A guide to successful networking for law students

Networking as a law student poses the perennial problem. Who do I network with, and if I find someone, what the hell am I actually meant to do?

Unfortunately, this topic is obscured in misinformation and negativity, and it simply doesn’t need to be. Networking is a easy and beneficial – you just need to understand the right approach.

Hands up, who hates networking?

Generally speaking, the idea of “networking” has a pretty bad rap, probably due to the sleazy image it portrays or the fact that people are really bad at it – take a read through this Whirlpool thread on networking at the graduate level to see how our of touch (and entitled) some people are. Hint: you need to do more then turn up to one student networking event to get something out of it.

It’s ok to be wary and cautious of networking if you have never needed it before. It’s also ok to hate the general connotations it brings out, or past failed attempts at networking (which we all take far too personally), but everyone should understand what it is before casting it aside.

I’m hoping that this post will give you the basics so that you can use networking to your advantage – for example, by getting your resume on the top of the pile, or better yet, a foot in the door of the firm you want to go to.

networking law students
The person third from the left is making two mental notes: one, this guy is a massive tosser, and two, I’m never attending a networking event, ever again…

Why networking is important for law students (ie you!)

There are three main reasons why everyone should network.

  • First, you will learn a lot about the legal industry and what different lawyers do.
  • Secondly, graduate legal employment – networking is important is because it will increase your chances of securing clerkships and graduate legal jobs (don’t listen to the naysayers who will tell you it’s worthless).
  • Thirdly, you can make some good friends.

I still catch up for coffee with a few of the people I met early on in my degree, and I’m still learning a lot from them.

What is networking?

The stereotypical definition

So, let’s start with a standard definition of networking.

The current definition topping Urban Dictionary is:

A yuppie euphemism for kissing ass in order to get a job or obtain a raise or promotion.

Example: Regardless of your skills, intelligence, or education, if you are not good at networking you will always earn minimum wage and live in a trailer park.

This (awesome) definition will obviously not be found in a normal dictionary, but this is what most people think when the word networking gets thrown around. Jokes aside, you need to take networking seriously if you are pursuing a professional career.

Network with Saul Goodman
Just say yes to networking.

A better definition

I would encourage everyone to think of networking as being based on a genuine relationship with someone – friendship is probably pushing it a little too far, but in an ideal world this is where you want to get to.

With that in mind, networking is all about building relationships, and only thing that is different is that you are “networking” in a business context rather than at school, university, or club.

Consider any friend you have now. At one stage you didn’t know them at all. You might have met at school, university, a friend’s party, or at work. You were introduced to each other and for some reason you clicked, but importantly, you had the opportunity to chat a few more times. Over time you learnt more about this person, and fast forward a few weeks or months, and you’re friends.

“Networking”, at its foundation, is almost exactly the same. Sure, the initial introduction may be arbitrary or forced, but in almost all other respects it’s the same. There will be some people you just click with and enjoy speaking to. For some of these people, you will see them again at other work functions, and the relationship will develop. While you might catch up with your friends for a few drinks after uni or on the weekend, you might only see your networking friends at business events (or periodic coffees).

The key difference, of course, is that conversations will generally be oriented around work, and might not as easily (or ever) enter into your personal lives – and that’s totally fine. There may also be a dynamic that you need to adhere to, for example, you might not be able to complain about work or gossip as much due to the dynamic that exists.

How to network as a law student

The key purposes of networking as a law student are to:

  • learn from people working in the industry;
  • get your face in front of decision makers or people who can offer help when needed; and
  • ultimately create opportunities for yourself at the graduate level (ie legal graduate employment).

Networking made easy

There are two easy ways to network as a law student:

  • First, ask any lawyers you know if they have time to chat. If you don’t know any that’s fine. You will find that whenever you talk about studying law, people will say “my friend, uncle, sister, work mate etc” is a lawyer. Ask them if they can introduce you (an introduction by email is usually pretty low pressure and stress free) and go from there.
  • Second, join a law society committee or choose elective subjects where you work with lawyers. You can network easily in these environments. It’s also great because you know that these people will have many colleagues that you can talk to – ask them if they know someone who wouldn’t mind a quick coffee.

