As a self-designated “student ambassador” for my law school, I take a lot of calls from anxious incoming students. Here’s what I’ve realized: I don’t envy any of these new students. 1L year is already a challenging experience; adding a global pandemic to the mix only ratchets up the difficulty from hard to expert mode.
Of these calls, I’ve noticed a few general recurring themes, most of which have to do with adjusting for online learning. My law school just recently announced that the fall semester will be entirely online. Perhaps your law school is in the same boat, and you might be wondering, what now? How will this affect my job search?
In normal times, your law school probably served as a bastion for networking opportunities. At least at Santa Clara Law, there was always some kind of networking event happening. Whether it was an in-house careers panel offered during lunch or an alumni social event in the evening, the opportunities to meet career professionals, and future employers, were seemingly endless.
In many ways, these events helped alleviate some of the initial anxieties I had about networking. Objectives were clear from the outset. I at least knew that everyone in attendance was there to network with students like me. This helped eliminate what I believe is a major concern for most incoming students: am I bothering this attorney?
Another major struggle these in-person events helped mitigate was simply the challenge of not knowing who I need to know. So, you’re interested in x field of law—who are the major players in that field and who is the best person to reach out to?
A law school event targeted towards technology law might invite folks from the major tech companies or law firms that represent said companies. These sort of events were fantastic for meeting random people who might be in a position to offer you your first full-time job down the road. In fact, the role I recently secured at Google was made possible by someone I met my 1L year at one of these events.
But in a COVID-19 world, law schools can’t safely host these gatherings anymore. While I’m sure your law school has no intention of leaving you to fend for yourself, you’ll still need to prepare to take some initiative when it comes to growing your network. Even in a post-COVID-19 world, networking is a major facet of the legal industry and something that you’ll need to become accustomed to anyway.
The following are some networking tips I’ve picked up throughout my law school journey along with some suggestions as to how to recreate these networking opportunities virtually and on your own.
Know who to know
In a pre-pandemic world, I kept a spreadsheet of people I met at different conferences, law school events, or even in shared Lyfts—welcome to Silicon Valley! The spreadsheet was dedicated to connections I would then email after the conference or event.
These days, random in-person encounters are rare. But thanks to social media, figuring out who to connect with isn’t terribly daunting.
The legal industry is very public-facing. Often, most individuals, especially those who have specific niche areas of expertise, will make themselves available online, usually via Twitter or LinkedIn. I personally prefer finding connections over Twitter. Indeed, my Internet law and policy network was primarily built via Twitter.
If you have an idea as to what field of law you’re interested in practicing, start by simply Googling the field. This is the quickest way to stumble upon relevant law blogs, research papers, law review articles, etc. As you read, take note of the authors, add them to your spreadsheet, and look them up on social media.
Follow them and, when you’re comfortable, interact with some of their posts. Take note of the experts that are regularly quoted in op-eds and other articles about your topic area. Follow those folks as well. Follow who they’re following. Eventually, you’ll start to figure out who’s who in your industry. Those are the people you’ll want to consider reaching out to directly.
I’ve also noticed an influx in virtual conferences and webinars. In my opinion, this is one of the better outcomes of COVID-19. Networking made my 1L year absolutely exhausting. This was mainly because I was traveling back and forth between my classes in Santa Clara and events that were held an hour away in San Francisco. As a 1L, you suck it up and make it work because sometimes success comes from simply being in the right place at the right time.
Now, with a few clicks, I can join two or three conferences at once from the comfort of my home office (and most of the time, they’re also free). I highly recommend seeking out and attending these virtual conferences.
If it’s a Zoom call where you can see the other attendees, jot down their names and add them to your spreadsheet for some LinkedIn sleuthing later. Sometimes these virtual conferences will even offer “break-out” networking sessions afterwards. Take advantage of these opportunities.
Most importantly, don’t be afraid that you’re too inexperienced to attend. For the most part, industry gatekeeping is frowned upon, so you should always feel welcome regardless of your skillset.
Get comfortable with ‘cold calling’
Now that you’ve got your spreadsheet of potential contacts, it’s time to start cold calling. That’s right, cold calling isn’t just about not knowing the answer to your professor’s convoluted hypo about fee simple absolute conveyances.
In the networking context, cold calling is simply the act of reaching out to someone you’ve never corresponded with before and asking for some time to chat (or what we call an “informational interview”). The thought of this might already make your skin crawl.
I get it—unless you’re hyper-extroverted, cold calling is terrifying (perhaps even for some extroverts). But fear not. Some of the best opportunities I’ve created for myself were thanks to cold calling.
The very first cold call I ever made, before law school, sparked what became one the most important mentor/mentee relationships I’ve ever had in my academic and professional career. I didn’t just cold email this person. I took it a step further and flew across the country to meet this individual in-person.
So next time you think it might be “weird” to just contact someone out of the blue, it’s probably not as strange as both (1) contacting a random stranger and (2) offering to show up at their office, across the country, a week later, and then actually showing up. Best cold email experience ever!
Trust me, it’s not weird. You’ll be fine. I’ve yet to receive a restraining order for my networking endeavors…
Maybe you’re hesitant because you don’t think you have anything to offer this person, especially as a law student. Why would this well-known, well-established professional want to speak with someone as “inexperienced” as yourself?
Well, that’s just it. Your “baby Yoda,” law student status has way more advantages than you think. For starters, career professionals love hearing from students. For a lot of these folks, they’re often always looking for ways to give back to the legal community. Shaping the industry’s newest minds is both important and incredibly rewarding work. In all of my time in law school, I have never had a cold call rejected.
Mentorship is a key part of our industry and most industry professionals know that. So, just reach out.
