Top networking tips for aspiring lawyers
Networking is a skill that every future lawyer needs to get to grips with. You might be worried about what to talk about in front of graduate recruiters or qualified solicitors but it’s easy to become a networking pro with a little bit of preparation and practice.
The qualities of a good lawyer and a good networker are very similar.
Networking is all about interacting with people to gain information and useful contacts. This is especially important for a career in law; throughout their legal career, lawyers will be required to network and secure new business for their firm. A solicitor will often need to attend client events such as drinks in the evening, lunches, conferences and black-tie events.
The below advice focuses on face-to-face networking events. However, some of the same advice will hold true when you are networking online. Look out for virtual fairs, open days, insight events and networking sessions – and read our advice for networking with firms using social media.
Make the most of networking events for aspiring lawyers
The qualities of a good lawyer and a good networker are very similar. They both need to be confident public speakers and attentive listeners. They both also need to build rapport with a variety of people and make people feel comfortable giving them information. A networking event is the perfect place for you to interact with law firms and show off your interpersonal skills. Ellinor Davey, the graduate resourcing manager at RPC, agrees. 'A networking event is a great opportunity for you to demonstrate your emotional intelligence along with communication, assertiveness and presentation skills,' she points out.
Networking events are also great opportunities for law students to pick the brains of experienced solicitors, graduate recruiters and trainee solicitors. You can ask questions about a firm, get advice on training contract applications and even gain professional contacts for the future. When asked to reflect back on the application process, Craig Muir – trainee solicitor at the Edinburgh office of Shoosmiths LLP – told TARGETjobs Law: 'On reflection, I would have attended more networking events when applying for traineeships (as training contracts are known in Scotland), as networking is such an important part of the job and is encouraged by the firm.'
Students need to network at various occasions including university events, law fairs, open days and vacation scheme socials. Many law firms also use a networking lunch as part of their recruitment process.
Practice makes a confident legal networker
Start by brainstorming the contacts you already have. This could include family members, family friends and your university lecturers if you’re studying a law degree. Your university’s careers service may also be able to connect you with alumni who work for a firm you are interested in. Ask these people if they would mind talking to you. They may even be able to give you some networking tips.
An important part of networking is your pitch. How will you introduce yourself to people? The trick is to keep it short and simple. Tell them your name, your degree or university and the area of law you are interested in. Ask your friends, family and careers advisers to listen to your pitch and give you some constructive criticism. Don’t over-rehearse though; you want to sound natural.
Make the most of events arranged by your university law department and careers service, as well as other organisations such as TARGETjobs Events and the Law Society. The more experience you gain, the more confident you will become.
Put your networking fears to bed with our top tips
Don't worry if you feel anxious about networking events. Ellinor highlights that: ‘Just like interviews, it’s normal to feel nervous before networking events’. Here are some answers to common networking queries.
How many people should I talk to?
Don’t worry about talking to everybody in the room; it’s better to have a few in-depth conversations than lots of brief conversations full of small talk. Sunita Devi, the learning and development manager at RPC, suggests: ‘If there are 20 people at the event, target 4 or 5’.
Do your research before attending the event and decide who you want to speak to most. Sunita suggests that before a networking event you should ‘Ask yourself: what is my objective? Who do I want to talk to – a trainee, a partner, the recruiter?’
What should I talk about?
Avoid controversial and offensive topics but don’t play it too safe with uninventive topics such as the weather. You could talk about a story you read in the news that day or a legal case that you have been following for a while. You don’t need to only talk about law either; you may find yourself discussing Wimbledon or backpacking around Europe. Read our special report on how to talk about Brexit around law firm representatives.
Networking often involves less talking and more listening. Take an interest in the person you are speaking to rather than just talking about yourself.
How should I start the conversation?
Start by shaking their hand. Sunita recommends: ‘A firm but friendly handshake – don’t go in for the killer handshake!’ If you’re not confident, practise shaking hands with your friends and family.
Introduce yourself before firing questions at people. Tell them your name, your degree and what you want to talk to them about.
How can I avoid awkward silences?
Pauses are a natural part of a conversation. They probably aren’t as long or awkward as you think. However, it is worth preparing a few questions in advance that you can fall back on if your mind goes blank. For example you could ask them what they like about a particular area of law or how many vacation schemes they completed when they were a student.
How should I leave the conversation?
It’s important not to look rude when ending a conversation. Try not to abruptly cut somebody off and don’t be tempted to look at your watch or phone. Let your discussion reach a natural end and thank the person for their time and information. You could say: ‘I don’t want to monopolise your time so I’m going to move on and give you a chance to talk to some other people. Thank you for taking the time to speak to me.’
How can I avoid being left out?
To avoid feeling excluded, Sunita recommends that you ‘get there early – a good 15 minutes before the event is due to start and before groups have already formed'. Don’t be afraid to join existing groups: start by listening to their conversation and, after a little while, contribute to the discussion.
Avoid going to events with a big group of friends. You’ll find it much easier to get your questions answered if you speak to people one-to-one and this will show law firms that you can work independently.
What should I wear?
For formal events such as open days wear interview attire. Check that your outfit is comfortable and fits properly.
For less formal events such as careers fairs you still need to look presentable so stick to business wear. Don’t worry if you look smarter than other students; a tidy appearance is important for a lawyer. Law firms will feel assured that they could put you in front of a client.
Should I eat the food on offer?
For short events, eat beforehand if possible. This avoids struggling to eat and talk at the same time.
At longer events you will have plenty of time to work the room so take a break to refuel and help yourself to some food. If it’s a buffet, take advantage of the queue to initiate a conversation with people waiting in line. Just avoid anything too messy and remember what your parents taught you: don’t speak with your mouth full!
What should I drink?
Some evening networking events may offer alcohol. Don’t be tempted to lean on the alcohol to calm your nerves; you don’t want to risk embarrassing yourself in front of law firms. Play it safe with tea, coffee, water or a soft drink.
Master the art of speed networking
You may find yourself attending a speed networking event. The main thing to remember is not to be too ambitious. Have realistic expectations about the amount you can cover in a short space of time. If the purpose of the event is to help you choose a vacation scheme or training contract, pick one question to ask everybody so you can compare their answers.
Be aware of who you are speaking to and be prepared to tailor your question to suit their position. It’s no good asking a graduate recruiter about the firm’s latest deal or asking a partner at the firm about the ins and outs of its training programme.
Do’s and don’ts of networking with lawyers
DON’T use your phone – put it away and keep it on silent.
DON’T forget to talk to the trainee solicitors – you’ll often get more information from them.
DON’T ask for work experience or a job at a networking event – rather, take an interest in the person and ask for their advice.
DO smile and be yourself.
DO take a notebook and pen.
DO research the firm’s representatives that you want to speak to.
DO follow up with the people you meet – get in touch periodically but don’t bombard them with emails and calls.
DO stay in touch with the friends you make at university or law school – they may be valuable contacts in the future.