The other day, I was talking to a friend and law student, one year younger than me, who told me about an upcoming speed networking event at her school. Great I thought, initially. But then I remembered how overwhelming my first speed networking was. I then asked about the format, and learned that students would get ten minutes with each firm, for a grand total of two hours. Yes you read that right: 10 minutes and 12 firms. So understandably, she asked, how do I prepare? What questions do I ask? How do I make the most of it?
After some reflection, here are some of my strategies for tackling such an event:
1. Research law firms
If you know the firms you will be assigned to speak to, do some pre-work! take some time to review their websites, read legal news about recent representations, deals, and litigation, and any notable features of the firm. If you do not have a predetermined list, focus your research on firms you’re interested in, in terms of geographical location, firm size, practice areas, rotation and assignment system, pro bono commitment, or any other factors. As you do your homework, note anything missing from your research (or not easily retrievable) and make a reminder to ask of them during the event.
2. Let the representative from the firm talk
If you didn’t have time to do research, or wasn’t given a list of firms beforehand, you might be at a loss when you arrive at the table. In that case, you can let the representative from the firm, often an attorney or recruitment person, lead the dialogue. They may introduce themselves, and you can pick up on a point to follow up. They may ask you about your legal interests or coursework, and you can ask about whether the firm does specific types of work. They may also bring up a focused conversation topic, like a recent matter in the news or ongoing pro bono and diversity and inclusion efforts. What they say or highlight says a lot about what an employee at the firm views as its strength or priorities, and by digging deeper, you can learn more about an important slice of that firm.
3. Discover the firm’s culture
Instead of asking about practice areas or the firm’s substantive work, you can focus the short time you have on learning about “culture.” It is notoriously difficult to compare firm culture: firms often use the same unhelpful; buzzwords– collegial, collaborative, respectful, and so on. To be fair, it is difficult to describe succinctly how people treat each other, work together, and interact on a daily and casual basis. The best way is to observe them, or better yet, interact with them as part of the firm.
Within the parameters of the speed dating event, you can do two things. One, come up with questions that allow you to learn about culture through the attorney’s eyes. For example, ask whether people spend time together outside of work. You might learn that there’s an upcoming departmental barbecue, that the firm organizes an annual gala, that attorneys in the same summer class often grab dinner together or watch movies. These are good indicators of healthy and well-rounded relationships and the potential of the workplace to foster such friendships. Another question: how would you describe the atmosphere at work? This is a bit more elusive, but the answer could shed light on whether the office has a collaborative spirit. A more direct question: how does your firm stand out from others in terms of culture? Attorneys may be able to draw from their friends’ descriptions of other law firms’ cultures and provide useful comparisons between different models or approaches. Two, if there are multiple representatives from one law firm, pay attention to how they interact. Are they interested in each other’s lives outside of the law and make small talk? Do they refer to each other and ask for additions to answers? Do they talk about shared firm events or experiences? Are they friends (especially if they have the opportunity to work together)? This is but a microcosm of relationships at the firm, but could be a useful perspective of how people there work together and treat one another.
4. Take and retain notes
I highly recommend taking notes of answers and observations. Get the names of the people you spoke to (or ask for their business card). If you don’t feel comfortable notetaking in the middle of the conversation, do so during the transition points, or right after the event when your memory is fresh.
Then, retain the notes somewhere safe and organize them in a useful form. I would create an excel spreadsheet and input the information – creating columns for the firm name, people I spoke to, interesting comments, observations about demeanor and personality, culture, etc. Also note any follow up questions you have or things you want to learn more about.
This information will be helpful for many different things. You can better compare firms and know the differentiating factors to look for. As you prepare for OCI interviews or evaluate offers, you can return to these notes and initial impressions for additional data points. You can also use the names and contact information to keep in touch with attorneys and seek their advice on school and work.
In all, there are various strategies you can take, depending on the time, resources, and circumstances. Speed networking is certainly not ideal for learning about a firm in depth, but presents a good opportunity to sample different firms, network with practicing attorneys and legal personnel, better understand the legal landscape, and provide some fodder for further research and conversations. You will also likely be part of a group of law students at each law firm table, so you cannot always control the conversation. Just make the best of it!
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