etworking. The importance of nurturing and maintaining a strong professional network is impressed upon law students from the first day that they matriculate. After all, less than 25% of all job openings are advertised, the rest being filled solely through word of mouth and referrals. But, networking is not something that most people are taught, and many students find it nerve wracking to say the least. What makes the very notion so intimidating is that students have no idea how to network, let alone how to do so effectively.
First, let’s focus on how not to approach networking. One of the most common pitfalls to ensnare neophyte networkers is failing to build rapport with people with whom they are seeking to connect. No one wants to be approached merely as a potential job lead or a stepping stone to a higher-up in the firm. When meeting new contacts, it is essential to take the time to get to know the person as an individual. Don’t begin a conversation by talking about yourself or boasting about your accomplishments. Instead, ask questions and find some common ground. You might not be interesting to a new contact because of your law school ranking, but as a fellow sports fan or cooking enthusiast you might be able to establish a real and lasting connection that will bear fruit later on.
Another thing to avoid when networking is to treat every new contact as a bottomless well of resources without offering to reciprocate. Now, I’m sure you’re wondering how an established attorney can benefit from making your acquaintance, but don’t sell yourself short. Think about what your skill sets outside the legal field are right now. For example, you might be able to help a technophobic lawyer create a new website or social media strategy for the firm—or help them figure out how to use “the Google”.
Now, what should you do? First of all, you have to commit to building meaningful relationships with the people you meet. Start with your classmates, as they will become your peers in the legal community a mere few years down the line. Join student organizations and seek out leadership positions. Next, get to know your professors. Don’t expect your stellar classroom performance to be enough to make you memorable. Visit your professors during office hours and talk to them at school events. The better your professors know you, the easier it will be for you to get recommendations from them that are truly indicative of your skills and abilities.
When meeting new people, do your homework. Use the tools available to you at your law school to help you learn about the people you would like to meet. Leopard Solutions and Martindale are great resources for researching law firms and attorneys. If you haven’t joined LinkedIn yet, do it now. Not only is it a good clearinghouse for potential employers to see your resume, you can also locate potential connections who share your most obscure interests. Treat every new encounter as an interview and have some questions prepared that you can ask about the attorney’s practice or career path. And don’t forget to be ready to share some interesting things about yourself.
Finally, follow up with your new contacts. If you have a good conversation with a new contact and you snag a business card, make sure to send an email to thank them for taking the time to talk to you. Especially if you are lucky enough to schedule another meeting with that person, but the meeting is canceled, make sure you follow up to set another time. If your contact agreed to meet with you in the first place, you should make every effort to see it through.
The most important thing to know about networking is that it is all about creating lasting relationships. Chucking business cards at everyone you meet and ditching them quickly after you ascertain that they can’t immediately offer you career advancement only serves to alienate people and could damage your reputation in your local legal community before you are even established. Treat new contacts like people and not walking Rolodexes and you will see your network really begin to blossom.