The Unexpected Challenges of Law School: Learning How To Network

Editor's Note: This essay was submitted by Joanna McDonald in response to Ms. JD's prompt, "What about law school presented an unexpected challenge? What have you done to successfully meet this challenge?"

When I came to law school, I had heard much about its academic hurdles. One of my greatest challenges, however, has been outside the classroom: learning how to network effectively.  I used to dread going to cocktail hours.  Having conversations with a room full of strangers, competing with your peers for time and trying to remember the topics of each conversation for follow-up emails can be a daunting task.  After attending many networking events, however, I have learned useful tactics that make such events effective and even enjoyable.

A maxim I have come to live by is as follows: when in doubt as to dress code, err on the side of being conservative and formal.  Pearls and black are a female law student’s best friend.  Also, I generally wear eyeliner only on my top lid.  Another important and often overlooked aspect of dressing correctly is picking the right set of heels.  I am five foot ten.  This means that in most heels I am over six feet, a height that can be jarring and somewhat inaccessible from a practical standpoint.  I wear two and a half inch heels so as to be relatively eye level with the majority of attorneys to whom I am speaking.  Lastly, I wear nude stockings, even in the summer, and only closed-toed or peep-toed heels.

I also used to find it difficult to speak about my achievements. I was worried about bragging, but this fear is ill founded. Attorneys go to networking events to meet students. They want you to impress them. They want to like you and they enjoy when you give them reasons to do so. That said, when speaking about previous employers, it is always good to talk about how much you enjoyed working with them and what a wonderful team you had. Tread the line between making sure your achievements are known while coming across as a team player that will speak positively of their workplace.

Additionally, much of networking is reading the person to whom you are speaking.  Some attorneys are not as talkative and require more questions.  Other attorneys are adept at immediately filling gaps in the conversation, in which case it is important to jump in with your own questions and comments to make sure that your best qualities and questions are being discussed.

It is also important to do your homework beforehand. Having a list of stock questions in case the conversation is running dry is a good practice. However, nothing is more impressive than asking a tailored question that demonstrates detailed preparation.  For example, ask a question about the attorney’s recent publication, recent case or post-undergraduate work experience.  

Yet another good practice when networking is varying the questions according to your audience. When speaking with senior attorneys, I make sure to ask questions that reveal my preparation for our meeting. Asking about recent high profile cases with which the senior attorney has been involved and the qualities they value most in a young attorney are good avenues of conversation. By contrast, when speaking with attorneys a few years out of law school, I feel more at ease to ask candid questions about what it is really like to work for the organization. Common questions include the culture of the organization and what the attorney likes about working there.

The most important piece of advice to remember is that like anything else, in networking, practice makes perfect.  As you go to more and more networking events, they become less and less daunting.  When you are relaxed and confident, your personality shines through, and that is half the battle!

Joanna McDonald is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and a current 2L at The University of Texas School of Law. After college, McDonald was a paralegal for Deutsche Bank—the sole paralegal for their Global Banking Division. McDonald frequently worked on large-scale, international transactions and advised counsel in Deutsche Bank offices abroad on contracts governed by New York law. McDonald is representative of the 2L class in the Student Bar Association, Head Choreographer of the Assault and Flattery musical theatre troupe, and a member of the Texas International Law Journal submissions board and the Thurgood Marshall Legal Society. She is interested in practicing within the corporate and/or restructuring fields.

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