networking handshake businessmen shaking hands AboveTheLaw Above the Law.jpgOver the weekend — yes, we often publish over the weekend, so do check in with us — we wrote about the happy story of Jeffrey Fenster. Fenster, a 29-year-old lawyer who previously worked for a short time at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, was recently selected by Governor David Paterson to serve as executive director of the Workers’ Compensation Board of New York State.

In the comments, a number of you wondered how Fenster landed this gig, despite what one former board commissioner described as “absolutely no administrative experience” and “no experience in workers’ comp or labor law.” One commenter speculated that Fenster might have been helped by Martin Minkowitz, a retired Stroock partner and expert in workers’ compensation law (which is what the New York Times hinted at).

As it turns out, it appears that Fenster was helped by connections — but not through Stroock or Marty Minkowitz.

Here’s how Jeffrey Fenster got his new post, according to Inside Workers Comp NY:

I have received a number of communications indicating that Fenster got his resume submitted for this position with the help of an old college buddy from the University of Michigan, Debra Feinberg, and their mutual friend, Stephen Levin. Levin, who ran successfully for City Council from Brooklyn this past November was former Chief of Staff to Assemblyman Vito Lopez, who happens to be the chairman of the Brooklyn Democratic Party. Feinberg, who was a legislative aide to Assemblyman Lopez, was the campaign manager for Levin.

Lopez’s need to place somebody in a job came up at the same time there was a vacancy at the Workers Comp Board for a “short-timer” as everybody understands that come the first month or two of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration, this job will be filled with someone with real experience.

This is consistent with what we’ve heard here at ATL, in comments and by private emails. We’ve also heard that Debra Feinberg may be more than just Fenster’s “buddy.” From an ATL tipster:

[Fenster's] girlfriend, Debby Feinberg, works as a Democratic operative in Brooklyn. People don’t just get that type of position by submitting their resume [as Fenster seemed to suggest to the NYT]. Jeff is a good guy and was a reasonably decent student at Michigan, but it was a classic case of “it’s not what you know but who you know.”

Indeed. It apparently wasn’t just a cold application, submitted over the transom, that did the trick for Fenster. In the words of one reader who emailed us about Fenster’s connections, “stop giving false hope to unemployed lawyers who think they can just interview with the governor by submitting their resume.”

Whenever we speak at law schools or job fairs, and we speak at them quite often, we emphasize how critical it is to network (even if you don’t like it). Many lawyers possess the skills or substantive legal knowledge required for a given job. At that point, the advantage goes to the candidate with an “in,” with a personal link to the people screening resumes or making hiring decisions.

Almost all of the folks we’ve met who have been lucky enough to land legal jobs during the Great Recession did so through networking or connections. This is true not just for people who have found jobs at, say, small law firms, but even some lawyers we now who found jobs with the federal government. It’s helpful to have a friend “on the inside” at a government agency, who can let you know immediately when a position opens up — sometimes even before it’s publicly posted — and who can bring your application to the attention of the hiring authority.

Some of you might not like the role that connections play in the job hunt, since it’s not exactly a pure meritocracy. But it’s the way the world works. So get used to it — and order up some business cards for yourself (even if you’re currently “in transition” / unemployed, or just a law student; you can put your personal contact info on your cards).

So, to paraphrase Bill Urquhart, CHECK YOU LINKEDIN PROFILE. Good luck.

Fenster’s Path to His Appointment [Insider Workers Comp NY]

Earlier: Who says government jobs are impossible to get?


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