Your Guide to Networking
For many students, networking is the most agonising thing they could possibly do. The thought of engaging in awkward conversations with strangers is too much to handle, especially when there is the option to sit at home in front of the TV with a hot chocolate!
However, networking doesn't need to be so difficult and university provides you with the perfect environment to get stuck in, make lots of mistakes, and build long-lasting professional relationships.
In this article, I offer you a comprehensive guide to networking, helping you to navigate through this tricky terrain and master the art of professional social interactions.
I think the best way to answer this question is by first mentioning what isn't meant by networking. Networking isn't about strolling up to strangers, telling them how great you are, and then blindly asking them for a business car or a job. This is a mistake I see far too often at professional events: one law student will tell a partner that they've done work experience at all these different firms and think that they would be a great fit for the firm, and finish by asking for a business card so they can continue to email them in the future. Hopefully you can see the problems in this approach!
Instead, networking is about connections. In other words, you should attend events with the goal of showing a genuine interest in other people and working towards establishing a common interest. It may sound crazy, but I've seen students have heaps of success by starting a conversation with a lawyer about their favourite football team (maybe they have a Chelsea FC notepad with them or something?) or other interests, rather than the usual drab legal topics they typically encounter. The reason for this success is because the interest is largely genuine and it's unique, so instantly grabs the desired attention, before moving the conversation gently towards what they do.
However, I appreciate that not everyone is going to have the knack of creatively guiding the conversation this way. The important thing is to focus the conversation on the person you are talking to and not pose questions that can be easily found with a little research online. As we shall see later in the article, networking also involves maintaining contact after the event and thanking them for any help they offer.
This is probably the most important step when it comes to successful networking: do your research and have a plan.
There is nothing worse than starting a conversation with someone and then going completely blank with nothing to say. Honestly, the number of cringe-worthy conversations I had with law partners in my first year of law school that could have been avoided by doing a bit of background work is embarrassing. You see, the more research you decided to do before you network, the less awkward or cringe-worthy the actual event will be. This means, researching the law firm, identifying their unique selling propositions, and trying to find a little bit about the other people attending the event.
Also, have a response for when someone inevitably ask about you. To do this, I would strongly recommend drafting a 30-second elevator pitch about yourself that succinctly explains your personal value proposition and why you are interested in law (or that law firm's specific area of law). Don't just say "I am a law student who has done some interesting placements, and think you've worked with some interesting clients". Actually make the effort to work out what makes you different and why that law firm should care about what you offer.
Lastly, prior to attending the event, have a plan of action. Like anything in life, how can you expect to get positive results if you don't have a target or goal in mind? To do this, first understand what you want (e.g. I want to be a London-based solicitor working in banking/finance) and write down a pathway to achieving that. With this at hand, you know that each networking event is geared at furthering your ambitions and bringing you a step closer to achieving the goal. For example, your plan for your next networking event could be to meet 3 new people in banking, research attendees prior to going, and set up a phone call with someone who will mutually benefit from connecting with you.
Business Clothing: don't make the fatal mistake of turning up to a professional networking event in casual clothing. You will certainly catch the eye of the recruiter, but most-likely not in a good way. I also believe that wearing the correct attire will mentally prepare you better than quickly grabbing the jeans and shirt you wore to the pub last night.
Don't Hog: in other words, be mindful of your time when talking to someone. This is especially true at law events where there tend to be only one or two partners in attendance. Typically you will see a large huddle of wide-eyed prospective lawyers hanging on the partner's every word and vying for their attention, so you'll do yourself no favours if you use up too much of their time.
Be Brave: walking into your first networking event can be a pretty intimidating experience, especially for those of you who are even a little shy to talk to your classmate in a seminar. However, it's crucially important you are capable of demonstrating your independence at these events (i.e. don't go with a friend if you can help it!) and strike up a conversation with everyone there!
Avoid the obvious: they say there are no stupid questions, but when networking there definitely are! You need to ensure you have researched the law firm properly and avoid asking any questions where the answer can easily be found with a little effort. So please don't ask a lawyer about what practice areas they offer or the competencies they expect from trainees, but show interest in a specific case they have worked on and their own experiences as a lawyer at the firm.
