Networking for Law Students (Lawyers, too) Part 1

Reframe fear of networkingIn this post, Part I of a two-part series, we describe the natural aversion that many people have to networking, and suggest thinking about it in a different way to make it less stressful. We also identify advantages that law students in particular have in the networking process. In Part II, we will talk about strategies for making the most of different types of networking situations students and practicing attorneys encounter.

Over the years, I’ve spoken a lot on networking to groups of students and professionals of both the lawyer and non-lawyer variety. During these presentations, people take notes and nod vigorously. But when talking one-on-one to students, and particularly law students, about their personal networking strategy, I get a fairly common reaction from law students: I’m not going to do it. The two main reasons they give may be the ones that are going through your head right now:

  1. It’s too scary. (I hate making small talk; I don’t know what to say; I hate asking people for favors, especially jobs.)
  2. I don’t need to do it. (That’s what the Career Services Office is for. I won’t need to network to get a job–my cousin is a lawyer and he’s going to introduce me to people.)

I’m going to try to convince you to rethink both that reaction and the reasons for it.

Which is not to say that fear of networking is not a valid one. The term strikes terror into the hearts of many, even lawyers who have been practicing for years.

In ANY job market, but especially in a tight job market, networking is the single most effective job searching strategy there is. Moreover, it is a skill you will want to begin practicing now, as I promise you this—you will use it in a variety of situations, for a multitude of purposes, over the course of your career and your lifetime. To learn about different firms, to get a job at one of them. To develop business. To find someone to refer business to in another state. To find someone to work for you. To find someone for your high schooler to talk to about getting into a particular college. It doesn’t end. And the sooner you start practicing your networking skills, the sooner you will be really good at it.

Breaking It Down

Let’s try to reframe networking so that it doesn’t seem so hard.

Whether it’s in a group situation, like a conference or party, or a one-on-one meeting or phone call, networking is really just about talking to people and building connections and relationships.

A Chicago lawyer and consultant named Susan Sneider changed my thinking about networking in a presentation she gave a number of years ago. She suggested that many people are uncomfortable with networking because they think of it as asking for favors. Instead, she suggested that it is listening for the thing you might easily do for someone else. If you think about it this way, it is something you probably do all the time, and it isn’t that hard.

You may be thinking to yourself, how does doing favors for someone else help me? Well, it won’t every time. But over time, it will. Whether you think of it as karma, or creating opportunities, or one hand washing the other, it will. I encourage you not to think of it as an equation—simple tit for tat–though. Sometimes you will do something for someone and they will not reciprocate. But you never know who will. Think of it this way: when someone has done something you really needed—introduced you to someone, opened a door for a job or an opportunity, you remember them, and will be willing to do what you can do for them.

Many law students are nervous about asking people—even close friends and family members, for contacts, introductions and information. But this is how the world works, and especially the business world.

One way to get over an aversion to networking is to imagine this scenario: What if you found out after the fact that a relative, a good friend or a close former co-worker of yours (think of this as your “inner circle”) needed something (information or an introduction) that you could have provided easily, but they hadn’t asked you. How would you feel? Disappointed? Even a bit hurt? I’ll say more in a minute about how to use this inner circle to your advantage.

What You Have to Offer

So you may say, sure, it’s easy to network with someone my age and in my same circumstances. But not with a scary partner at a law firm, or a professor, or someone interviewing me for a job. As a student, you may not think you have anything to offer to a law firm partner or associate. I am here to tell you that you do. You have to have faith that, as a human being, you are in a position to do things for other human beings. That might be introducing someone to the perfect candidate for a job, or it may be suggesting a great dog walker or a good restaurant.

Here are three categories of things you have to offer as a law student to a more experienced lawyer:

  1. You can offer a trip down memory lane and glimpse into what it’s like to be a law student today. This is especially true with alums of your school. Ask them about their experience in school—what they liked best, what was the most important class for their career. Be thinking right away of what professors or classes you might have in common, and share info about what has changed and stayed the same. Until you are older, you won’t understand why this is valuable, but trust me, it is.
  2. You can offer information or connections. A dog walker, a dentist, a restaurant or movie recommendation, the name of a book. You must listen carefully to what they need, and ask follow-up questions, but you are in as good a position as anyone of any age to fill a simple need.
  3. You will (sooner than you think) be a peer of theirs. Again, this is an odd perspective thing. As a law student, you tend to see yourself as one category of person and practicing lawyers as a totally separate category. People who have been practicing see it differently—they see themselves and you as being in two different places on the same arc or continuum. They see you as someone who may soon be referring business to them, or to whom they may be referring business. The may see you as someone they might hire down the road after someone else has trained you. Or they may see you as opposing counsel across the table or courtroom. Networking means doing your best to make sure they remember you positively.

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