Hopefully you can already think of someone who is a lawyer, or knows a lawyer. If so, sit down right now and draft a short and simple email asking for a coffee or an introduction. There are a few easy example emails below.

The slightly harder way at networking

The alternative is a little bit harder, so only move on to this option once you have contacted everyone above.

This involves cold emailing (or cold calling if you’re brave) lawyers that you have identified from some Google searches or through LinkedIn. It can be a little bit daunting but nothing terrible will happen if you put yourself out there and give it a shot. It shows initiative and courage to reach out to a lawyer as a student.

Cold calling as a networking strategy.
Phones… they can do more than just help you waste time on reddit…

You don’t have to say much in your email; just introduce yourself and say you would be interested in knowing more about corporate takeovers (or whatever). Ask for a quick chat over coffee and offer to shout. That’s it.

It’s such a simple thing to do but hardly anyone does this – it will make you stand out and the advantages in this context can be incredible.

I guarantee you that the only thing that will stop you networking is yourself. There is a perception amongst law students that lawyers are all so important and busy that they wouldn’t want to speak to you, or you might not feel confident enough or know what to talk about.

Lawyers are really nice; they are just like you and me, and at the junior levels many lawyers will be around your age.

I networked a little bit as a law student, but I played it safe by only asking people who knew a friend or relative. I guess I was just worried about people saying no, and if they said yes, then I was worried about having nothing to talk about. I didn’t network nearly enough, but now that I’m working in a law firm I realise how little I had to worry about!

What can you offer in return?

One thing that stops many law students from networking is that they feel like they have nothing to offer the lawyer in return (that is, in exchange for the lawyers time and help in answering questions). This is how I felt, and I was absolutely wrong.

As simple as it may sound, a law student can offer a practicing lawyer heaps!

  • Make them feel important/good – never underestimate the effect of asking for help on a person’s ego (you have to be genuine though, people can see through fake smiles and compliments).
  • Reverse mentoring – as lawyers become more senior they lose touch with what happens at university. I had many conversations telling people “Yes, my uni does have a JD program now…” This is a G08 Uni that many of them attended, that had a JD program running for years! As a matter of of fact, many partners have no idea what junior lawyers do any more – many still ask about articles. You will find that some take it more seriously / are more interested than others.
  • Updates on your progress. This sort of fits into point one above, but just sending email and saying “thanks for the advice on thinking commercially about intellectual property laws, I tried it this semester and it worked really well”. You can back this up with another request for coffee.
  • An excuse. Sometimes, just a reason to get out of the office is enough!

Don’t make the mistake of brushing these off as “too simple” or “not enough”. If you are coming in with the perspective that you are exchanging this for an opportunity to get ahead in clerkships or graduate positions (and therefore it’s “not enough” to pay the favour back), then you’re coming at it from the wrong direction. As mentioned, think of it as a relationship building.

Like I said earlier, the main thing stopping law students from networking is themselves – don’t make this mistake. Get out there and start connecting with people.

Example emails to ask for coffee

Here are some example emails to send off. Seriously, just copy and paste these. If the person is too busy or doesn’t want to catch up, they will either say so or just ignore your email. No loss to you!

Formal example

This is the safe option for partners and older practitioners.

Dear [name]

I am a first year law student at [name of] university. I have a particular interest in [person’s practice area] and would really appreciate an opportunity to speak to you about it. It would be great to hear your thoughts on practicing law in this area.

Would you have time for a quick coffee to discuss? If so, I am available all day on [day], [day] and [day]. I would be happy to meet at anytime convenient for you.

Please let me know.

Kind regards

[Name]
[Number]

Tips: Be polite and brief. Partners are very busy, so offer at least three full days and then organise your time to suit them (even if you have to miss lectures or cancel appointments). If you have found something online about the person (for example, a deal or case they worked on) then you can also include a brief reference to show that you are reaching out to this person individually.

