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Breaking the Chain to Build New Links: Informational Interviews

Note: If you are anything like me, you have never approached networking or self promotion in a systematic way.  In fact, you may be terrified of it.  Yet, our ability to network and self promote is essential for building a client base, building our own name, and building our careers.  Each month I’m going to tackle one strategy for networking or self promotion in an effort to help all of us break the chains we’ve put around ourselves and begin building new links.  If you have a topic you’d like covered, e-mail me at chainstolinks@gmail.com.

We’re now in the throes of 1L recruiting season and with the economy still recovering, many lawyers and upper class law students are still hunting for jobs as well.  Since utilizing and building your network is one of the best ways to get a leg up in the job hunt, I thought I would use this month to cover a networking tool that I have failed to use myself: The Informational Interview.  I want to thank Irene Reed, Senior Associate Director at the Center for Career Strategy and Advancement at Northwestern Law, and Jane Pigott, Managing Director of R3 Group LLC for their willingness to offer their expertise.  

What is an Informational Interview?

An informational interview is a tool that allows you to learn more about an industry, a practice area (e.g. litigation, corporate, employment, etc.), or a type of practice (e.g. small firm, large firm, public interest, government).  The goal in an informational interview is (shockingly!) to get information and to learn something new.  In contrast to a job interview, you should be asking most of the questions and the person you are speaking to should be giving most of the answers.  Informational interviews are often shorter than a typical job interview.  Twenty minutes is the amount of time most professionals will tell you to expect to spend with your contact.    

What purposes do Informational Interviews Serve?

Informational interviews are first and foremost a tool to learn but they can also be great networking tools.  Ask your contact if they know other people you should talk to.  If you’ve spoken to an attorney at a firm but you are also interested in what similar work might be like if you worked for the government or in house or a public interest organization, ask your contact if they know people who might be willing to talk to you.  They almost certainly will! 

Informational interviews are good job-hunting tools as well.  Jane suggested that, “Especially in this market, networking is a very critical part of finding a job.  You are more likely to find something through talking to people (and expanding your network) than you are from applying online to 200 places.” Using informational interviews as a job hunting tool is an accepted practice but does take some finesse.  (See below re: big mistakes!)  

I wondered whether informational interviews are useful later in your career.  Irene said that later in your career, “Informational interviewing can serve as a method for networking and for refining specific aspects of one’s career, such as client development, professionalism, achieving a certain position (such as equity partner, etc.) or moving into an alternative career.” Irene also recommends informational interviews for strategic career planning, “Before you take a huge career leap, allocate 20-30 minutes to learn about your intended profession, practice area or job. Not only will the meeting prepare you for an interview—it may also help you determine when a job is not right for you. Informational Interviews are also invaluable in helping you plan your career several months or years out.  By talking to people on an informal basis, you can gain insight into steps you need to take, when and where to act, and how best to present and/or position yourself for the next phase of your career.” 

How do I prepare for an Informational Interview and what are the biggest mistakes?

Preparation is the key to a successful informational interview.  Since you will drive the conversation you need to go in with questions.  Irene notes that you must know what you hope to achieve: “The more focused you are in your approach, the more productive the meeting will be.  The meeting should be relaxed enough to encourage expansive thinking but, in the back of your mind, you should know what you are trying to achieve.”  If you’re not sure how to begin preparing, run a quick Google search for “informational interviews.” There are tons of resources out there that have lists of questions, recommendations for research, and other preparation tools.  Make sure you tailor your preparation to your specific interview but if you’re stuck, it’s a good place to start!  

Jane Pigott also recommends preparation but in a different way. Always come prepared with a clean, updated copy of your C.V.  But be cautious!  Only provide your resume if your contact asks you for it. One of the biggest mistakes people make at an informational interview is trying to turn it into a real interview!  Irene says the decision has to be up to the interviewer: “At the end of the meeting, politely ask your contact to keep you in mind for any future opportunities.  Going beyond that is generally not a good idea.” 

The last thing you need to do after any informational interview is to follow up and stay in touch!  Both Jane and Irene say the failure to follow up on contacts or advice is quick way to turn a positive informational interview into a negative one.  Remember that if you’ve had a great conversation, your contact will want to know what’s happened to you.  Send a thank you note but also follow through to let them know you took their advice.  Follow up is also a great way to keep yourself fresh in the contact’s mind so that when that next job opportunity does come up, you will be the person they e-mail about it!  

Next Month: Keeping a Network Alive, Strategies for Follow Up and Follow Through

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