If 2L OCI has not worked out or you’re focused on job opportunities at places that hire closer to graduation, the first thing you’ll hear almost universally out of anybody’s mouth when you ask for advice is to start networking. In fact, in this New Normal any law school’s career services office will be hard pressed to not make this the default response as soon as any law student makes contact about the job search. It may be an easy deflection or it may be honest advice, you’ll probably never know. But to you it probably doesn’t matter, because you’ve heard the word networking a million times already. It’s so popular yet feels so useless at the same time that it often does little more than enrage you when you hear it. When you genuinely reach out for job search advice you’re presumably looking for an answer that involves anything but networking. After all, everybody knows you have to network. Everybody networks in one way or another. Yet all these law students are graduating without jobs, so what exactly is networking accomplishing? Even if networking was successful, and everybody networked well, their successful networking won’t sprout a slew of new jobs out of thin air. There’s a limited amount of legal jobs available and there’s too many law students, so a little less than half of law graduates will be left in the dust regardless of how awesome they network. This makes networking largely meaningless.
This type of attitude is wrong for two reasons. One, the slippery slope argument of “everybody is doing it” is almost certainly inaccurate because everybody is not doing it. People often erroneously attribute to others what seems obvious to them, but just because it seems obvious to you and you expect everybody to be doing it does not mean that everybody is actually doing it. Two, even if everybody is doing it, there is absolutely no way that everybody is doing it efficiently. The latter is the most important point, as efficiency is the key to success. Many people often believe they are networking, because what they are doing qualifies as networking, but its either done incorrectly or inefficiently and leads to nothing. Because this incorrect or inefficient networking happens all the time, it is not hard to understand how the attitude of correlating networking with words like useless or meaningless has come about. The reality, however, is quite different. When executed correctly, real networking can be a tremendous tool for ensuring both the start and progression of an individual’s career.
To begin, scrap any thoughts about networking being useless. The entire business world functions based off of networking. Networking is the name of the game, even if it’s very hard to see this when you’re starting out on the bottom rung of the pyramid. The connections that develop over time between important individuals lead to all types of business transactions, product launches, and everything in between. Nobody gets to be C-suite level without having developed not only the required experience but the network of connections necessary to place the opportunity before them. It’s all like joining a club, once you’re in the benefits flow freely. The hard part is getting into the club, but difficulty is only an obstacle. Generally speaking, the world works in only one way: it’s who you know that matters above all. What you know only acts as a supplement to ensure the connection isn’t the only justification. However, the who you know part, outside of family connections, is something that develops over time. None of these individuals waltzed into their high level positions by deciding to network when they saw the job opening. It was all part of a process that began early on in their careers. This identifies the most fundamental component of real networking: it is a long-term process.
Many people view networking as a short-term solution, only relevant when the job search is in full swing. If they are gainfully employed, all is well. When there’s a need for a new job, networking comes out of the woodwork. Although law students are only attempting to begin their careers, most of them have the same attitude about the short-term effects of networking. A typical law student progress chart with respect to networking trails along the following lines: No 1L really starts networking for a 1L summer position because the vast majority of them will be unpaid and relatively easy to get, and the few that will be paid are a combination of fantastic 1L Fall Semester grades and a targeted mass mailing campaign. Then many incoming 2Ls don’t feel they need to network because they will participate in OCI to see if they get the lucky draw. Once it’s around November of 2L year and nothing has come about, suddenly there’s an upswing in thinking about networking. Things like informational interviews are suggested, or attending local and state bar functions is a good idea. Similarly, the 2Ls focused on public interest or criminal work finally start thinking about networking as well, although even here its often dismissed as early considering it is only about halfway through 2L year and there’s still a long road to graduation. This type of approach is perfectly reasonable, if you view networking as nothing but a short-term activity to help fill in the job search gap. However, real networking is not a short-term activity. It’s an ongoing process that you engage in regularly and must nourish and develop over time.
