We’ve discussed networking before of the many pitfalls that can come with it but lately I’ve seen some takes on networking that doesn’t seem to capture the purpose of what this type of relationship building really involves. I understand why—as a new student or professional, you’re often bombarded with the cry to “network!” And it promotes this idea that you go to these events to meet people to see how they can help you. It feels transactional and disingenuous and icky. And yes, part of networking is to meet people with connections, especially if you’re job seeking, but if you’re only going to these events when you need something, then you’re not networking as effectively as you could be.
The purpose of networking is to build a wide network of colleagues and professionals. The networking events are simply the starting point. You should go to these events with the intent to meet people whose careers interest you, who are in your practice area, or just people you sense a connection with. Creating that type of support system will prove valuable and can eventually lead to those job referrals and connections.
I suggest starting in friendly territories like your local Latino bar association or women’s (if it’s intersectional); there’s almost always an affinity group for all other identities as well. Attending these events lets you meet community that has experienced a similar path as you and can give great guidance and feedback as you move in your career. But don’t limit yourself to just these groups–especially as a student. Push yourself to go to events where you may assume you don’t have much in common with folks because you never know who you may connect with.
Ok, you’ve committed to attending more networking events–what is the one skill you should bring? Your conversational skills. That seems so basic but I can’t tell you how many events I’ve been to where people struggle to keep a conversation going. You should feel confident making conversation, picking up on things to ask, to bounce the ball back, so to speak, to keep momentum going–all the things that can feel hard to do when you’re interacting with strangers and trying to make small talk. But practice conversing and eliciting info from people and you’ll notice a difference in your ability to really work a room during these events.
Also, interrupt but don’t interrupt. It’s ok to sort of make your way into a group that’s talking and, assuming it’s not some unfriendly clique, people will open up to include you in the convo. That type of “interruption” is ok. But don’t overwhelm the conversation by being the only one that’s talking and don’t cut people off when they’re speaking (I mean that’s basic civility but I’ve seen it happen and it’s uncomfortable!).
If it helps, bring a friend but unless your only goal was to score free wine for the evening (no judgement, I’ve gone to networking events just because I knew it would be open bar!), then make sure you really are mingling with people and not just in a corner with your friend.
Finally, make sure you follow through. As I said, networking is the starting point of a long-term relationship. If you made good connections then follow them on linkedin. If the connection was even stronger, then ask if they want to get coffee so you can ask more about their career or questions about your next steps. Lawyers know that this is part of the work. We wouldn’t go to networking events if we weren’t also trying to expand who we know so very few will blow you off. Keep cultivating the relationships that do work because perhaps down the line they’ll hear of a job that would be perfect for you, or you can ask questions as you start your search, or maybe one day your client needs an attorney in a different practice area and you’ll have the perfect referral for them.
This profession, as upside down as it is, really does depend on relationship building. No attorney is an island and it will benefit you to feel comfortable, confident, and ready to create those relationships when you go out to these events.
And in case you have doubts–I have found prospective employees, found job leads for myself, made client referrals, and (most importantly) made real friendships all from attending networking events. See, not everything about this profession is doom and gloom!