The Art of Networking
Updated: Apr 19, 2021
Imagine the scene… You arrive at a bar, by which time small clusters of conversation have already become clearly established around the room. Amid the sea of suits, an array of students stand chatting to various professionals, some trainees, others graduate recruitment, still others associates and partners. Some people are talking with their hands, struggling to juggle food, a drink, and their contributions. Others are casually nodding from the fringes, silent aside from the occasional affirming murmur. Some are quite clearly just here for the drink, whilst others are already showing signs of not being able to handle their drink! You scan the room for familiar faces to team up with, or a friendly stranger you can start up a conversation with. You’re here because you accepted the invitation to come and network.
What does that word even mean: networking? It’s brandished on invitations to evenings in bars, class rooms, lectures, and events within firms, but what are we supposed to make of it? How do we do networking well?
There’s no one-stop guide to good networking, so don’t be fooled if this is the sell you often come across. An array of environments and a plethora of personality types mean that depending on where you are, who you are and who you’re talking to, networking will look very different for each of us. That’s not to say that there aren’t good principles and practices which we can all take into networking to make the experience constructive and, dare I say it, perhaps even enjoyable! The following aims to set out some basics I’ve learned over the years, as a result of watching others, learning from my own mistakes and trying to throw myself into an environment which isn’t my natural habitat.
What is networking?
I’m going to suggest that networking is the process of bring together people who have a common interest in a profession and are at different stages within that profession, to exchange ideas and information. Take this as your definition of networking! You are a contributor to, and beneficiary of, a process of mutual sharing of information, questions, and innovations. When we begin to see networking in this light, our perspective often changes: any fear more easily dissipates, we can ditch any attempt to self-promote, or interrogate the other people we’re talking with.
Many students confuse networking with an interview, leading them either to take centre-stage in their own ‘pick-me’ production or to rigorously tackle guests with obvious, irrelevant or baffling questions. Go back to our holistic definition – networking is an exchange between those with a common interest, at different stages and in different places within a specified scope. This means that networking is not a process of selling yourself, it’s an opportunity for you to learn more about the profession from the people there, and to test any ideas you have yourself.
Keep the above in mind and think about how to maximise the information exchanges you can make through engagement with those at different stages in the profession to yourself.
Networking starts at home
Ever LinkdIn stalked your lecturers?! If you haven’t already, then unless you know all there is to know about their career history, do it now! Indulge in a little harmless scrolling of what they’ve done and where they’ve been (they’ll probably get a notification of your stalking, just so you know!). Add them if they have enough followers to make it inconspicuous, or if you know them well enough that it won’t be awkward. Your lecturers and tutors are your first port of call in university, and they will have done a huge array of jobs and studied a broad range of topics between them. Utilise this amazing base of contacts to glean insight into areas of law you’re interested in and ask any questions you have in a very safe environment. Most lecturers will be pleased to see students taking the initiative and being enthusiastic to learn, and very willing to talk about their own experiences and offer advice.
Most of us consider ‘networking’ as a more formal, organised affair. As a student, I attended drinks and nibbles events, dinners, lectures, breakfasts, panels and guest seminars, all designed to satisfy the above definition of networking.
I remember a networking event I went to in my final year. At the end of the evening, one of my lecturers turned to me, a weary smile in her eyes, ‘I didn’t expect to see you here.’ She probably wasn’t alone; I already had a training contract offer, and so why drag myself out on a rainy December evening when friends, tea and mince pies awaited at home? I went for a number of reasons. I wanted to make any new contacts and gain even more insight into legal practice, to ask any questions I had and to listen to the questions and responses of others in a relaxed environment. I wasn’t looking to promote myself, which is hugely liberating, I just wanted to learn and take something from the evening. Whether or not you’re in the heat of applications, try and approach events with that same mentality. You have contacts to gain, and much to learn from a networking event!
What to ask?
Go prepared with some questions, or at least with some objectives for yourself. This will depend on who’s in attendance and your own stage of study. Do some research in advance and find out about the firms, practice areas and individuals who will be there if you can. What kind of law do they practice? How do they distinguish themselves from other firms/practice areas? What hot topics are related to their work? Ask questions based on these findings.
Don’t ask anything Google could tell you (e.g. how many offices do they have?) – it’s a waste of your time and theirs and isn’t helping you learn much more about the profession, their role, firm or work.
Make it personal – people love to talk about themselves and this is a sure-fire way of accessing information Google can’t give you! For example:
What are they working on right now (they might not want to answer this for obvious reasons, but they will probably provide you with an overview of the kind of work they’re doing)?
What areas of practice do they have experience in? If they’re a trainee, ask them which seats they’ve sat in and where they are going. What have been the main differences in these practice areas?
What skills and knowledge of the profession do you need to have and know as a student moving forward?
What advice would they have for you?
What does an average week look like for them?
What does an average day look like for them?
What do they love about their job?
What do they struggle with in their job?
Why have they chosen to stay at a firm/recently join/move firm?
