Personal relations define your career: they get you into firms; they decide who you end up working with; they can win or lose your firm clients. Whether you like it or not, law demands that you network, network, network.
Social interaction should always be a pleasure. But somehow, once you call it 'networking' it summons images of agonising, eye-rolling, brown-nosing awkwardness. US lawyer (and former star of Sesame Street) Debo Adegbile told our US sister publication Chambers Associate: “Your relationships and reputation matter more in the legal profession than in most jobs, so tend to both.” The networking opportunities you'll encounter are many and varied: from the hustle and bustle of law fairs and firm-sponsored campus talks to more bijoux events at firms that are one step away from an interview. You should attend as many as you can tolerate. Here’s what to remember next time you put on your gladrags and curl your hand into a permanent Champagne-flute grip.
Tip 1: Be prepared
Know who's organising the event, what its purpose is and who else will be there. If it's put on by a specific firm it's worth devouring the relevant True Picture review on this website. Look up the names of the firm's bigwigs (eg managing partner, head of recruitment), so you recognise them when you come across them, and if there's going to be a presentation on a specific topic it might be worth doing a bit of background research. But don't be a know-all and remember tip six below – never look desperate.
Tip 2: Introduce yourself
Don't be shy – hold your chin up high and stand up straight. Act natural, say hello to people and introduce yourself. Easier for some than others perhaps, but if hobnobbing with strangers doesn't come naturally to you, it's something you'll have to learn if you want to become a solicitor. Solicit attention. It's in the name. Grad recruitment partner Marie Scott of Nabarro (a firm which organises a vac scheme networking event) told us: “We want people who can show they've got oomph and get up and go, who can be both interesting and interested.”
Tip 3: Be thick-skinned
Lawyers and recruiters won't always be thrilled to see you – they've met more law students than you've had library fines, and they loathe awkward conversation openers more than you do. We'd advise against coming up with something so whacky you're etched forever onto their memory: it’s likely to end with you weeping silently into your Perrier when it falls flat. Instead, develop an elephant's hide and approach each conversation as if you're actually a normal person. Try this: asking a question is how most well-socialised people start out in conversation. But ask too many questions and you’ll notice the power balance shift away from you as you begin to resemble the needy puppy member of the Spanish Inquisition.
Tip 4: Be a better version of yourself
You'll come across wisdom on what to talk about at these conservative events. Ignore it. Topics like sport or the weather may seem nice and inoffensive, but would you want to be talked at about either of these things? Remember everyone is judging you: don't be bland but neither should you be the clown or showcase your humour noir. Good networkers show empathy and find out about the person they're talking to, knowing that people – lawyers especially – like to talk about themselves. Do this and your repartee will be better judged – your chat about boxing, occluded fronts, Celebrity Big Brother or Supreme Court judgments will be confidently delivered and well received. Have a brief, nicely-worded spiel about your educational and work background ready – the less robotic it sounds, the better. Should you have some of your own business cards? It may come across as pushy and pretentious when you're a student, but they're better than leaving no impression at all. These days business cards serve first as a memory-jog; their details are less vital when everyone is googleable.
Tip 5: Practice makes perfect
Seek out the guidance of your careers service: introduce yourselves to them as you would at a networking event. And if you know anyone who's already a lawyer, do the same. It's worth attending events at your university or, for example, at the Law Society, to get used to meeting new people and chatting away in a semi-professional context – it's good to practise in a situation where you don't have anything to lose or gain. Also, take any chance you can to talk to friends, family, new acquaintances or random strangers you meet on the train (well, maybe not them) about your career plans. This will allow you to practise fielding questions about your prior education, work experience, and why exactly you thought taking a degree in music was a good career move for a wannabe lawyer.
Tip 6: Never look desperate
You don't want to spam the room with a chaotic confetti of business cards. Research who will be there in advance, and target who you need to talk to. A quick search will pull up what they've been working on recently: their family and friends might be sick to death of that mega real estate deal, but ask them about it and finally they’ll be talking to someone who cares. This lawyer may be your idol, but aim to demonstrate casual knowledge, which is flattering, rather than regurgitating their life history, which is creepy.
Tip 7: Don't go straight to the top
Sure, shake hands with the bigwigs. But you'll often find you can get more out of trainees or recently-qualified solicitors; and recruiters will often ask these young guns their thoughts on potential applicants. So ignore them at your peril. They want to know you're calm under pressure, diligent, but above all a decent human who's good to hang out with. Take an interest in what they do, try to listen, and remember that the trainees are the fun ones at networking events: if you need to, use them to build your confidence before approaching a partner or HR head.
Tip 8: Follow up
On each business card you collect, write a little note on what you talked about, and follow up on any information you promised to send over. Connect on LinkedIn. Better still, send an email the next day referencing the event you met at, reiterating who you are and your chosen career path, and thanking them for their time. This will cement you in their minds, and make it easier to fix up a coffee meeting in the future.
Tip 9: Don't stop networking when you leave the party
Make friends with other aspiring lawyers, trainees and qualified lawyers. The days when sucking up to a partner could land you a traineeship are behind us, but knowing people in the law will help you understand everything from how a law firm works to what it is that the Law Commission actually does. Make use of family connections, parents' friends, friends' parents, your boyfriend's aunt's cousin – who knows. And stay in touch with people once you move into the profession, especially your uni and law school peers. They’ll become an invaluable network of lawyers, with ears on the ground at a whole panoply of firms. And maybe they'll think of you a few years down the line when their firm needs a lateral hire or they hear about a great in-house opportunity in San Francisco.
This may sound inane, but practice shaking hands. The right degree of grip, eye contact and clarity of diction will make all the difference, says the Student Guide's editor, who once went on a tiresome handshaking training day. But people make their minds up about us within the first few seconds of meeting: don’t let their first impression be a clumsy handshake-cum-balancing act with fists full of canapés and Champagne glasses.
This feature was first published in January 2016