In case you haven’t noticed, 2012 is going to be the year where I try to take a more critical look at the level of career service that law students are receiving from their law schools. The legal job market has been crappy for a long enough time that law schools and career service officers should have adjusted their game plan. Rolling into 2012 with 2007 career service programs is simply unacceptable.
A couple of days ago, I offered some networking advice to the functional alcoholics in the audience. Sure, my thoughts were a little bit outside the box, but they were better than the kind of standard networking tripe most law students get from their overmatched CSO administrators.
Case in point, take a look as some networking advice sent around by the Dean of Students at a New York-area law school just last week. The advice was perfect if the dean was trying to ensure that the students made no impression, and left all employers wondering why they bothered to show up for a silly networking event in the first place….
I’ll point out that this advice came from the Dean of Students at St. John’s University School of Law. I say that not to dump all over St. John’s, but to emphasize that in this competitive job market, taking the safest, most boring route is a great way to totally waste a networking opportunity.
Nobody is hiring law students, folks! If you are set to graduate from St. John’s in the spring and don’t already have a job lined up, you are probably going to be screwed for a long period of time. Networking is a chance to make employers look past the fact that you are a law student and they don’t need more first years, but the dean’s advice is a surefire way to get an offer to “send in a résumé” that promptly gets put in a huge, unattended pile.
But I like you guys, and I want you to succeed (our research indicates that employed attorneys are more likely to read us than unemployed graduates who are fleeing the country to escape their debts). So what I’m going to do for you is take the dean’s advice, explain why each tip is garbage, and what you should do instead.
Here we go. All of these tips were from an email sent to St. John’s Law students ahead of an alumni networking reception last week. The full email is reprinted on the next page:
* Don’t congregate with other law students or recent alums. You’re not there to meet them. Seriously.
* Don’t be afraid to go up to someone and introduce yourself. People expect to meet new people at receptions. Read the person’s name tag and use his or her name in the introduction. If you are feeling shy, try going up to someone who appears to be solo – they will welcome the opportunity to chat with you.
Actually, it’s good to start with a strong base of other law students or recent grads you know. It gets you comfortable and gives you confidence. It also gives you somewhere to fall back to should you find yourself standing in the middle of a room by yourself looking like a loser. Never underestimate having friends.
Friends who maybe will tell you who so-and-so is so you don’t have to be the awkward dude who comes up to a person with “Hello… George Smith” in the computer generated, Stephen Hawking voice. Don’t read name tags, ask them their name, you know, LIKE A HUMAN BEING.
* Focus on the person you’re talking to, not yourself. In the process, however, weave in things about yourself. Ask questions about:
* Where they work
* What type of work do they do
* What are some of the challenges they’re facing
* What advice would they offer someone breaking into the field
* Ask for a business card
* Don’t interrogate the person. Be natural.
* Focus on introductions and relationships, not selling yourself.
Ah, the classic contradictory, ass-covering networking advice. It’s like reading a bad horoscope (any horoscope?) where the advice can be interpreted to justify any course of action. “Ask questions, but don’t interrogate them, but never talk about yourself, but introduce yourself, but not in a selling way, and for the love of God, BE NATURAL!!!”
Look, you can divide the world into two kinds of people: the people who enjoy talking about themselves, and the people who don’t. Your job, as the desperate job seeker, is to identify one from the other, and act accordingly. For instance, if you are trying to network with me and David Lat, it’s really obvious that I like to talk about me, and Lat likes to talk about you. You can tell, because Lat will ask you a question about your f***ing life, and I won’t. If networking with us, you should sell yourself to Lat, while over-laughing at my bad jokes. We’ll both like you!
* Things not to talk about:
* The economy or job market (stay positive)
* Anything negative about your school or any of your previous jobs (stay positive)
* The weather or other arcane subjects
Sigh. First of all, weather is not “arcane,” but whatever. I know why people say this, and it’s definitely the safest professional advice. When I was running around with Harvard transcript(s), I was, for the most part, staying away from politics or religion because all I wanted people to do was look at the transcript. Opening my mouth about something could only hurt me. Harvard, As and Bs, and not being a raging asshole was all I had to show.
