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We’ve all heard the adage: “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.” In reality, of course, it’s both. You can’t be a successful lawyer, or any professional, without knowing both the who and the what. But the message behind the well-worn maxim does have merit. You do need smart, trustworthy and, yes, well-connected people you can draw on to help you get your foot in the door-of-opportunity, solve a problem, close a deal—and for countless other reasons.
And that gets us to the third pillar of advice that Scott Westfahl, director of professional development at Goodwin Procter, says all young attorneys at his firm receive: Build your network. “This piece of professional advice is the one I’m most passionate about because it’s the most quickly ignored,” Westfahl says. (In two posts last month, we presented Westfahl’s other career tips: Build your legal and technical skills and develop your professional skills.)
The importance of building your network is usually not emphasized or taught in law schools—except by a handful of forward-thinking instructors, including Westfahl, who teaches a class at Harvard Law School, called “The Power of Networking.”
When the massive layoffs hit the legal profession after the financial crisis in late 2008, thousands of pink-slipped young associates flocked to legal search firms. Often, the first thing a placement counselor does in this situation is ask the employment-seeking attorneys to write down information about their networks, listing the contacts’ names, what they’re doing, their email addresses and phone numbers. Then, the headhunter says, “You’re going to go through that list and let everyone know you’re looking for a new job.”
All too often, however, associates can only write down the names of the partners and senior associates they worked for at their firm—and nobody else. “The problem is many attorneys don’t keep in touch with their law school classmates,” Westfahl says, “and aren’t thinking at all about family connections or university connections. They’re too busy working long hours, very intensely, with a small group of people. Their world and network has narrowed down to that level.”
Westfahl talks about discussing networking and the lack thereof with his colleague William Henderson, a professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law. “Bill has a course at Indiana where he requires students to map and build a network, including meeting three Indiana alumni; it’s a great idea,” Westfahl says. “I tell incoming associates your internal network is very important. Your reputation will depend on good work, and you’re developing connections in the firm with people who know what you’re interested in and what you like to do.”
As a young associate, you must build new relationships externally, too. And maintain those you already have by occasionally connecting—genuinely—with your “peeps,” before you need their help. “You have to remember that networks need to be authentic—they have to be based on trust, respect and reciprocity,” Westfahl points out.
What’s more, you can’t ignore your contacts and then, four or five years down the road when you really need something, call or email and say, “Hey, remember me? I need a favor.” Okay, sometimes that does happen, but Westfahl says there’s a right way to reach out to those you haven’t communicated with in a while.
“You should offer something in return,” he advises. “You can say, ‘I know we haven’t talked for a long time but I’d really appreciate it if you’d connect me with that friend of yours. I’ve been thinking about you lately and here’s an article I think you’d find interesting.’ Or, if you’re not sure what to send, at least offer this: ‘If there’s ever anything I can do for you, please don’t hesitate to ask.’”
Young lawyers should also realize, and appreciate, that their generation of attorneys has an advantage, because they have the social media tools in place to keep in touch with others. “I didn’t have that,” says Westfahl, adding a regret: “Michelle Obama was a law school classmate of mine. We didn’t stay in touch but now I sure wish we had.”
Steven T. Taylor is an award-winning journalist living in Portland, OR, who has written about the legal profession for nearly 20 years. He’s also a college professor who teaches non-fiction writing.
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