I used to loathe networking in law school. I even hated the word “networking.” It sounded like “synergizing” or one of those other worthless, euphemistic marketing buzzwords. The whole idea seemed somehow smarmy—like a kid at a playground trying to make friends for the sole purpose of getting more birthday presents when his party rolled around. Worse than abhorring the underlying idea, though, was the fact that it just felt so awkward and fake.
As a law student, it can be supremely uncomfortable to put on a stiff suit and approach clusters of strangers in even stiffer suits. What should you say? What if they just excuse themselves and go stand by the cheese plate instead of talking to you? Networking can be painful even for the most outgoing students, but it can be even worse if you’re shy.
Unfortunately, it’s one of those things it pays to be good at. Even if you never get a single job lead from networking, you can’t beat it as an opportunity to practice gracefully conversing with (sometimes brilliant) legal minds in a professional setting—something every attorney should be adept at. So, what do you do if you’re nervous, or just plain detest making small talk with strangers? Here are some tips to make your next networking event easier and more enjoyable for everyone.
Shift Your Perception
Studies have shown that simply changing our perceptions of the events that unfold around us can trigger more positive responses in ourselves to almost everything—from wasting time waiting for the next train, to being unemployed, to paying higher taxes. Could the same be true for networking? Sure! And here’s why: One of the reasons networking is so irksome is because we either feel like freeloaders or frauds. Why should anyone help me? You might ask. They don’t even know me. What if they all see through this façade of confidence? What if they ask me about my grades (or my lisp, or my tattoo, or whatever other thing you don’t want to be asked about)? What if I get food in my teeth while I’m talking? The whole situation is actually fraught with minor perils. The trick is to shift your perspective. Make it so it’s not all about you.
Here’s how to fix the problem: change your outlook; imagine it’s your party. This is your event and the people there are your guests. Now, I’m not saying you should dust the sideboard or go around topping off people’s wine glasses. In fact, please don’t ever do either of those things. What I mean is, put yourself in the driver’s seat. Maybe pretend it’s a friend’s party and you’ve been tasked with ensuring that all of her awkward out-of-town relatives enjoy themselves (that has actually been my job at several weddings!).
Imagine that it’s your job to make sure Grandpa Shiny Bald Head with the kitten print bow tie over in the corner is having a nice time. Is he a cat lover himself? Probably. Why don’t you go ask him? Maybe he’s a fascinating individual! Or, maybe not, but at least you tried! Assume the mission of finding out something interesting about each person in that room whose path you cross. Think of it as a scavenger hunt.
Don’t Talk Shop
Here’s another tip: Don’t talk about work or school. That may sound counterintuitive, let me explain. Most attorneys at these kinds of events have just come from a long day at the office. The standard “So, what do you do?” question is probably the last one they want to answer. It’s not that interesting to them (they already know what they do for a living), and frankly, is it really that interesting to you? Why don’t you approach them with something less worn out?
Remember, people like talking about themselves and things they enjoy: Their Irish terrier, their kids, their obsession with French wine or kite surfing, etc. Love travelling yourself? Why not ask them if they went anywhere fun over the summer? In short, treat them like normal people you’re trying to find common ground with at a dinner party, not business contacts you’re trying to get a handout from or desperately impress at all costs.
Ask Not What Your Networking Can Do For You …
On that note, here’s another simple adjustment to make: Shift your idea of networking from what you can get from these people to what you can do for them. You may consider yourself just a lowly student, but perhaps Ms. Briefcase over there is looking for a quaint little bed and breakfast for the holiday in your home town. Maybe Mr. Roller Bag needs a Portuguese translator for a case he’s working on, and you know just the person. A guy I talked to at an event once was in the process of enrolling his daughter in schools and was actually considering a school I had attended as a kid. We (mostly he) talked a bunch about his daughter and her applications, and that small connection made for some moderately less boring banter for both of us.
Turns out, he was a partner at a really well-known firm that I ended up interviewing with later on. You get the idea. Plus, because we had talked about something besides work, I was able to send a thoughtful, genuine e-mail the next day—because it really was nice to meet him, and I really did hope his daughter did well with her school applications. If we had conversed about his job and his firm, I don’t know that we would have made such a connection, and he probably wouldn’t have remembered me as well later.
Don’t Be the Thirsty Gunner
Finally (and this one comes from years of networking as an attorney rather than a student), please just use some common sense. Practice reading social cues and picking up on when other people are bored, uninterested or shooting you daggers because you’re acting like an pompous weirdo who won’t stop talking about himself and laughing at his own jokes. You know what they say, if you don’t know who the annoying gunner in your class is… (wait for it)… it’s you! Pretend it’s your party, not that you actually own the place.
Believe me, attorneys can tell when you’re just after a stack of business cards, and no one wants to be on the receiving end of that kind of scavenger hunt. Don’t follow people around or linger too long with any one group. Learn to take a hint. Be the suave guy or gal and politely excuse yourself every once in a while rather than hammering away at the same group.
I’m not saying you’ll make meaningful connections every time you network, but that’s beside the point. You don’t have to. Think of your next networking opportunity as a chance to meet fascinating people and see what you have in common or learn something interesting about them. The best kind of networking event is the kind that doesn’t feel like networking at all! With a simple shift in your expectations and the way you think about the whole idea of building professional relationships, the experience itself can actually be somewhat enjoyable. Even if it’s not, it’s still good practice.
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And check out these helpful posts:
- When Networking, Ask for Help!
- Hey, Law Students: Here’s How You Network
- Do You Have Time for Coffee and Networking?
- Say “YES!”
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