Even if you have no idea what area of law you want to work in, it’s wise to start navigating the “law school to law practice” process and begin working on your career goals now. Building your network is essential: you should be meeting people who’ll introduce you to different areas of the law and with whom you can build genuine relationships. You should also be meeting people who will introduce you to opportunities where you can build practical legal skills.
Here's how to start building a genuine network.
Meeting People Is Good, But Building Relationships Is Better
Yes, you know networking is important. You have been told this many times over in many different articles. In fact, you’ve joined a local bar association as a student member, and you’ve been to more than a few monthly meetings.
While that may be networking per se, it’s an ineffective and formulaic approach. The “art of networking” requires interpersonal communication skills. It requires, in part, focusing on building quality relationships with a few people who will introduce you to and get you in front of key people.
People want to work with people they like, can relate to, and become familiar with, which often happens through people they already know. A relational strategy that can help with those awkward luncheons where you’re engaging with a room full of attorneys and judges is to find mentors and sponsors.
Once you form these relationships, your networking becomes easier because you already know two or three people in the room. And those people will be able to introduce you to others in the room you don’t know.
The Difference between Mentors and Sponsors
Most people have heard of the benefits of having mentors. Mentors are people who’ll teach you the ropes during law school and your legal career.
However, sponsors are seldom spoken about. Before I joined a leadership program, I, too, was unfamiliar with the idea of a sponsor, apart from a monetary role. However, as the term applies to networking, sponsors will advocate for you in an important room (such as a bar association luncheon, the courthouse, a law firm, and so on). They’ll also open the door for you to get into an important room you’d otherwise have difficulty getting into (such as the US Capitol Complex).
Even if you find a person willing to be both a mentor and a sponsor to you, you can, and should, have more than one mentor and sponsor. Having multiple mentors and sponsors will lead you to success and opportunity quicker than a cold-call OCI interview and references from law school friends in similar careers.
What to Look for in a Mentor
When you’re seeking out mentors, look for someone you admire or with whom you share interests so that building a relationship will be natural. For instance, you can search for someone who worked on a case you found interesting. Then, reach out to discuss various topics, such as their technique, legal theory, research, or how they obtained the case.
Additionally, look for someone who’s an alumnus of your law school so you can discuss their path to get where they are today. Often, an overlooked strategy is finding someone who wrote an
interesting article or book. Express your desire to connect with them and to learn more about that topic or issue.
When you approach someone to be your mentor, you could say, “I admire your work, your achievements (make sure to list a few specific ones you’ve researched), and the way you’ve navigated your legal career. I’d like to learn from you. Would you be interested in mentoring me?”
With a possible sponsor, perhaps you might say, “I’m seeking to be more involved in the legal community, but I’m not very extroverted [or “I don’t know many people in ‘X’ area of law”]. I see you’re very involved and very good at meeting new people. Would you be willing to attend a few events [or a specific event] with me to introduce me to your colleagues?”
Of course, you should look for someone who works in an area of law you’re interested in. But also find someone who works in an area of law you’re not interested in so you can build a network outside your area of interest.
Lastly, look for someone who genuinely likes to give back and help law students. This will ensure that you’ll have someone who will genuinely try to schedule the time to meet with you.
What to Look for in a Sponsor
Important differences to be cognizant of while looking for mentors and sponsors is that your work ethic and character weigh more heavily in the eyes of a sponsor than they would a mentor. A mentor knows you’re learning and will help you navigate mistakes and setbacks.
A sponsor who’s promoting you in front of colleagues won’t advocate for you if you’re unqualified or have questionable ethics. Therefore, when seeking a sponsor, you’ll have to look for someone who knows your work product and is willing to help with it or someone you’ve worked with in the past.
Building this relationship may require that your sponsor start as your mentor. But it may also require you to market yourself and your work product well enough that people have adequate information to be willing to assist you in building your legal career.
Good mentor and sponsor candidates also want to build a relationship with you. They, too, want to find eager and passionate people to interact with and learn from.
Where to Start Your Search
Here are a few places you can look to find mentors and sponsors:
- Your state’s bar website directory
- Bar associations’ website directories
- Law firms’ website directories
2. Social media
- Professional platforms
- Networking applications
3. Books and articles
- Authors of law articles and other publications on topics or issues of interest
- Attorneys representing clients mentioned on public court dockets and in case law
4. Your law school
- Mentorship, internship, or clerkship programs
- Law school professors and career services
- Friends or colleagues of law school professors
It’s about Relationships, Not Transactions
Finding the right mentors or sponsors may take some time, but once you find two or three you truly connect with, you must take the initiative to reach out. Do your research, send an email or a direct message, or call their office to make an appointment.
After you meet with your intended mentor or sponsor, stay connected, whether through a monthly in-person coffee or virtual meeting, by attending local networking or sporting events together, or by reaching out to check in over the holidays. People are busy, and it will take effort to maintain and grow your relationships after you’ve established them.
Finally, unless you’re sure someone wants to be your mentor or sponsor, don’t mention it as the objective of your initial meeting. That will appear transactional and ingenuine. Share with them your goals, talk about their work, and grow the relationship. When you take that time and effort, it will happen organically.