the purpose of these holiday receptions. From the law firms’ perspective, the purpose is to attract top law school candidates. Holiday receptions help counteract firms’ reputations as sweatshops by allowing students to interact with attorneys and hiring personnel in a less formal setting than, say, a job interview. Law firms try to populate these holiday receptions with some of their more personable lawyers, who can help showcase the firm as a collegial and desirable place to work.

From your perspective, the purpose of attending the holiday reception is to introduce yourself to lawyers and, hopefully, build a positive connection that will enable you to follow up with those attorneys later. Also, this isn’t speed dating. You’re better off building a connection with two or three lawyers who will remember you the next day, rather than trying to meet as many lawyers as possible.

Meeting lawyers at these receptions is different from job interviews. First, the lawyers you meet (unless they actually interviewed you) know nothing about you. They haven’t seen your resume or your transcript. They can judge you only by how you present yourself. Second, the lawyers aren’t formally critiquing you. At the end of a job interview, lawyers fill out a formal critique form where they compare you to other candidates and make recommendations to the firm about whether you should be hired. They don’t do that after a reception. That being said, they are, of course, judging you. Just because you’re meeting them in a friendly setting does not mean that they’re your friends. It should go without saying that you should be on your best “business behavior,” which includes being appropriately dressed and declining that second glass of wine.

Don’t hesitate to go up to an attorney and introduce yourself. A lawyer who’s alone is a great candidate, and it’s much easier to walk up to a lone attorney than it is to try to break into a group conversation. The traditional “small talk” topics—work, the weather, the food at the reception—are fine, as long as your comments as either positive or neutral. After all, you aren’t going to the reception to find an audience for your complaints! But traditional “small talk” is just filler for silence. It doesn’t help you make or build a connection with the person to whom you’re speaking, and it won’t help that person remember you.

Also, many law students come to these receptions determined to cram as much information about themselves into a conversation as they can. I can understand the temptation to do this, but it doesn’t leave a good impression. It can make you seem self-absorbed, hyper, or simply like you’re trying too hard. The other major temptation is to be obsequious. There’s a big difference, however, between being respectful and fawning. Balance is key. Remember you’re a prospective junior team member, not a groupie.

Follow the attorney’s lead. If she wants to talk about the law firm’s practice areas, then go with that. If she doesn’t, try to find some common ground that you can have a more in-depth discussion about. Sports, the arts, books, and travel are all examples of topics of conversation that can be interesting, fun, and great ways to connect. The usual conversational pitfalls apply—avoid discussions that are personal, invasive, or potentially rife for argument such as religion, politics, social values, the economy, and the like.

Be a good listener by focusing on what’s she’s saying and asking follow up questions. Don’t be intimidated if you don’t know much about the topic—that’s a great opportunity to ask questions! Like most people, attorneys love to talk about themselves. She says she likes kayaking? Ask her how she got interested in that, where she likes to go, what advice she has for beginners, etc. Your genuine interest and enthusiasm will help her remember you.

If other students try to join in the conversation, be gracious. Asking an attorney questions about her favorite topic is likely to keep her there talking to you, but you don’t have a monopoly on any person’s time. If another student sidles up, introduce yourself. Invite him into the conversation by saying something like, “Oh, nice to meet you. We were just talking about Jenny’s kayaking trip in Nova Scotia last fall.” Showing you’re welcoming, sociable, confident, and comfortable is a big plus.

Don’t overstay you’re welcome with any particular attorney either. If the conversation isn’t working, or the attorney is trying to excuse herself to meet with other people, or the group has become too large for you to have a memorable conversation with her, then excuse yourself and find another lawyer to talk to!

Lastly, if you really want to stand out and build a positive connection, then in the day or two after the reception, follow up with a quick note or email of thanks to the attorneys you met and to the host (likely the hiring director) of the reception.

A version of this article was originally published by Bloomberg Finance L.P. Reprinted with permission. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

Shauna Bryce Shauna C. Bryce is a graduate of Harvard Law School with 20 years in law and legal careers. As a nationally recognized lawyer career coach, she works one-on-one with executive-level attorneys in Global 100 law firms and multibillion-dollar businesses in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, as well as regularly presents to groups of lawyers, career coaches, law students, and others. Her advice column, Ask the Hiring Attorney®, inspired by what general counsel and partner-level clients said they wish they had known while they were in law school, was originally published by Bloomberg Law. She’s the author of the How to Get a Legal Job® series and Bryce Legal® Career Advice for Lawyers blog.