Less formal example

This is good for junior lawyers up to around 4 years PQE.

Hi [name]

I’m a law student at [name of] university. I’m in my first year and I’m trying to learn more about the legal industry and what career options are out there. It would great to hear about [person’s firm] and how you have found the first few years out of university.

Would you have time for a quick chat over coffee? Happy to shout.

If so, I’m available on [day] and [day].

Kind regards

[Name]
[Number]

Tips: You can be less formal. Still be polite, but don’t go over the top – save that for the older more traditional practitioners. Junior lawyers probably won’t be able to push your resume through to HR, but they will be good at giving you a more realistic sense of the firm and whether you think you will fit in. They will also be more realistic in explaining working hours etc (partners have worked for so long they probably think everyone in Australia works 10-12+ hour days).

What to talk about during coffee

Do you sometimes have conversations with real people in real life? Then you’ve got this – you don’t need to be worried about talking points or conversation flow!

It’s basic psychology; people like talking about themselves, and it makes them feel important (especially all of us junior lawyers), so just ask them about themselves!

For example, ask things like:

  • Why did you choose law
  • What is it like working at your firm
  • What areas do you like the most
  • Why do you like those areas
  • Has your role changed much over the years
  • Do you intend to stay in private practice or do you think you will move into industry roles
  • Any advice for a law students

These are the “get to know you” questions that you’ve asked hundreds of times before at school, uni or bars.

It’s not rocket science and you wouldn’t have got this far in life without being able to do all of these things. Draft that email now!

Maintaining the relationship after the first meeting

Maintaining the relationship is usually the most difficult part of networking, especially at the start. However, when you break it down it’s easy:

Step 1: Thank them

First of all, send a thank you email every single time you meet someone, either that evening or the following day. This serves two very important purposes.

  • First, it shows you appreciate the person’s time (which you should, especially if you have no connection to them) – remember, lawyers have billable hours targets, so they will probably have to stay back at work that evening to make up their time.
  • Second, and for more strategic reasons, it gives you an opportunity to ask follow up questions, and to see if they would mind you getting in touch with them in a few months for another coffee.

Step 2: Arrange the next coffee

Catching up for a second (and third, etc) time is the aim of the game. This is the only way the relationship will develop.

Obviously, if you don’t catch up a second or third time then your relationship won’t develop – they won’t be able to offer to help you when clerkships and graduate applications are being submitted, and you won’t be able to offer them anything in return (as discussed above).

During your first coffee you will talks about lots of different things. You need to pick out a few different things to keep tabs on so that you can raise them in your next email.

For example:

  • the person might talk about some event that has been happening in their area of law (link to commercial awareness). If it’s a current event, read up on it and send an email when something important happens.
  • If you get some advice on an elective subject to study, email when you have finished and tell them you enjoyed it.
  • If you get study advice, email after your exams have finished and tell them about how well the advice worked.
  • If they introduce you to one of their friends, email to say that you met them and that they were really helpful.

Of course, you can simply email and ask for another coffee, but it seems a bit more natural if you get in touch accompanied by with some kind of comment or reason. But hey, if you don’t have anything to help, there is no harm in shooting off another email.

It is a good idea to jot down a few short notes on possible things to look out for, just so you don’t forget.

Step 3: Rinse and repeat

Go back to step 1 after your second meeting. Rinse and repeat.

I don’t want to make this post too long. If you want some examples of follow up emails you can sign up to our email list and receive a short networking pdf document. Click here.

Calling a spade a spade – everyone knows it’s a game

One thing that is frequently unacknowledged in posts on networking (particularly in posts like this that are trying to encourage people to get out there) is how artificial it can appear, and how clinical and calculated it sounds when discussing it. On one hand, you’re being told that it’s a way to meet your next BFF, but at the end of the day you started this because you want something from them.

Here’s a tip: this is an unspoken secret – everyone knows it and everyone’s fine with it.

I agree that this can be difficult to reconcile. Personally, I see it as a way to catch up with interesting people that I like talking to – no more, no less. Would we be friends outside the work environment? No idea! But I don’t catch up with all of the people in my law firm for drinks every single week either.

