Just a few years ago, I was a young almost-lawyer looking for job. It was May of my third year of law school, and I was deep into the job hunt. I’d spoken to the folks in the career center, I’d recently revised my resume, and I was looking all over the state for a job that seemed interesting. As you may have heard, jobs were in short supply.
I decided it was time to call in my support team, and I reached out to the network I’ve cultivated since I was a senior at William Peace University (It was just Peace College back then). Fortunately for me, one of my connections had a job opening, and asked me to interview. I landed the job and I’ve been at the NC Bar Association ever since.
Since then, I’ve taken several hard looks at my career path, and I’ve noticed a crucial component. I’ve never held a full-time, permanent position that didn’t begin with a personal connection to someone within the organization where I worked
Let me be clear here- I work hard, I take pride in my work, and I believe that I was a good hire for every job I’ve had. But in many cases, there were other equally qualified, or better qualified candidates who I beat out for the job. It’s not because I’m inherently better at interviewing; it’s because I had someone on the inside to vouch for my work ethic or ability. I truly had the inside track. Below are my top 5 tips for building and maintaining a strong network.
There are anywhere from 1 to 5 networking opportunities for you to attend this week. Just look at your local bar association, CLEs, Meet-Ups, and luncheons. It’s hard to think of these events as something other than a colossal time-suck when you’re deep in your job search. But it’s important to change that attitude. Each event is an opportunity to meet the person who will give you your next job. Attend these meetings with the idea that this meeting will be the one that changes the game for you. Shake hands, make eye contact, listen and ask relevant questions, and do your best to give off an air of enthusiasm for new opportunities. You want every person you meet to remember you as the confident, talented lawyer who’d probably be a great fit for the next opening in his or her firm.
Make sure you have your two best weapons in your arsenal- your elevator pitch and your business card. Your pitch is a simple 2-3 sentence response to the question, “What do you do.” Your answer needs to be honest, forward thinking, and positive. Consider something along the lines of, “I recently graduated from X Law School, and am very interested in X practice area. I’m actively looking for a position, and hope to land something soon.” Regarding business cards, yes you need them. Spend $20 to get 200 cards printed with your name, your best phone number, and a professional looking email address. Please do not give out firstname.lastname@example.org. Spend 5 minutes and create an email address using your real name. This will make a tremendous difference in how you are perceived.
Remember that we’re still in a tough job market. Most of the jobs in which you are most interested require experience- of which you likely don’t have much. Many lawyers started with a firm, and transitioned to a job they enjoyed more after 6 months to 2 years. Getting that initial real-world experience was critical to helping them land a job where they could be happy for the next 5 years. As someone just entering the job market, consider how many other, more qualified people there are applying for the jobs you want. It may be in your best interest to take something in a practice area that you’ve not yet considered for the sake of building your résumé.
There are several instances where you or your fellow networkers may commit a social faux pas. Add alcohol to an event, and the likelihood of something embarrassing happening doubles. These embarrassing moments may be forgetting or misstating a name, introducing a Judge or Justice by the wrong title, or spilling a drink on someone. No matter what you do, a lot will be forgiven if you quickly apologize, correct your mistake if possible, and stick around to engage in friendly conversation with the person you’ve offended. There will be a natural reaction to run, but fight it. After your apology has been accepted, treat it as water under the bridge. Social conventions will require that your social group do the same. After the event, if appropriate, send a note to the person you offended.
You’ve played 7 degrees to Kevin Bacon, haven’t you? In networking, the same rules apply. Everyone is connected. You must remember that it’s entirely possible that the person you just met is a close friend of someone at the firm where you’d like to work. The impression you make on that fellow from the Alamance County Bar Association may be the straw you need on the proverbial camel’s back. This means you need to follow a few simple rules. Dress for the job you want. Act like you would if your grandmother were in the room. Practice moderation in both food and drink at social events. Be friendly, not flirty. Be outgoing, courteous, and motivated to make new connections. Your professional demeanor will increase the chances that you’ll make a good impression. After all, you could be talking to your future managing partner.
By following these 5 steps, you’re sure to build a strong professional network that can help you find that elusive job. You have already made it through the hardest parts- law school and the passing bar. Now you just need a little support from your professional colleagues to get you to the next step: the start of your legal career.
Practice Management Advisor
North Carolina Bar Association