I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with undergraduate honors students for a networking dinner. The purpose of the dinner was to let students mingle with professors and local professionals to practice networking skills in a formal setting. It was a delight to meet with a diverse group of students with a wide range of interests—some were heading to graduate schools immediately, one hoped to enter the Peace Corps then go to law school, one was applying for jobs in healthcare before going to medical school, and several were undecided.
I’ve come to enjoy networking, but that wasn’t always the case. For a long time, and all during law school, I often felt a little awkward or out of place at networking events. I felt like I didn’t know what to say, how to approach people, or how to get anything useful out of the event. Although these students seemed much more at ease than I remember being as a graduating senior, their questions about the basics of networking reminded me that networking is actually a skill—one that you need to learn, practice, and use to your advantage.
Here are my top tips for law students and young professionals in networking:
• If you have business cards, bring them to your next networking event! If you don’t have any, ask your Career Services if they have temp cards you can use. Also, many online printers offer business cards for very cheap. It is worth investing a few dollars to have a simple card with your basic contact information.
• If you’re like I used to be, the prospect of going to a networking event isn’t exactly fun. Maybe that’s not the case for you and you feel at ease at these events—if so, that is great! If you need a confidence boost, however, keep in mind that others are either secretly feeling as awkward as you are or they’re chatty kathys ready to mingle with you.
• Remember that the purpose of networking is to build a network! You aren’t going to walk out of the room with a job offer, but you might meet someone who knows someone who can help you with professional development. Law is incredibly people-driven and building and sustaining relationships will always serve you well. So many opportunities will come to you if you can develop that mindset now. Your best asset is human capital. Make connections!
• If you need to build your network but aren’t attending a formal networking event, you might need to take initiative and contact people directly. Call or email lawyers and offer to take them out for a cup of coffee or an after-work drink. This is especially helpful if you’re new to the area or breaking into a specific practice area. I have never heard of a lawyer declining to meet with someone for a friendly outing like this. Bar associations might have informal networking resources, so look into those.
At the event
• Networking doesn’t have to be stuffy or overly formal, but it is usually a professional event. It should go without saying, but behave in a way that reflects well on you, your school, or your employer.
• Work the room: Networking events are usually about mingling, not having an hour-long conversation with one person. If you’re feeling stuck, you can use getting more food or drink as a tactful excuse to move around the room. You can also be direct: “It has been great meeting you. I am going to walk around a meet a few more people before this event wraps up.”
• If you’re going to the networking event with a group of people—fellow students or employees—try to resist the urge to stick with the people you know. You’ll get more out of the event if you make the effort to branch out. If you’re very uncomfortable or really need extra support, you can have a wingman. Hopefully, in time you’ll feel more comfortable networking solo, but having a friend with you can be a bridge to that point.
• At networking events, it is perfectly fine to go up to someone or a group of people and just say “hello.” You don’t need an invitation! If you see someone standing by themselves, take initiative and approach them. They’ll appreciate the effort.
• If you are nervous about what to talk about, remember that people, especially lawyers, love talking about themselves and their work. You don’t have to be the Riddler and pepper people with rapid-fire questions, but showing genuine interest in people is a great way to get a conversation started. It might feel a little unnatural at first, but people expect that at networking events, and they’ll appreciate your interest.
• Be genuine and authentic.
• Be honest about yourself and what you want. If you know what you want, say so. I’ve said “I am working on developing a practice in XYZ.” Tell people what you do and where you do it. So much of professional development is letting people know what services you offer. I am not suggesting that you brag or focus your conversation on this. But, you’ll make more lasting connections if you let someone know what you do. As an example, I was at a networking event and spoke with a lawyer in Boulder who does family law. I shared that I lived in Gunnison County. A few weeks later, he called me up to ask for a referral to a residential real estate appraiser in my area. I was happy to pass along the names of a few people I had worked with. The lawyer clearly remembered me from the networking event and reached out for a favor. Now, I have a connection in Boulder that I can draw on if I ever need to.
• If you have a business card, hand them out. I wouldn’t hand out your resume unless you really think it is appropriate for the event, but I would have one prepared and polished so that you can follow up with someone later.
• Get business cards from everyone you speak with and after the event, write down the date and place where you met that person and one or two details of your conversation. This will help you put a name with a face and jog your memory about what you talked about. Getting business cards is pretty worthless if you’re just left with a stack of names with no context.
• If you had an interesting conversation or felt a great connection with someone you met at a networking event, follow up. You can write a short email to the effect of “I enjoyed meeting you last night at the networking event. Thanks for taking the time to explain XYZ. I appreciated hearing your perspective on XYZ. I hope we can connect again sometime.” Boom. Short, easy, appropriate.
• Networking isn’t about asking for a job. But, if you think it is appropriate, you can send your resume to someone after you’ve met them. I like to say something like “I’ve attached my resume to give you a better idea of my background and skill set.” If you specifically referenced a job search in your conversation, you could say something like, “if you ever hear of a job opening in (Tulsa) or (natural resources litigation), I would definitely appreciate if you’d keep me in mind.” I’ve had people make that request of me, and I have always been happy to pass along opportunities.
• Most professionals are on LinkedIn and a growing number are on Twitter. You can make an online connection by inviting them to your network on LinkedIn or following them on Twitter (with the caveat that I recommend this only if you have a semi-professional presence on social media). I don’t actually think LinkedIn is all that helpful (or maybe I am just not using it effectively), but it sort of functions as an online business card holder….all your professional connections are in one place with their resumes displayed.
• The legal community is filled with incredibly generous people who are happy to share their expertise with you. The longer I practice, the more I am impressed with this feature of our profession. Use it to your advantage. If you ask for help in an appropriate and respectful way, chances are you’ll get it!
I hope this is helpful. Networking is a vital part of building a law practice and can be an enjoyable way to grow relationships.