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Be ready to build your own network, first-gen law students

Law students join a networking discussion at the 2019 ABA Law Student Division's annual meeting in San Francisco.

Right before my first class in my first year, I waited with several other students for the class before us to finish. I distinctly recall listening to another 1L talk to other students about how he was a “fourth-generation lawyer” (yes, he called himself a “lawyer,” not a “law student”).

He detailed how he’d already had the opportunity to perform some legal work at his family’s law firm.

As I listened, I remember feeling incredibly intimidated. I knew about the law school curve. Classes hadn’t yet begun, and I was already convincing myself that I couldn’t possibly compete with someone who was entering with four generations worth of familial legal training at his disposal.

Like that “fourth-generation lawyer,” many students enter their first year having been groomed to go to law school by one or more family members in the legal industry. Their path may have been set out long before they were born.

The potential paths of many other students aren’t so clear. Still others enter law school having taken a 180-degree turn from the path on which they appeared to be set.

The family tradition

I knew how to put sausage meat into casing, or animal intestines, and how to properly trim the fat from chicken long before I’d ever heard of a deposition or a motion for summary judgment.

My father, like his father before him, was a butcher for most of his life, having immigrated to New York from Gioia Tauro, Calabria, Italy, in 1976.

My great-great grandfather was the first butcher in our family, and he sold meat from an ox-pulled wagon in Messina, Sicily, in the late-19th century. I spent the first years of my life playing in our basement, the butcher shop, leisurely learning how to properly cut, clean, and prepare meat that was sold to friends and family.

Years after that, I worked with my father in his meat market and deli, first in New York and then in Florida.

I always enjoyed that time and learned valuable lessons.

Although becoming a sixth-generation butcher may have been an obvious path to follow, it didn’t strike me as what I’d be doing with my life. Money was constantly tight with my family. One of my primary desires had always been to achieve financial stability so that my children wouldn’t have to be concerned the way I was in childhood.

The earliest concrete idea for how to reach that stability came from my mother. Raised by two Italian immigrants herself and having learned English as a second language, my mom didn’t get the opportunity to go to college. Instead, she found employment in a law firm as a legal secretary and, later, as a paralegal. She’d work long hours and then tell me how the paralegals at her firm did all the heavy lifting, yet the lawyers made all the money.

Though I soon learned that a lawyer’s job requires quite a bit of heavy lifting as well, I decided that law school might be an opportunity to use my skills in a way that would help me reach the stability I craved.

Nobody to network with

Starting my first year, I quickly learned that networking was one of the most important skills to understand and develop in the legal industry. Even during orientation, faculty and students alike couldn’t stop talking about this amorphous idea.

One of the fundamental differences between a law student from a lineage of lawyers and one from, say, a lineage of butchers, is having a model of what an established network actually looks like. Law students whose parents are lawyers likely see their parents involved in community or charitable organizations, industry groups, or other client-development opportunities.

Beyond merely being a model, some of those parental networks may directly benefit those students in the form of a job at the family law firm, the ability to participate in a community or industry group or, in some cases, receiving a pre-determined inheritance of loyal clients.

On the other hand, students whose parents had virtually no community involvement outside of their day-today jobs need to quickly find out how to build a book of business from scratch. In this case, remember that your law school friends are your most important asset.

Those friends will likely practice in the same community as you. Over the years, your graduating classmates will switch jobs, climb corporate ladders, and become decision makers. They may also remember your name. Friends like to do business with friends. This is from where your network and your book of business develops. Although constructing something from scratch may be more challenging, it’ll likely result in a stronger foundation because it was your hands that built it.

Play to your strengths

Also remember that you likely have strengths your peers don’t possess. Many critical skills learned from nonlegal industry sources are entirely applicable to law school. The law is about people, not lawyers. Your clients may be more similar to you than you think, and you may be able to help them because of, not in spite of, your nonlegal industry history. Play your unique perspective as your strength.

Finally, never be intimidated by those who claim to come into law school with external knowledge about how to be a lawyer. You don’t need prior legal training to succeed in law school—that’s the point of law school.

You need to know how to learn. The professors will teach you what you need to know about the law. Often, it can be this prior knowledge that actually holds back “generational” law students because they may think they know more than the experts trying to teach them.

Although the “fourth-generation lawyer” from my first year did well in classes, his family legacy certainly wasn’t an automatic ticket to victory.

At graduation, he was likely surrounded by several loving lawyer-relatives, all proud he was carrying on the family tradition.

At graduation, I was lucky enough to be able to look out from the stage, having been asked to give a valedictory speech. I saw a butcher and a paralegal looking back at me, proud to see me succeed on a path they never knew.