Be Polite: Shake their hand firmly, listen to them properly, and thank the person for their time when the conversation comes to an end.
Don't Bring Your CV: if you give someone your CV at a networking event, it will quickly find its way to a bin. Remember, the purpose of networking isn't to look for a job (although one may come about as a result of it), but to build meaningful relationships with interesting people.
Going Because You Have To: if you don't want to go to the networking event then there is no reason for you to be there. If you're serious about becoming a lawyer, networking events are a perfect chance to mingle with those that have already taken your path and can impart the necessary wisdom onto you. If you're not that bothered about lawyer life and going because it will "look good on the CV" or "you enjoy the free food and drinks", I'd strongly urge you to stay at home and not waste your time!!
One of the most common mistakes made by law students is their belief that networking opportunities are few and far between. The reality is completely different; you can find people to network with almost anywhere.
This is the obvious place to begin networking as a law student. Throughout the year, the calendar will be jam packed full of law firms who are interested in coming to your university for a chat. These events often take place at local hotels or on your university campus, and are specifically designed to make you feel relaxed and have access to a wide range of individuals (e.g. trainees, partners, HR representatives, etc.)
Most universities have an excellent alumni network, giving you easy access to solicitors, barristers, judges, etc. If your law school doesn't have its own alumni directory, then hop on to LinkedIn and search for other people who went to your university and now work in the legal field. The great thing about networking with alumni is that you already have a common connection, which instantly breaks the ice and makes them more likely to help you out.
Once you have built up a bit of confidence networking at law events and with alumni, you will soon notice there are plenty of other opportunities for you to network. For example, osocial media, when used properly, can be a brilliant way to communicate with law firms and lawyers. For example, many lawyers use Twitter to inform followers about things they are working on in real time. By making meaningful comments on these posts you will certainly grab their attention and enable you to demonstrate familiarity before you've even initiated formal contact with them.
Also be on the look out for a chance to chat wherever you are: sports clubs, charity events, evening classes, coffee shops, and just about anywhere. Everywhere around you there are people who could potentially help you out and offer crucial advice. For example, I remember going to a school charity event (my dad is a headmaster!) in my second year of university and I got chatting to one of the parents there. It turned out that they were the head of recruitment at one of the largest law firms in the world, which was crazy considering that this school was in the middle of nowhere! So, keep an eye out for chances to network because you simply do not know when the next great opportunity will arise.
I've already highlighted the importance of focusing on the other person and not asking basic questions that can be easily researched. However, on the flips side, there are some right questions that you can ask when networking. Asking the right questions shows that you are inquisitive, passionate about a legal career, and listening to what they are saying. Here are some good questions that you could ask:
⇒ What is a normal day for you?
⇒ How did you become a [practice area] lawyer?
⇒ What did you particularly like/dislike when working on [a case they worked on]?
⇒ Why did you choose [their law firm]?
⇒ I noticed that your firm has [done X, Y, and Z). Please could you tell me a little bit more about this?
In essence, the right questions are questions that you cannot easily obtain or they expect a subjective response. I'd highly recommend you take some time now to try and write a few more questions you could ask to ensure you've got the hang of this!
Having successfully networked, many law students will quickly forget about the interaction and shove any contact information into the back of a drawer. This approach completely destroys the point of networking, which is to build an ongoing relationship with them. Instead, the correct approach is to follow up.
I recommend waiting at least 24 hours after meeting them to send a short follow-up email thanking them for their time, reminding them what you talked about, and then some possible steps moving forward (e.g. arrange a phone call, meeting up for a chat in the future, or just to offer your help with something at some later date). Just a few sentences would be absolutely fine.
Networking is a process; it takes time to build relationships! You're going to find some interactions difficult or awkward to begin with, but things do get easier if you just follow the steps above and keep making yourself available. The aim is to be persistent, be confident, and remember that it only takes one encounter to make it all worth it.