The beginner's guide to networking
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The increasingly competitive legal sector and economy have made finding that first job out of law school more challenging than ever— and that means networking with potential employers is more important than ever. Networking is one of those nebulous concepts that we all dread, but we all must learn – the magical ability to form relationships with people in useful positions. Networking covers a huge number of interactive situations that you will find yourself in as a law student (eg, law fairs, open days and vacation scheme/pre-training contract socials) and in your legal career (eg, lunches with clients or colleagues). The aim of networking is to gain something useful, be it the name of a new contact, general information, advice or interview tips. A good networker listens attentively and demonstrates an interest in the other person.
Solicitors and barristers use networking all the time. It's estimated that the legal profession gets a fifth of its new business from referrals or recommendations. While networking is an essential skill for would-be and qualified solicitors and barristers, it does not come naturally to many people. You can be creative in your approach to networking; in addition to thinking about your family, friends and lecturers who may have contacts in the legal profession, think about your contacts in the industry (public and private sector) who may work for organisations with large legal teams, such as Google or your local council. In-house legal work experience is highly desirable on a CV as it demonstrates that you have been exposed to the client’s perspective on things.
Most students hate the idea of networking and don't know how to go about it, as it seems so crass and inelegant, but it is an essential skill for a successful legal career. So, I’ve fleshed out some tips to hopefully help aspiring solicitors.
Building and maintaining a network
First, you need to identify your own network. Who do you already know? If you are interested in commercial law, for example, who do you know who works in a business environment? Do they know any lawyers? You want to understand their background, where they are and what they like about their work. You want advice from them about what they see as the most important skills to develop and experiences to have. Your line of questioning in networking situations must be tailored to the person with whom you are talking. Remember that the focus of most solicitors' work is not application forms, so some may not have any insight here. Instead, ask them about their work, what they anticipate in terms of changes in the legal sector and the changes they have seen thus far. Then, you want referrals from them: who else can you meet?
At a networking event, asking for a person’s business card after you’ve chatted with them is perfectly acceptable. As old school as it seems, students might find it more effective to follow up a conversation with a handwritten note, rather than a LinkedIn message or email; a lawyer who goes on holiday for a week might have 1,000 emails, but only 15 or 16 pieces of actual mail when he returns. One of the perks to remembering the trainee/associate/partner you spoke to is being able to namedrop within an application form (for their firm) – you automatically lose credibility in the eyes of the graduate recruiter if you can’t remember who you spoke to.
Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. When attending a networking event, it’s worth researching beforehand who the speakers are, their backgrounds and which topics will be discussed. Think about the type of law firm or set that you really want to work for and consider who you will need to target. You could use the Law Society's Directory of Solicitors or the Bar Council's Directory of Barristers (or LawCareers.Net's training contract and pupillage search functions) to work out which firms/sets match your areas of interest. Sources such as Chambers & Partners will give you an idea of leading lawyers in specific areas. Once you’ve done your research and arrived promptly for the event, step outside your comfort zone and approach people whose body language suggests they are ready to talk – this is always easiest with small groups; ideally, you’re looking for a group that’s not so huddled in. Many law students find the idea of approaching strangers daunting and this reluctance is understandable. However, it needs to be overcome. Very few people, aside from maybe political candidates, are thrilled by the idea of going into a room of strangers, so it’s important to remind yourself that you can do it.
Remember your manners
Number one rule in networking etiquette; don’t ask directly for a job or plan to hand out CVs. Graduate recruiters and lawyers who have been to networking events before can almost smell that coming. Instead, practise your listening skills, focus on the other person’s areas of expertise and use this opportunity to showcase your commercial awareness. Think about what the other person does for a living, what got them there and, going forward, what can you do to build a relationship? Talking about the job market more generally is fine and can lead the solicitor to bring up his or her own firm’s hiring picture. At some point in your conversation, they may volunteer to have a longer conversation or may say, "Hey, send me your CV; we’re looking for somebody”.
There’s no place for sneakiness or hidden motives when it comes to networking. You don’t want someone to think you’re only trying to connect with them to gain a few referrals or to bleed them dry of their advice. Instead, you want to be open and honest right from the start. Have a frank discussion with potential connections about what you’re hoping to gain from networking with them (this could be mentorship and work experience/shadowing opportunities) and what they’d like to gain from connecting with you.
Do discuss legal issues that you’ve read about to demonstrate your depth. If you’re interested in environmental law, bring up a recent case you read about in the Wall Street Journal for instance. This is your opportunity to showcase your commercial awareness and prove that you’re not just a law student who wakes up, goes to class, networks, reads case law and repeats. Be careful about touchy subjects like politics and religion. If, for example, someone brings up the straw poll, make neutral observations, allow the other person to reveal their opinion if he or she wants to, and follow their lead. Take care not to say anything that would offend someone, even when exchanging views on a topic.
Practice listening skills
Listen more than you talk and ask for plenty of advice, be it on training contract applications or things they would’ve done differently on their path to law. You will want to demonstrate their genuine interest and focus on gaining information about an area of practice, the qualifications required, Bar associations, trade organizations and publications that focus on the area and tips for entering the practice. You can never go wrong by asking a lawyer about their career – where they’re working (which kind of firm or practice areas) and why they’re working there. Open-ended questions help launch a fruitful conversation. Steer away from close-ended questions like “Do you like your work” and incorporate “Tell me how you got there" or "Tell me why you did this” into your dialogue. You want to avoid sounding like a reporter asking a series of questions, but rather have a conversation.
Be positive in every interaction: don't use the opportunity to bemoan your luck with applications or tricky Watson Glasers. It is what it is. Remember to wrap up conversations when appropriate; I would suggest that five minutes is your maximum 'chat time' at networking events. Be upbeat, bright, confident and don't ask or expect too much of someone.