By Keisha Stanford • September 16, 2010•Writers in Residence, Law School
Growing up, I remember hearing people say, “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” Since my parents had always stressed the importance of education and working hard to get what you wanted out of life, I gave this saying little credence. I was convinced that, in the end, those who studied and worked hard would prevail in the end. I haven’t come to doubt this belief; however, I have come to realize that sometimes it takes both factors working together to accomplish the goals that you set for yourself.
Nowadays, people talk a lot about networking. But what does that really mean? During law school, I made friends and got to know most of my classmates – if not by name, then by face. These relationships arose, not because I was trying to get something out of each person I met, but because we saw each other almost every day, had things in common, often studied together, and genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. For people who are the slightest bit social, peer networking often happens with minimal effort. For others, it may take a bit of work, but it does pay off in the end. Some of the easiest ways to form these relationships during law school are through your extracurricular activities, whether it be a journal, or a pro-bono activity, or a student group with which you are involved.
Aside from the general benefits of friendship (which are noble and rewarding all by themselves), having people to turn to is crucial to surviving law school. After law school, you and your peers will ascend through the ranks of the profession at a similar rate. They become your colleagues – the fellow attorneys in your office, opposing counsel, the fellow members of the Boards on which you sit. They are the people you call when you are thinking of changing career paths. They are also the people who employers will go to when they want to know more about you than the information you list on your resume.
However, if you leave law school with only a long list of classmates whom you can call on in the future, you haven’t taken full advantage of the networking opportunities available to you. Peer networking is a great start, but it not the end of the story. During law school, you will take a whole host of classes, each of which is taught by a professor. Forming relationships with these people outside the classroom is invaluable to having the career that you want. Is it true that being a good student and speaking up in class will get you recognized; however, if that is all you do, you are selling yourself short.
Office hours exist for a reason, and it is not just so you can get greater clarity on the doctrine. Many professors had other careers prior to entering academia. Some worked for firms, others for non-profits, other clerked for judges across the country, and still others received prestigious fellowships. That is to say, many of your professors have done the things that you ultimately want to do and are a great information resource. I learned of many of the opportunities I was able to take advantage of during law school from my professors. Since they had a better sense of my career goals, they could alert me to opportunities of which I was unaware that aligned with my interests. In addition, my professors were my recommenders for opportunities inside and outside the law school. Because I had taken the time to form relationships with them, they could speak with clarity regarding my goals and ambitions, as well as my aptitude. In addition to being great people in their own right, your professors and instructors can put you on a path to having the career that you desire.
Finally, not everyone that you need to know resides within your law school. Forming relationships with practicing attorneys seems to be one of the more difficult types of networking for law students. However, in the same way that your professors can serve as career advisers, attorneys who are doing what you ultimately want to do are an invaluable resource. Some students form these relationships during their summer employment. However, your law school’s alumni network is another great way to reach out to practicing attorneys. Since I had never lived on the West Coast prior to law school, during my 1L year, I reached out to a Stanford Law School alumnus whom I had met at one of the beginning of the year events. My request was relatively simple: would he be willing to give me resume advice and talk to me about firms in the Bay Area. Over the past three years, this alumnus has served as my mentor and has been someone that I have continuously gone to for professional advice.
My only piece of advice with regard to reaching out to alumni (or other practicing attorneys) is to know what you want to get out of the relationship, as well as what you are willing to put in, and to respect their time. At the end of the day, these are working professionals with a lot on their plates. Many of them are more than happy to help you and give you advice, as long as you are willing to do the work on your end and meet any set deadlines and are prompt for any appointments. Also, some mentoring relationships require reciprocity. When my mentor called to ask me to volunteer my time to work with kids at the non-profit that he started, I made the time or, if my class schedule didn’t permit, suggested other ways in which I could help out.
In the end, it is important to be on top of things and know your stuff. However, most people don’t get where they want to be in life by doing it all on their own. Sometimes, you need a helping hand, and in those times, what you know might not be enough on its own, especially when there are a lot of other people out there who know the same things. Networking is one way to build your support network to ensure that you have people in your corner, helping you to achieve your goals and to craft the career that you want for yourself.