Networking—the process of cultivating long-term relationships to gather information, gain exposure, and learn about job opportunities—has two purposes. The first is to learn more about the day-to-day realities of public interest positions. If you do not know what kind of work you want to do, talking to lawyers in jobs that sound appealing can help you narrow down your options. You may find that great sounding jobs translate into daily activities that do not suit you. Conversely, you may learn that a job that did not grab you at first involves work that fits your personality, work style and values.
Second, networking is often the best way to hear about and obtain public service jobs. Many public service job seekers find work through the “hidden market” created by a network of employers, friends, fellow alumni and professional contacts. As a result, the ability to network successfully has emerged as a crucial job-seeking skill that must be cultivated in order for you to stay competitive. Over and over, experienced attorneys have told us that they found the right opportunities through networking.
Learning to network is essential to getting to know the public service field. In addition to the tips below, be sure to take advantage of the resources available at HLS, such as attending OPIA’s events, meeting with a Wasserstein Fellow or talking with an HLS faculty member with a public interest focus.
When networking, keep in mind that getting a job interview is not your immediate goal. If you approach networking expecting your contact to offer you a job, you will likely be disappointed—most contacts will not know of current or planned openings. Instead, try to meet people who can offer advice for your search, answer questions about career choices and provide you with the names of more contacts who may be able to help you get further along in the process of finding a job. They can give you a closer look at the practical aspects of their own jobs and provide details that you may find critical when deciding where to apply.
Your networking will be much more effective if you build relationships with your contacts. Look beyond the short term goal of acquiring your next job to the task of forging contacts that will be beneficial in your new position and for future career transitions. When establishing a relationship with a new contact, communicate your sincere interest in his or her work and advice and be informed enough to have a conversation about his or her job. If you remember that you are building a professional relationship and not just a casual acquaintance, you will approach the networking process with a greater sense of purpose.
Compiling a List
First, identify people who may either provide relevant information on your job search or refer you to others who can. When getting started, your contact list should consist of people with whom you are very familiar (e.g., relatives or close friends), as well as people to whom others refer you and people in the organizations that most intrigue you.
Some sources for networking are alumni of your law school, professors, other students interested in public service work or who have held public service jobs, and speakers and panelists on law school campuses. Sending an email to a speaker seeking more information is entirely appropriate and most will take the time to talk with you about their practices and career paths.
You may find that in some instances your first contact with an individual or organization comes from inquiring about open positions. If a public interest employer indicates that the office has no current job openings, ask to set up a meeting to learn more about the office’s practice area.
When compiling your initial list of contacts, try not to underestimate anyone’s potential to be a knowledgeable resource. Do not be discouraged if you have only a few people on your list at first; each contact will direct you to more people and the numbers in your networking circle will soon multiply.
The conventional method for setting up a meeting is to send an email and follow up with a phone call (see sample emails). This considerate gesture allows your contact time to consider your request and is likely to pay off with a meeting. You need not send a resume unless it is requested. When appropriate, mention the mutual acquaintance who referred you. If you are in the same city as your contact, it is preferable to meet with him or her in person. If your contact is unable to meet with you in person or works in another city, inquire whether you may speak by phone.
Above all, reassure your contact that you are not looking for a job interview but only an opportunity to discuss your career and obtain some professional feedback.
Preparing for the Networking Meeting
Come to every meeting prepared so that you do not waste the person’s time by asking him/her to explain basic details you could learn easily on your own. Meetings will be much more productive if you ask relevant questions and provide concrete reasons for wanting to pursue a particular career. Your contacts will be more likely to remember and recommend you to their friends if they are impressed by your commitment and interest. A lack of focus or understanding will leave your contacts uneasy about letting you use their names when you approach others.
Remember that in a networking meeting or phone call, also sometimes referred to as an informational interview, you are the interviewer. After spending a few minutes breaking the ice, it will be up to you to focus the conversation. Refer to our list of sample questions to ask during an informational meeting. During the conversation, feel free to ask for suggestions on how to improve your resume, but only leave a copy of the resume if asked. Do not forget to bring a pen and paper with you to write down any names, phone numbers, emails or other information you may obtain in the interview.
You may want to start by trying out a networking session with people that you are comfortable with, such as relatives and friends. Networking, like any other skill, requires practice. Networking skills tend to grow exponentially—being a successful networker depends on your ability to take advantage of opportunities to meet people.
Concluding and Following Up
At the end of the meeting, ask your contact if he or she will refer you to other people who may be helpful. Try to keep the appointment under thirty minutes and, at the end of that time, give your contact the option of concluding the meeting. Always thank contacts warmly for their time and help.
The end of the meeting should not end your relationship with a networking contact. Send a thank you note expressing gratitude for his or her taking the time to meet with you. Many recipients enjoy the personal touch of a handwritten note, but if your handwriting or time constraints make a handwritten note impractical, a thank you email is an appropriate alternative. Remember to follow up by update your networking contact on the status or outcome of your job search.