Networking is a critical component of the legal job search, especially during the present time with uncertainty surrounding the immediate future of the legal industry. New contacts and connections—even when made over Zoom—mean more mentorship and potential future job opportunities, so it’s important to keep cultivating professional relationships no matter what stage of the job search you’re at.
What exactly should you plan to talk about with a new connection? Navigating a conversation with a stranger about his or her career can seem like an awkward prospect. But it doesn’t have to be with the right preparation. Perhaps you’ve heard the conventional wisdom that “networking” just means having a conversation—this is generally true. However, this doesn’t mean you should show up unprepared with nothing to talk about. Instead, think of the conversation as an interview, and come prepared with questions and a loose roadmap. Read on for tips and questions that serve as a starting point for a successful networking interview.
Do your research beforehand.
It goes without saying that you should know a thing or two about the person you’re networking with. Assuming you didn’t just choose a random attorney to reach out to, you likely knew something about the person before you reached out—but even so, be sure to conduct adequate due diligence before the interview. Review the attorney’s LinkedIn profile and law firm or company bio (if they have one); take note of where he or she went to undergrad and law school; and know his or her current title, practice area, and career path. Bottom line: Know enough that you come off as genuinely interested in this person’s career (which presumably you are if you’ve set up a networking session). In addition to providing context for your conversation, background information might also reveal connections that you can draw from to establish rapport (“I saw you played basketball in college—so did I!”).
Start with casual conversation.
Networking doesn’t exactly feel natural, and speaking with someone who is accomplished in the legal field can feel intimidating. But don’t forget that the attorney you’re speaking with is a real person too. Instead of diving right in with questions, lay a friendly foundation by starting with a casual, light-hearted topic. Doing so will break the ice and provide a way to ease some of the jitters you might have at the beginning of the conversation.
Covid-19 has provided us with a topic that everyone can talk about, so you might start there. Chatting about the challenges of Zoom meetings, working from home, or wearing a mask are topics that are relatable and humanize the conversation. It also demonstrates that you have awareness and empathy about current circumstances. That being said, if you’d prefer to avoid pandemic talk, that’s fine too. Instead, reference something on the attorney’s resume or a current event happening in his or her geographic location. Even the old talk-about-the-weather standby works!
Ask about the path to his or her current role.
This question is important, as the response will shed light on a potential pathway to your own career goals. Plus, this is usually an enjoyable question for the attorney to answer, since it’s an opportunity to talk about themself (something most attorneys really do enjoy). Every attorney you meet has a unique story and career path, so it’s interesting both for you to hear and for them to tell. This question also provides fodder for follow-up topics such as law school extracurriculars, work experience during and after law school, and classes that are suited for an interest in a specific practice area.
Ask about what a day in his or her life is like.
From the shoes of a law student, the practice of law can feel like a mystery. You probably know that it isn’t like law school, but what is practice like? Until you gain on-the-job experience, asking attorneys about their day-to-day tasks is generally the next best way to get this insight. Not only will responses give you a better idea of what life is like in a certain practice area or firm, but they can also ease some anxiety as to what will be expected of you as a lawyer. Learning about specific tasks and projects you may work on can make your future career seem less foreign.
Ask about the greatest challenge he or she faces on the job.
Responses to this question provide important considerations as you work to decide what career path is right for you. Learning about challenges you might face allows you to think about what skills you can work to build now and what classes and extracurriculars might be useful. The responses might also give you an idea of what practice areas don’t align with your interests and strengths.
Ask for advice for someone in your shoes.
What would this person do differently if they were back in your position as a law student interested in his or her practice area? What was his or her most valuable learning experience in law school? What are the most important skills you should work to develop as a student? Answers to these questions can help shape your plan for the next couple of years and beyond. After all, the best way to get to where you want to go is by learning from someone who has already done it, so take advantage of the knowledge you can gain from someone more experienced.
It is important to keep in contact after your networking interview—this is how you maintain and keep expanding your network! First, send a quick thank you email within a day or two to let the attorney know you appreciated his or her time. Then, check in here and there. You shouldn’t bombard a connection with too much communication, but it’s okay to reach out once in a while, especially if there is good reason to do so. Maybe you met a mutual connection, or maybe you applied the advice they gave you. These are great times to check in and continue building the professional relationship you’ve established..
For more ideas on what to ask during a networking interview, check out Practice Perspectives: Vault’s Guide to Legal Practice Areas. The guide includes interviews with dozens of attorneys across practice areas, and you may find the questions useful in planning your own conversations. If you’re a student, you might have free access to this guide through Vault Campus—check with your career services office if you’re not sure.