Researching legal careers: Networking

What is networking? In essence, it’s being friendly with a purpose. If that sounds crass to you, then, to be blunt, you might want to rethink a career that is based largely on building and maintaining strategic professional relationships. Lawyers can’t adequately represent their clients or build their businesses if they haven’t forged (or aren’t willing to foster) strong networks with the other players in their field or industry: opposing counsel, industry leaders (and middle managers), law enforcement personnel, social workers, court personnel and any number of others. Information and business flow among those who are connected to one another in a series of overlapping networks.

You already know what this looks like conceptually from social media—now it’s time to find out how to do it in the professional world, when the stakes are about your career rather than about next week’s party.

So what is your purpose in networking right now?  It may be to find out more about particular legal careers or law schools, or it might be to secure a law-related internship or post-undergrad job.  How do you connect with people who are in a position to help you, and how do you make those connections work well?  The UMass Career Services website has some good general information (and links), and the Chase Career Center in Isenberg has a great set of tips and protocols. I recommend strongly that you read through these tips first. You’ll also find it helpful to read the Career Services’ page on Informational Interviewing.

What else do you need to know about networking with lawyers in particular?

As I indicated above, lawyers are natural networkers. It’s what we do best. Lawyers like feeling like we’re connected and that we can help you make connections as well.

Lawyers love talking about themselves. This is a shared character trait you don’t usually hear lawyers praised for, but it works for you right now, as you explore legal careers. Ask thoughtful questions about the work they do, and almost all lawyers will just keep going (once they get beyond the reflexive, “Don’t go to law school!” response—see below for more on that).  You can find out an enormous amount about particular legal jobs and fields by sitting down with just about any practicing attorney.

Lawyers will often tell you, “Don’t go to law school!” What is up with that? Even lawyers who love their work will tell you not to go to law school.  Are they secretly miserable?  Are they trying to keep down the competition?  I can’t say for certain, but after many years of reflection (before, during and after law school) I have come to the conclusion that most lawyers start off with this because legal practice is not what they expected it to be.  Even if they love it, it’s not quite what they thought it would be before they entered the profession, and they are imagining that the earnest prospective law student before them is harboring similar misconceptions. The way to get beyond this pessimistic opener is to ask follow up questions: Why do you say that?  What do you like about your practice?  What don’t you like? What do you wish you’d done differently? Even if you are faced with a miserable attorney, you can learn a lot from his or her experiences.

Lawyers are relatively tradition-bound. Even the most liberal of lawyers is still conservative (relative to most of society) when it comes to how to behave in a professional setting.  You should match that style.  Dress professionally, mind your manners, and observe old-school letter-writing formalities even in email.

Lawyers have long memories. As you begin your career exploration, remember that lawyers have particularly long memories.  If you act like a jerk (or even merely inappropriately), they will first share the incident with various colleagues (“You won’t believe what this kid said to me!”) and then the anecdote will take on a life of its own.  You do not want to be sitting in an interview years from now as the very same attorney suddenly recalls: “Hey wait, aren’t you the one who….” (if you get that interview in the first place).  So from here on out, be professional and courteous. It’s a strangely small law world.

The Career services links above will tell you the nuts and bolts of how to develop contacts and build upon them. The Pre-Law Advising Office has one more resource to offer you: the UMass Amherst Lawyer-Alumni and Pre-Law Network.