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Professional Development

What They Don't Teach You in Law School: How to Network Like a Pro

Emily Griesing and Jessica L. Mazzeo, Esq.

In the legal market of times past, it would come as no surprise when law firms and corporate law departments focused only on where a candidate went to law school and their GPA. A successful lawyer was often solely measured by the prestige of their educational background and their legal skill. Those who were successful rainmakers did so with little effort or skill, relying mostly on passed-down referral relationships and who you met at exclusive (not inclusive) social clubs. Putting an emphasis on developing valuable personable skills to attract and keep a wide array of new clients was almost non-existent.

Fast-forward to today’s legal market where service partners are long gone and every attorney is tasked with developing business, and it becomes clear that grades and ability are not the only golden tickets to success. Rather, relationship-building has become the foundation to reaching professional goals (and let’s face it, personal goals too). We now see more opportunities for advancement that arise when we go outside our comfort zones and foster true connections with others.

Talking over coffee.

Talking over coffee.

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Even with this shift, a gap still exists for seasoned lawyers and law students alike on how to network effectively, which when not done properly has detrimental consequences on career trajectory and continued success in the profession. To achieve this, lawyers and law students must take initiative by putting themselves out there both digitally and in person. As Susan Cain, former Big Law lawyer and author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, so eloquently puts it, “verbal fluency and sociability are the two most important predictors of success.” So, the question remains: How do you help your lawyers and law students network like pros, while strengthening your own networking skills? Below you will find some easy-to-implement tips and tricks for both you and those you coach — including what not to do when networking.

Trying Something New

Networking can be challenging and exhausting for most of us. In fact, 85% of Americans report feeling uncomfortable walking into a room full of strangers, according to Susan Roane, the best-selling author of How to Work a Room. To overcome these feelings of discomfort and anxiety, it starts by approaching networking with an open mind. Networking is a chance to try something new and hear different perspectives. Plus, interacting with new people is a stimulating and exciting opportunity to hone communication skills, which are critical to a successful career.

Building Connections

Simply showing up to an event or joining a committee may be the first step in putting oneself out there, but it takes more effort than that to reap the benefits of networking. Instead, developing relationships and expanding those who know and recognize the work you or your students and lawyers do is where the magic happens.

Imagine this scenario: you (or your student or lawyer) step into a room of people that you don’t know during an event at your local bar association. It seems like all eyes are on you (even when they aren’t) and now you feel like a deer in headlights. What do you do next? You could spend 15 minutes looking at your phone in the corner sipping your drink alone, talking to the one person who you know from law school, and then leave, or you could take a proactive approach. A safe place to gravitate is always toward the food or drinks.

As you’re standing by the bar or near the appetizer table, start by turning to a person nearby who you don’t know (ideally standing alone) and introduce yourself by putting out your hand and saying: “Hi, I’m [Your Name],” followed by an open-ended question like:

  • What brings you here?
  • Have you attended events like this before?
  • How did you find out about this event?
  • How did you get involved in this organization

While it will seem scary (or outright terrifying) the first several times, most people, especially those at a networking event, expect to meet new people and are receptive to having conversations with someone they haven’t talked to before. Plus, no one is alone in being alone — many people attend networking events by themselves and are hoping for someone to break the ice (and that awkward incessant staring at their cell phone) and approach them. This is where the art of conversation comes in. You and those you coach can begin with these simple steps:

  • Make Eye Contact: Looking a person in the eye is a sign of respect in Western cultures and projects confidence.
  • Ask Questions: A huge part of mastering small talk is posing open-ended questions to demonstrate care, and interest in, the other person — this builds rapport.
  • Nod and Smile in Affirmation: Doing so shows openness, warmth, and attention.
  • Exchange Information: Whether it’s an old-school business card, a digital business card, or a LinkedIn connection, make sure to get the contact information of the person.

Projecting a positive attitude and putting on a smile makes a huge difference in creating a lasting impression — whether it is a three-minute conversation or a 30-minute conversation, positivity matters. When starting out, using this straightforward formula of introducing yourself (or having your student or lawyer introduce themselves) to at least one new person per event could be a great feat. As you or they get more comfortable and attend bigger events, new goals should be set. Before attending an event or conference, figure out how many new people you’d or they’d like to meet and, if time permits, review the advanced attendee list to identify specific people with whom to connect.

Rather than winging it, having a plan can help calm nerves and makes the time spent networking more worthwhile. Plus, making that one new connection should give a familiar face to ease any networking nerves at the next event.

Following Up

Even the most personable and charismatic people miss a major opportunity when they meet a bunch of new people and then forget to follow up or do so far too late after the initial encounter. Mastering initial introductions is critical, but without effective follow up, any networking efforts will most likely go nowhere. Instead, coach those you support to prioritize following up within a week after meeting someone and do so yourself — even if it’s only to remind them of meeting at the networking event and asking to stay in touch.

The most important part of following up is customization. Whether it was a networking event you went to or you are coaching your student or lawyer through, the first step is to research the person met, including their role and organization (using their contact info), and identify whether there is a specific ask to make. Then craft the outreach so it is tailored to that specific individual including any ask of them. Be succinct and get to the point by reminding them who you (or your student or lawyer) are, your qualifications, and what you’d like any next steps to be (e.g., a call, an introduction, serving as a resource, etc.). Both LinkedIn messaging and email are ideal avenues for follow-up, with calls being more appropriate for people you know better or who have encouraged you to do so.

What NOT to Do When Networking

Dipping a toe into networking does not come naturally for most of us. No matter how tired, distracted, or unenthusiastic you or those you support may feel, you (and they) want to be remembered in a positive light. The legal community, while extremely large in numbers, really is a small and tight-knit community, so if all else fails, coach your students and lawyers to remember to be kind to everyone and treat others as they want to be treated and do so yourself. Reputations will follow a person from law school and from job to job, so avoiding these connection disruptors are key to staying top of mind for all the right reasons:

  • Being on a phone or otherwise noticeably distracted during a conversation.
  • Continuing to push a conversation when someone is showing disinterest.
  • Dominating the conversation.
  • Waiting too long to follow up.

As seasoned legal marketing and business professionals, the most common disconnect we see when it comes to business development and leadership potential is a lack of confidence in, or familiarity with, networking.

With hybrid events becoming the norm over the past few years, there are many ways to dip toes into the networking waters and meet new professional contacts. If you still find that you or your students or lawyers are not ready to jump into in-person networking, first try a virtual networking event, which can be less intimidating to tackle.

Ultimately, the earlier you and the students and lawyers you counsel start getting out of your comfort zones and building your networks, the better. Remember, while legal skill set and ability remain critical to success, in today’s legal market, it’s not the only thing that manifests a successful career. Following these easy to implement networking tips is an ideal way to start to take the trajectory of your legal career into your own hands. You control your future so what are you going to do with it?

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Emily Griesing

Co-Owner and Chief Strategy Officer | Bossible

Emily Griesing ([email protected]) is Co-Owner and Chief Strategy Officer of Bossible, a strategic partner that empowers clients through tailored services and supportive education using an innovative process – all with growth in mind. Bossible is proudly certified as a women’s business enterprise (WBE) by WBENC.

Jessica L. Mazzeo

Co-Owner and Chief Operating Officer | Bossible

Jessica L. Mazzeo ([email protected]) is Co-Owner and Chief Operating Officer of Bossible. Jessica is also a Member of Griesing Mazzeo Law's Employment practices group where she counsels clients on overall employee issues and employment best practices and advises on legal strategies that align with business goals. Jessica also serves as the firm’s Chief Operating Officer.