Here’s a template to get you started. This is how I crafted most of my cold emails during my 1L year:
To: <email that I grabbed from LinkedIn or some other source>
Subject: Law student reaching out for advice
Hello <person I stalked>,
This is Jess Miers, a 1L at Santa Clara Law. I’m reaching out because I’m interested in learning more about <legal field/topic> and I was hoping to speak with you about your role at <company, firm, etc.>. I’ve been following you on <social media (usually Twitter for me)> and have read some of your work here <blog, law review article, etc.> I was particularly fascinated with <something this person writes/Tweets about or is known for in the industry (like Emoji Law!)>. I would love to hear more.
Would it be okay if I put some time on your calendar in the next few weeks for a phone or Zoom call?
Thanks so much,
You’ll note that this email template requires a little work on your end first. The more research you do about the person you’re cold calling, the more excited they’ll be to speak with you. Also, note that I suggest I will put time on their calendar. While the person you’re contacting will likely be excited to speak with you, don’t give them any extra work. Be sure to allow guests to modify the event (Google calendar doesn’t offer this option as the default). Your contact will adjust the meeting invite if it doesn’t work for them. This is a lot better than trying to play email tag to find a date and time that works best for both of you. Plus, as a future attorney and professional in general, you’ll need to get used to making (and modifying) calendar events. This is the best time to start forming good, professional habits.
Master the ‘coffee chat’
There’s a lot of names for informational interviews. At Google, we call them “coffee chats,” regardless of whether coffee is actually involved. The virtual world can make coffee chats a lot more awkward, which is probably the last thing you want to hear.
I’m not sure what it is about being on a virtual call versus being in-person, but I’ve noticed I have a lot more awkward and silent pauses during my 30 minute coffee chats than usual. Maybe it’s lag; maybe we as a society are uncomfortable with virtual socialization; maybe we’re all burnt out on the pandemic. Who knows?
One way I adjust for this is by actually writing out a list of topics and questions that I keep open in a side tab next to my meeting window. I never really did this pre-pandemic. Of course, I always had a few “canned” questions I would keep in the back of mind in case the offline conversation turned silent, but this was rarely an issue since attorneys love to talk (especially about themselves). I now find myself generating about 30 minutes worth of conversation fodder before my virtual chats.
Some great conversation starters:
- Can you tell me a little about your role?
- How did you get to where you are now? What was your path?
- What do you love about your current role? What do you dislike the most?
- What are you currently working on?
- What steps could I be taking now to secure a similar role?
- Is there anyone else you would suggest I reach out to for more information about this sort of role? (The answer is almost always yes – add these names to your spreadsheet.)
If you’re comfortable with the subject matter your connection might be an expert on, you could banter about hot topics in your field. I almost always found a way to work in a conversation about Section 230 or content moderation whenever I spoke with folks at Internet companies. I like to think of this as “advanced networking.” Getting to this point requires staying current on the issues in your field of interest, which you can do by reading law blogs (or the news). Advanced networking is one surefire way to stand-out among your peers.
Maintain the relationship
There are a couple approaches you can take to networking. In the beginning you might cast a wide net, going for network breadth over depth. As you narrow in on your interests and your career path becomes clearer, you might start cultivating deeper connections. This is where the 30 minute coffee chat transitions into mentorship.
As we all know, COVID-19 has made it significantly harder to regularly see the people we might want to build deeper and lasting relationships with. At least with my law school advisor, I had many opportunities to run into him during school hours, and of course I could always just drop by his office. The same was true for my industry mentors. I enjoyed many free lunches at Facebook and Google while visiting my mentors! These in-person meetings were crucial for developing my mentor/mentee relationships during my 1L year.
Now, us introverted types might be tempted to use the pandemic as a convenient excuse to hermit in our homes until this all blows over. Resist the temptation to be antisocial. If you’re an incoming student, it’s on you to maintain the connections you’ve worked so hard to get now. Find excuses to reach out to some of the folks on your list that might be potential mentors. Some “excuses” I use are the completion of law school milestones (like getting through 1L midterms), finding an article about a topic I know we’re both interested in, checking in for law school or career advice (What classes should I take 2L year? What are your thoughts on interning at a think tank?), or even just bantering about things we have in common (music, T.V. shows, food, etc).
Don’t worry about bothering people. One of the mutually accepted rules of email is that email doesn’t always require an instant response. If the person you reached out to is busy, they’ll get to your email when it’s most convenient for them. Attorneys receive a lot of emails. Your email shouldn’t upend or disturb their workflow.
Find ways to stay relevant in your connections’ lives. When a job opening comes up (and it will), you might just be at the top of their mind.
Some concluding thoughts
For many of us, networking doesn’t quite come naturally. COVID-19 might make networking seem even more difficult than usual. But it doesn’t have to be. As law students, all it takes is a little initiative and research on our end to start building a successful law school and industry network. Law school career offices and law student organizations can ease this process by adapting offline networking opportunities for a virtual setting this upcoming semester.
The biggest challenge I see for students this fall is finding people to reach out to. Career offices and student clubs might consider putting together virtual mentorship networks for incoming students and offering events that allow students to form their own “break-out” sessions and coffee chats with a supplied list of industry mentors.
As the founder and co-president of the Internet Law Student Organization at SCU Law, I’ve made it a personal mission for our student organization to create as many of these networking opportunities as possible for our student members this fall. We recently launched this form to recruit volunteers from the tech industry to make their contact information available so that our members can reach out directly. So far, we’ve received 53 volunteers. I invite other student organizations to copy our form as a template to build similar networks for their students too.
If you’re an incoming student looking for more advice on networking during the upcoming virtual semester, don’t hesitate to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m also happy to help facilitate some connections between students and the Internet law and policy community.