Most students are in a manifestly different situation. Most students who do not have a job by this point in 2012 can’t just play it safe. It’s risky, but if you think you can score points with something insightful about politics or religion, or how you use arcane missiles in World of Warcraft, take the shot. What’s the worst that could happen? The guy doesn’t give you his business card? Playing not to lose only works for people who are already in the lead. You guys are trying to come from behind. If you have a clean shot, take it. You can’t be afraid of taking calculated risks.
And while it’s probably good to not slag off your school — at least at an event populated by alumni from your school — you don’t have to walk around talking about how happy and awesome everything is at all times. Obviously, things aren’t going so great, or you wouldn’t be there trying to network you way into a job. A positive spin on the truth is going to work better than drenching yourself in the school’s Kool-Aid.
* If you have them, bring business cards. However, don’t hand them out to people unless asked. Don’t bring resumes.
* Don’t spend more than 5 minutes talking with any one person. Move on. Talk to a lot of people.
* Manage expectations – your goal is to get business cards, not a job offer in hand.
I think this is pretty close to good advice. Except for the five-minute rule. That’s just dumb. You should try to talk to a lot of people, but having an arbitrary cut-off is the kind of robotic BS that makes most networking so damn painful. Talk. Finish your drink. Move on when there is a natural lull or end in the conversation.
Speaking of your drink:
* Your drink of choice should be a club soda with lime. It looks like a vodka tonic, but it will keep you sober and on your toes.
I just wrote a whole column about this, so I’m not going to rehash it. But sure, you could have a “fake” vodka tonic and walk around making everybody uncomfortable because you’re acting like Bruce Banner trying to not to get angry. OR you could act like a man. Your choice.
* Turn off your cell phone. Seriously. Focus on the person you’re talking to. Your iPhone or Blackberry can wait.
* Read the New York Law Journal (www.nylj.com) and the day’s New York Times so you’re current with the news of the day, particularly the news affecting the legal community.
Yes, because what legal employers are really looking for in a young employee is a person who parrots “legal” news from the New York Times and can’t be reached by phone or BlackBerry. Look, I’m not going to tell you what to read (ahem), but I think it should go without saying that you are up on “current events.” You obviously don’t want to be answering text messages from friends in the middle of a conversation with a potential employer. Again, if you have problems acting like a human, there isn’t a lot anybody can do for you. “Studying” the Times the night before isn’t going to help.
* Wear business attire. Nothing flashy. Dress conservatively.
* At the cocktail hour, don’t eat. It’s too hard to balance your club soda with your plate and shake hands at the same time.
Honestly, I think St. John’s is trolling people with that last one. Of course you should eat. And drink. IT’S WHAT PEOPLE DO AT COCKTAIL RECEPTIONS. Christ in a blanket, is there something wrong with St. John’s Law students that makes them unable to “balance [a] club soda with [a] plate and shake hands at the same time”? What kind of mouth-breathing retard can’t put down a plate and shift a drink to his left while extending his right hand in greeting? What’s the next piece of advice: “Never take a stick of gum, because you will immediately fall down and potentially lapse into a coma.”
Instead of avoiding food like it might short circuit your brain, try this trick: I pick a server who I think I can strike up quick conversation with, usually a black guy who looks like he wants to shoot all the white people in the room, or an unattractive female who never gets any attention. I butter that person up for a bit, and mention how I really like, whatever, one of the hors d’oeuvres, it doesn’t really matter. (I’m fat, everybody believes I like every food anyway.) When I see the server walking around with the dish I’ve pre-selected, I say to the target employer, “Oh, have you tried the [jalapeno pizza popper stick truffles]? They’re great!” Without waiting for an answer, I beckon for the server who then makes a beeline for me (because I’ve treated them like a person). And in a crowded room, I look like the guy who can get the thing he wants on demand.
I’ve shown the potential employer that I don’t just come to him with problems (“You should get this”), I come to him with solutions (“I’ve gotten this for you”).
Look, the point is that any situation can be turned into a networking positive. You just have to think creatively. Advice like the stuff from St. John’s (and probably hundreds of CSO-type administrators) just tries to get you to think safely. Robotically. That’s only going to work if you have a transcript that says you are the best robot.
You can read the full networking memo on the next page. But if you follow it, you will most likely end up having to go to a lot of these networking events before you actually network yourself into any kind of job.