Make it applicable to the firm present:
How are they different from other firms?
What are they looking for in trainees?
What are current areas of concern and development in the profession and how are they approaching them compared to competitors? (If you can back this up with some research of what others are doing, this will lead to better conversations.)
Introverts vs extroverts – how to ask?
Having read Susan Cain’s ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking’ over the summer (I would serious recommend this one!), I have to say this is one of my new favourite obsessions, and when you look more closely, introversion and extroversion are incredibly interesting and important aspects which flood into so much of our everyday lives. Whilst we’ll each be a mixture of the two personalities, most of us will be inclined towards one or the other, and this will change the way we network.
As an introvert, I can safely admit that networking can sometimes feel like a battle, in which I’m left on the fringes nodding as extroverts soak up the limelight, asking what feel like dazzling questions and making a mark. If you’re an introvert, please don’t think this perception is the reality, and if you’re an extrovert, please don’t think that your confidence and apparent ease in these environments can get you through an evening of networking coming out on top. If we return to our definition of networking, we can remember that it’s an exchange, not a competition. The aim is to glean as much information, advice and preferably contact details to continue the flow of each, as you can, irrespective of what that looks like.
Amid the many different experiences, I’ve had, one of the most enjoyable was dinner eating pizza with some trainees and vac schemers at a US firm in Milan. I was fortunate enough to end up at the introverted end of the table where conversation flowed between travel, work, family, financial news and fintech, in contrast to the other end of the table where booze was flowing more freely, laughter was more audible and conversation more vivacious. Neither approach is right or wrong. The American vac schemers at the other end of the table enjoyed experimenting with their Italian and enjoying time with potential future colleagues. I’m sure that in spite of how different the experience may have seemed to onlookers, we all got something substantive from that event (more than just insane pizza!).
Come prepared and be yourself. Corny as that sounds, this is the best policy when asking questions. Be ready to ask questions of the people around you to grow in your awareness of what they do, how business works and what life looks like for them.
Glass in left hand – it’s not a hard and fast rule, but it avoids the awkwardness of juggling everything when the handshake moment comes, and avoids someone having to shake a cold, condensation-covered hand.
Be aware of how you’re approaching clusters – it can be hard to break in; avoid the temptation to subtly sidle on in, and either ask whether you can join, or get in front of the person speaking (usually the professional), so they can see you, and they’ll usually say something and make space for you.
Juggling food, glasses and mugs is not a skill I have and resulted in me spilling coffee all down myself at one networking event at a firm. Luckily, it was an incredible example of how absolutely lovely the other girls on the vac scheme were; literally in seconds I was surrounded by an efficient little babble of friends, someone had put the cup down, dusted me off, told me to do my jacket up, and onwards we went, less than 10 seconds later, segueing into the next networking conversation… I was very grateful that my supervisor (a lady with plenty of her own wardrobe accidents to share) let me sneak away to buy a new top in advance of a dinner with partners in the evening. Lesson learned – make sure you can handle whatever you pick up without dropping it everywhere!
Let others speak – if networking is an exchange of information and not a self-promotion event, this means you can be liberated to step back and let others ask questions, since you’ll also learn from what they have to ask. Try not to steal the limelight, and keep the focus on the person you’re speaking to (since they’re the one offering advice!) rather than yourself. Even introverts can be guilty of this last one. At the last university networking event I did, I asked about smart contracts adding transparency into the secondary bonds market. The table we were sitting around went quiet and conversation became a dialogue, none of which was my intention, but there would have been a more appropriate moment to ask a question; when in groups, don’t ask super specific things, even if coming from an area of interest and simply trying to learn more.
Try and follow-up networking events with an email where possible. If you got on well with someone in particular, or have further questions, this is a good idea. If you don’t feel that you gelled in particular with anyone but still have questions, look to lecturers who organise these events (they’ll have often been in practice themselves and may be able to answer your questions, or give you the contact details of the people at the event) and firm reps from the firms you spoke to who may also be able to offer advice.
Networking may have thrown up more questions or areas of law you’d like to look into. It may be necessary to do some further research or gain further experience to enhance your CV. Talk to your lecturers, students, read the news or Investopedia to get up to date on the things discussed, and look further into the firms which were present, and other similar firms for a comparison.
Don’t be disappointed if you feel you left without gaining much. This may have been a first, you may have to grow in confidence or research capacity. Have a chat to course mates who went to see how they found it and debrief on what they learned – remember, networking is about an information exchange, not a competition, so share what you learned and avoid one-upmanship!
Be keen to go again! Networking is not a one-off affair, it will accompany many of us throughout our professional lives at different stages as we meet with others from different professions, or professions which overlap with our own, to exchange information and make contacts. Try and be yourself, be personable and be keen to participate in the information exchange, appreciating that your role is going to be predominantly as a listener at this stage, trying to glean what advice and insight you can from others. I personally find this a healthy attitude to take forward, and a good skill to start practicing now. Good luck and try to enjoy it!