If you treat networking as a short-term solution, there’s very little chance that it will ever lead to anything. Think about this for a second. You’re in need of a job, so you’re reaching out and doing things you would normally shy away from in order to potentially get an in somewhere and land a position. The readily identifiable problem here is that you’re only starting to network when you’re already desperate for a job. Nobody likes being used, but that’s exactly how people on the other side of the aisle start feeling as soon as they realize you’re approaching them only because you’re interested in having them help you. It’s a turn off, and it rarely works. Add to this the fact that there are now legions of students in each law school class doing the same thing around the same time every year and you can see how this quickly spells trouble. “Hey, can you get me a job?” is the only signal you’re sending to anybody you contact for the first time as an attempt at networking, regardless of how tactfully you word your email or angle your approach. Generally speaking, it comes off as no different than tapping a stranger on the street and asking the same question. What’s the likely response?
Real networking involves reaching out to people in the hopes of forming a long-lasting relationship. A relationship built on something other than your desperation for a job. For law students, this ideally means reaching out to alumni not because you’re interested in working where they work, but because you’re interested in learning how those alumni got to their positions. Whether this means contacting them directly through email or meeting them at some type of lawyer event, the key is to meet them at a time when your interest can genuinely pass off as nothing more than eager curiosity. As a future lawyer, you should see these alumni as successful lawyers that have at least partly achieved what you’re in law school to achieve. Because they are successful and you are on the come up, you should be contacting them to learn about them and their positions to find out how you can best prepare yourself to be in a position to succeed in the same or similar way. Once you develop this initial relationship, you should keep these alumni updated on your law school progress and check in with them when possible, especially when you have questions about career paths or the job search in general. Because you reached out early on in the process and before your job search even started, it’s much easier to discuss the job search and any potential leads these alumni may know about. It’s easier because the job search will naturally be just another topic you discuss when you communicate. Once the ball gets rolling this way, you never know who may know something and think of you first.
The problem with the above is that it requires a relatively long chunk of time. You must first reach out, plant the seed, and help it grow until it comes time for you to be in a position to be looking for jobs. This means that the best time to start is either before law school or at the very latest starting in 1L. Unfortunately, most law students do not do this and find themselves in a desperate position late 2L and trailing into 3L year. However, all is not lost. It is never too late to begin planting seeds. You should be reaching out to alumni in the same manner discussed above as soon as possible. If you wish to make face to face contact and discuss the same topics over coffee, informational interviews can serve you well in this regard. However, keep in mind that it is much harder to get alumni to respond to a request for an informational interview on a first contact. Only the rare overly-generous lawyer will respond to such requests. It’s more convenient and therefore much more likely to result in success if you begin by email. For those that have already planted the seed by developing prior contact with a lawyer, asking for informational interviews should be much easier. That, after all, is the benefit of thinking long-term and starting all of this early. But time is not on your side right now, so you do what you must.
Whatever you do, don’t use informational interviews as an opportunity to beg implicitly or explicitly for a job. Stick to discussing the lawyer’s place of employment and his or her career growth up to this point. Show you’re interested in following in his or her footsteps, nothing more unless he or she directly requests your resume. In addition to this, your back is against the wall so you have no choice but to start attending any event that has lawyers present. You have to keep in mind that you’re already behind in the networking game by at least a year, and you’re desperate for a job, so you have to hustle extra hard and get out of your comfort zone. Again, the key is not to talk with lawyers about potential job opportunities but to engage in genuine conversation with them about the legal field, their employer, and their position. Real networking is not about instant gratification, these things may pay dividends much later. If you want to survive in the legal field, you’ll almost always need a helping hand somewhere along the way. There’s nothing wrong with mentioning that you’re looking for a job if you are asked the question, but you can play it off confidently to show you’re not talking with this lawyer solely to try and land a job. For example, you can mention how the legal field is going through some tough times but you’re eager to begin in this profession and want to learn as much as possible by reaching out and discussing different practice areas with different lawyers. You need to emphasize these conversations are a learning experience above all else. Every lawyer will think a law student is attending the event or speaking with them because he or she wants a job, do your best to show that’s not the case. Start developing real relationships. Think long term and remember, only genuine conversations will be remembered. At the end of the day, keep in mind that the degree does not land you the job. You must land the job. Real networking can give you an advantage in your search by keeping you relevant in the minds of those contacts that come across job openings.