Recently, I had the great pleasure of speaking at a Chicago Bar Association event for young attorneys on the topic of networking. After about 20 minutes I observed how ravenously everyone was taking notes and the deep level of attentiveness that I was receiving from the participants. While this is not unique to me as a speaker in the legal space, there was something different in the eyes of audience. Fear.
Once the program concluded, I stuck around to chat with the attendees to better understand their mindset. A few of the comments were, “I have no idea how to network and am just trying to put myself out there.” And, “They never taught me any of this in law school.” One first-year lawyer even remembered an adjunct professor saying, “If you’re not networking, you’re not working.” The same lawyer then thanked me for my presentation where I explained and demonstrated different ways to actually do it.
Over the past 10 years I have spoken at a number of young attorney events, but the fear and confusion on this day was palpable. For over 200 years, law schools have focused on teaching the law in order to produce scholarly advocates to protect the rights of his or her clients. There was never a need to teach networking or how to run a solo practice because lawyers were employed at firms where the sole focus was gaining experience as a lawyer. There was also an abundance of opportunities to get a job.
In economics, we all learned about supply and demand. In the case of the legal space today, the supply of lawyers is overtaking the demand. Especially in the case of the new grads and younger lawyers. With the legal landscape changing, it would only make sense that the law schools must change as well. One attorney I interviewed was even involved in a 2014 ISBA report that demonstrated with clarity that law schools just aren’t preparing their students for the challenging legal marketplace that currently exists.
Fortunately, I did uncover that there are some adjunct professors and internal programs that mention and discuss networking with their students, but it’s just not enough. Networking is a learned skill that involves planning and processes to gain traction and ensure positive results. These skills can be used for the job search, deciding to go solo or to be used as an ongoing activity to grow a book of business once you’ve gained enough experience. Even the simple skill of asking questions and listening to someone’s answers will be critical to a lawyer’s ongoing success and sustainability.
If a law school was to engage its students in a course on effective networking, here are three core elements that I believe should be included:
- Element #1: Learn how to write a plan. All law school students need to learn how to develop a written plan for finding a job or going out on their own. They say, “Failing to plan is a plan to fail.” It is imperative that students learn how to develop and write a plan to better prepare for any eventuality. If the job market were tight, it would be helpful to have developed inside connections to find a good firm or company to work for. If there were struggles to find the right job, then developing a plan to partner with other solo’s to develop some business would be valuable. Whatever the situation, ones ability to develop a plan will be the break-through moment for someone wanting a career in the legal space.
- Element #2: You’re young, learn how to use social media. In the age of anytime information and promotion, anyone can use social media to improve their ability to find a job or increase exposure in the marketplace. LinkedIn for example allows its users to connect on the site and find inside connections that normally would be hidden. For example, if we were friends and connected on LinkedIn, you could search through my connections to see the wide variety of general counsels and hiring lawyers that I know. Asking me for an inside channel into these contacts is infinitely more effective than sending out cold resumes to job postings or firms you are interested in.
- Element #3: Learn the basics or you will destroy your free time. As someone who has killed hundreds of hours by networking inefficiently, I can attest to the importance of structure and processes to follow when networking. These methodologies can be found through books, firm mentors or teachers like myself. For many attorneys in school this would be important because it’s not about whom you know anymore but rather how you leverage the relationships with whom you know. Failure to properly give and receive value in a structured way within your network can lead to countless unproductive hours at events and coffee meetings. While it’s true that relationships take time, how much time and with whom you invest is in question.
Whether you are currently enrolled in law school, a recent grad or someone who is billing 2000 hours a year for someone else’s clients at your firm, learning to plan and execute on your networking has never been more important. I know that the law schools today are aware of the need for networking classes, but they just haven’t fully committed to the idea. My hope is that with further awareness and forward-thinking deans, graduates will be better equipped to acquire the jobs they are looking for.