I’m not too sure why I feel compelled to mention all this – it just seems like something people omit where it should be acknowledged. Can your networking be described as selfish? Hell yes, but so can lots of things. Lawyers network every single day with clients, that’s part of the business you’re going to get into!

I want to repeat that so you understand: a large part of every lawyers job, even junior lawyers, is to network with clients. We do it to bring in business down the track. You do it to increase your chances during clerkships and graduate programs.

The networking game
Just accept that it’s part of your life now and do it like everyone else.

Everyone has been in this position before. It’s part of the game and the sooner you get used to it the better. This is why I didn’t mention this earlier – it’s hard enough convincing people to get out there and try it while at the same time highlighting the selfish side of it all.

Getting what you want (or, how to politely ask for something)

With the above in mind, how do you actually ask for help when the time comes? Ask too early and it might come across as selfish; ask too late and you might miss out on opportunities.

My approach to networking is based on the fact that there is a genuine relationship between people. In this context, you usually don’t need to ask for help; they will offer.

For example, if clerkship offers are coming up then get a coffee with your contact. Talk about the clerkship offer and ask them for advice. Ask what their firm looks for in clerkship applicants. Ask for pointers on the cover letter. If they want to help you, for example by reviewing your cover letter or passing your resume on to HR, they will offer. You won’t need to do a thing.

Of course, it’s fine to be direct but just keep in mind what kind of relationship you have managed to build, and what they can actually do. For example, if your counterpart is a junior lawyer then the most you can probably ask for is that they review your resume and cover letter, or that you use them to name-drop in your cover letter (so that HR follows up with them at a later point).

For partners, well, I’ll leave that up to you because personalities can differ so much, but go easy!

What you are looking for are (lots of) different kinds of opportunities at getting a job, not someone to hand one to you on a silver platter.

My experiences with networking

First of all, what’s the point of telling you about my networking? Well, it’s just to illustrate that if you are genuine with people, and don’t go out there acting like a totally selfish ingrate, then they just might help you out. There were two times where someone was kind enough to help me in a big way.

In my penultimate year of university, I started volunteering at a small organisation out of personal interest (not law related). I clicked with a person who also volunteered there, and we grabbed lunch to discuss the organisation and how to help it. After the business talk was out of the way, we talked more generally and I mentioned my law degree and the uncertainty with graduate jobs. He told me to forward my resume to him, and he’ll forward it to a friend he knew who was working at a law firm. It turned out that in his previous career he worked closely with a partner at a top tier law firm, and the following week their HR department emailed me to arrange an interview for a clerkship (outside the normal clerkship dates).

In my final year of uni, I applied to a mid tier firm for a market offer traineeship. Before I sent in my application, I asked a lawyer at the firm who I knew through a state legal committee for a coffee. I asked him about his experience at the firm and if he had any advice for me during my degree and beyond. He gave me heaps of great tips, and said he would email HR to look out for my name. I was essentially pushed through to the interview stage, in front of hundreds of other applicants.

In both of these examples, the other person offered to help. Unfortunately, I’m terrible at interviewing, so I completely bombed each of them – and they were really good firms too!

Through some cold emails, I also got an interview at a small firm and a paralegal gig for a few months at another.

I’ve also had lots of interesting chats over coffee with all types of lawyers, some I sort-of-knew, and some I didn’t. The most tenuous link was the nephew of my physio.

It’s all up to you!

The concept of networking is easy, but it’s also a little bit scary and easy to put off. You could read all day about what to do and how great it is, but there is only one thing that you should be doing: getting out there and taking the first step. 

For most people, it’s the fear of rejection that stops them networking. I can help with this! As I have explained on my about page, this is an anonymous blog, so send me an email and you will get your first rejection back pretty quickly! Hopefully that will help settle your nerves when you email the next person on your list: will [at] youveenteredlawland.com.

Hopefully this has been helpful – good luck!

If you found this helpful, please share it around!

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