Part-time Law, Full-time Life: Talking About Nothing ... Says it All

When I started class in the fall of 2015, I stopped eating dinner with my husband. I stopped going to the grocery store, making breakfast, or meeting friends for happy hour. On one hand, I was saving money and realizing I was eating too much, but on the other hand I stopped interacting with my husband and socializing with friends and coworkers. My weekends were consumed with reading for civil procedure and torts and when I finished the assigned readings I opened my mountain of supplements in the hope I could fit more information in my brain before I crashed at 10 p.m. I was pleased when my grades came back, but felt that all the effort may have been overkill.     

My concern shifted from good grades to remembering this other major component of law school: it is not just how much you learn, but who you know and how you present yourself to others. I remember feeling concerned that I was missing out on a fundamental element of my law school education, and wondering if I made a mistake enrolling in the evening program. Learning enough to do well on exams is important. But law school is also an opportunity to interact with the community in which you will one day be working. Every so often, I would receive emails from the Career Development Office or the Student Services Office, advising of some networking event. I laughed with many of my classmates at these emails during the first semester: how could we possibly be expected to set aside an hour to several hours a week to network? Many of us were struggling to see our own families; we did not have time to socialize and for many of us, we still had three and a half years of school to figure out the "career" thing. 

The truth was I was hiding behind my guilt of not being present at home. The real reason I chose not to attend these events is because I had no idea what to do or say. I was afraid I would not know anyone, I would not know what to talk about, would appear disorganized or naive when I opened my mouth, or would be ignored because I was unfocused. The entire idea of networking made me uncomfortable. Second semester I noticed more students from my program attending events and finding projects that engaged their interests and I felt left behind. I knew I needed to step up in order to get the most out of school and the resources offered so freely. I am taking this time to reflect and share many of the things I have since done to get me into the habit of small talk. Even as an evening student it is important to find time for small opportunities. You do not want to leave school, knowing you could have been more engaged with the legal community while you had free opportunities to do so:

1.     Register as a student with your local bar association. I signed up with the Colorado Women’s Bar Association in the first week of school. Although I have not been able to commit a great deal of time to many of the organization’s committees, every now and then I will receive an email that will pique my interest. One time the CWBA sponsored a seat for a law student at a legislature’s breakfast. I responded to the email and showed up, not knowing a single person. I sat at a table, ate breakfast with some incredible people, listened to discussions on public policy and issues impacting women in the law, and came away with a sense that I could, at the very least, make small talk with people.

2.     Look at the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) website. Join the organization – it is free for law students and first-year associates (it also led me to the realization that my university had a chapter). After joining Ms. JD’s WIR program, I spent an hour exploring the website and was linked directly to NAWL, a frequent partner. NAWL promotes mentoring opportunities and ways for students and women lawyers to get engaged with a national organization. 

3.     Find ways to network outside of law school and legal organizations. Before school I joined the Junior League of Denver to meet women my age. I took a leave of absence during my first year, but have since returned. Not only is the League a good place for me to interact with non-lawyers, but I know more about the issues impacting the Denver community, which helps me identify areas where I can practice, gives me something to speak to in scholarship and fellowship applications, and provides valuable context when I attend interviews.

4.     Practice your “elevator speech”. I am taking a seminar for my externship this semester that is focused on teaching law students how to act professionally in the workplace. I struggle with the class because the material is redundant – I have been working professionally for nine years and really abhor lectures on how to write a professional email or what billing in a law firm entails. However, we recently were required to prepare and present an elevator speech. It was an opportunity for me to reflect on what I would want to tell someone in 30 to 60 seconds to provide an authentic snapshot of who I am and where I am on my path to becoming a lawyer. It is a difficult project because the goal is to not make a sales pitch, but really just tell someone about yourself.

5.     Show up to random events at your school. Many networking events take place in our main forum as you enter the school and are open to anyone. Sometimes a classmate catches my eye and I take the opportunity to talk to the group that individual is with. This encourages the networking side of me to get over my issues with small talk and practice introducing myself to people I do not know.

6.     Offer to attend events with classmates. I am always envious of those who walk through the door and are immediately surrounded by friends and classmates. If I have learned one thing since leaving undergrad: making friends is hard. You have so little time to get to know a person and determine if that person is someone with whom it is worth spending time away from home. Everyone in your part-time program is experiencing the same thing. Offer to attend a networking event with someone you want to get to know. It is the easiest way to make friends in school because you can be around one another and talk about the event, not just class.

7.      Subscribe to newsletters and the news. I recently subscribed to several news outlets (some through the NAWL website), specifically one called The Broadsheet by Kristen Bellstrom. I get a link in my inbox daily with news articles discussing women in the law. I do not read every article and some days I can only skim a few, but the topics are usually issues effecting women in the workplace, and I get many of my small talk "talking points" from these articles. Not only is it important to be aware of these issues just for my personal growth, but it is an easy way to show I am engaged with issues in my community.

Like studying, networking and learning how to network takes a lot of time. Remember, though, that even with the restrictions of a part-time program, you can still make the resources work for you. Take advantage of these opportunities. After school, you or your law firm will likely have to pay for your attendance at these events and you are less likely to attend if you never went before. 

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