By Matthew Lab, Assistant Director of Career and Professional Development Office
The Career and Professional Development Office is excited about the career development programs and opportunities that we have prepared for this term. This time of year presents many opportunities for you to develop your networking skills. Networking is probably the most important non-legal skill that you will develop during law school. For law students and lawyers alike, networking is and will continue to be a crucial aspect of your career development. It is a method through which we make new friends and establish valuable contacts; learn about different practice areas and career paths; promote ourselves and our employer; cultivate new clients; increase our self-confidence; and develop our professional presence.
The idea of networking evokes many emotions and almost none of them are good. Networking can be intimidating and somewhat awkward. Most of us have stood at the edge of a room at a “networking” event, wanting to speak with someone, but felt awkward or apprehensive about how to initiate the conversation. Such feelings are normal. After all, you are striking up a conversation with a total stranger. The good news is that networking gets easier with practice. Truly, you get points merely for showing up; because the more events you attend, the more familiar faces you will see, and the more comfortable you will become. Here are a few tips to help get you started:
General tips: Wear conservative, professional attire; know your personal “elevator speech” introduction; keep your right hand free for handshaking and hold your drink in your left hand to avoid the dreaded “clammy hand”; employ a firm, but not over powering, handshake. Limit alcohol consumption to a single drink, if any, and avoid any messy food. To help with recollection, repeat the name of any person to whom you are introduced, i.e., “Nice to meet you, John.”
At a panel event: Often, several students crowd around a popular panelist, making it tough for you to wedge your way in. Rather than compete for time then, approach the person, introduce yourself briefly, compliment the presentation and ask for a business card. Try this: “Hi, my name is Sara; I really enjoyed your insights today. Do you have a business card? Would it be alright if I contact you in the near future with a few follow up questions?” Do not worry about imposing – if the panelist is too busy to return your email or take your call, they will say so and you can then ask when it would be more convenient.
At a career fair: At a career fair, people are very receptive. All you have to do is wait your turn, step up with a nice, open smile, a firm handshake, and introduce yourself: “Hello, my name is Chris. I’m a student at California Western School of Law and I’m very interested in your organization. I’ve done some research about your work and I’m impressed, but I’d like to ask you a few questions about your own experience if you have a moment.”
At a reception: Receptions can be intimidating because there are often groups of people standing in a circle and it can be difficult to break into the “huddle”. One tactic is to look for other solos who are standing around the edge looking as uncomfortable as you are, and introduce yourself. As your conversation progresses, guide her/him to a group and gently break in, saying, “Hi, my name is Sara, and this is Chris. We are law students and overheard your conversation about securities litigation. We are interested in this practice area. Would you mind if we joined you?” It’s usually easier to advocate for someone else when breaking the ice.
Another method of inserting yourself into a conversation huddle is to stand just at the elbow of someone in the group, slightly behind but inside their peripheral vision. They will likely step aside to allow you into the circle, at which point you can say, “Don’t let me interrupt – you were saying…?” to the person who was speaking last. The conversation should then resume unabated and you can join in as appropriate.
Flying solo: Perhaps you are at the event on your own and there are no other solos in the room. In that case, the area around the food or drinks table can be a good place to find someone who is not currently in a group. A casual comment such as, “Wow, there is a big crowd here tonight!” can bring a smile and an opening to introduce yourself.
In all of these scenarios, most people are feeling just as awkward as you are and yet are there to meet and greet people. The entire point of such events is for everyone to widen their circle of acquaintances. Press on your name tag, bring out your best smile, and enjoy the chance to speak with some experienced attorneys who are waiting to get to know you.
For more networking and career advice, contact Matthew Lab at firstname.lastname@example.org.