One of the big questions you’ll ask yourself when applying to law firms is whether you should reach out to law firms and “network” with some of the lawyers at the hiring firms. Many people may have told you that it is necessary to reach out to law firms prior to submitting your application, while other people may have anecdotal evidence that suggests that networking is unnecessary. So just how important is pre-application networking?
The answer, unfortunately, isn’t clear; however, on the balance I would recommend that you reach out to law firms prior to applying. I discuss my rationale for taking this position below.
But first, before delving into the merits of networking, I want to clarify that lawyers and articling students are, in most cases, happy to talk with potential job applicants. In many cases, the people you reach out to did lots of networking when they were applying to their jobs, and they are happy to pass on the favour that was extended to them.
Reaching Out to Law Firms Improves Your Odds of Being Hired
Networking with law firms can generate beneficial relationships, open doors, and improve your odds of being hired. Although there is no research specific to the law firm recruit, there is analogous research suggesting that a job seeker’s network has a significant impact on the number of job opportunities and the speed and quality of job offers.
Networking Can Improve Your Odds of Getting an Interview
When applying to jobs, you want to be in a “push-pull” scenario. This means that you are pushing for a job at a firm and the firm is pulling you in because it wants you. You are more likely to be hired if you can establish a push-pull relationship with a firm.
Networking helps creating the “pull” aspect of the push-pull scenario. The hope is that by networking, you can create a good impression with the people with whom you speak and that, ultimately, these people try to pull you into the firm.
Networking is still beneficial even if you aren’t being pulled into a firm. This is because law firms like to see that you are interested in them. Just by talking to people at the hiring firm, you’ve already shown more interest than most people submitting applications. You can convey this interest to the firm by, for example, mentioning who you’ve spoken with in your cover letter.
From my own experience, I know that networking helped me when I applied to law firms. For example, I networked with people who passed my name along to their firm’s recruiter, which improved my odds of being invited to an interview. In interviews, I was often asked about my connections to the hiring firm, and it was always well-received when I could say I met with Lawyer “X” or Student “Y”.
Networking Can Offset Weaknesses in Your Resume
The common wisdom is that the lower your grades are in law school, the more important it is to reach out to lawyers to impress them. I suggest that you take an even broader approach to this concept: networking can offset many of the weaknesses in your resume, not just grades.
Networking allows a potential employer to get to know you outside of your job application. Firms can gauge whether you are a good fit in person rather than on paper. This personal connection can help compensate for potential weaknesses on your resume, such as low grades, gaps between jobs/educational programs, and a lack of relevant work experience.
To some extent, the flip-side is also true. If you have a stellar resume with great experiences and high grades, then the potential benefits of networking are diminished (though not eliminated). Chances are, an impressive resume will land you an interview notwithstanding your lack of networking.
Remember, You Are Gathering Information on Potential Employers
It can be easy to forget that as part of the recruitment process, you are evaluating potential employers. “Fit” goes both ways: a law firm has to see you as a good fit, but you also need to see yourself fitting in at the law firm.
When I was applying to summer law jobs, I reached out to a lawyer or student at all of the firms where I most wanted to be hired. In the case of my top firms, I spoke to multiple people prior to sending in my job application. I learned a lot through these informal conversations and got a general sense of each firm’s culture.
Not only does the law firm have to be attracted to you, but you have to be attracted to the law firm.
In one case, a lawyer told me about day-to-day life at his firm and his firm’s culture—and what he told me was enough for me to conclude that his firm’s culture conflicted with my preferred working style. This firm went from being one of my top choices to one that I didn’t think was worth applying to. In another case, my conversation with an articling student resulted in me re-evaluating a firm and subsequently submitting an application.
My point is that networking can help you decide whether you actually like a specific firm. Networking can help you assess “fit”, which goes both ways.
When is Networking a Bad Choice?
The above highlights the benefits of networking; however, networking can hurt your job prospects in certain scenarios.
Risk of Leaving a Bad First Impression
The main concern with networking is that you could give an employer a bad first impression. A bad first impression could result in a tossed job application.
There are a number of ways to make a bad first impression. The obvious ways of leaving a bad first impression are by being rude, disrespectful, uncouth, misogynistic, discriminatory, etc. These types of bad first impressions aren’t as rare as you might think.
A less obvious way of leaving a bad first impression is by not exhibiting great social skills by, for example:
- being unable to carry a conversation;
- failing to ask thoughtful questions during the conversation; and
- not appearing interested in the firm or person with whom you’re speaking.
I am not suggesting that you need to be a “social butterfly” to network. Rather, what I’m saying is that networking only works if you can make a show respect and make a connection, which requires basic social skills.
Always remember that the lawyers and students with whom you speak are doing you a favour. You need to respect and acknowledge the time they give you. Schedule your networking session in advance, keeping in mind that you need to accommodate their schedule. Approach your conversation with a plan of action and questions ready to go. Bring the conversation to a natural end after about 25 to 30 minutes, unless the lawyer suggests otherwise.
In weighing the risks of networking, you need to take into account your personal abilities. If you genuinely feel like you aren’t capable of making a good first impression, then networking might not help you. That said, at one point or another in the law firm recruit you will have to make a first impression. It may be better to make a first impression when networking informally rather than waiting until the formal recruitment process.
Potential Waste of Time
It takes a lot of time to network effectively. In some cases, your potential return on networking might not exceed the cost of networking. If, for example, networking means that your grades will suffer, then you might want to forego networking.
When considering whether networking is worth your time, ask yourself what you want to get out of networking. Is it to get a better feel for potential employers? If so, that might warrant the investment of a significant amount of time. Is it just to name drop a lawyer in your cover letter? If so, then it might not be worth putting in must time to network.
Is it necessary to Reach Out to Law Firms to Get Hired?
The short answer is no. It is not necessary that you reach out to law firms prior to sending them job applications. But, to rephrase the question, is it beneficial to reach out to law firms prior to sending them job applications? Yes.
I know many people who did little to no networking prior to the law firm recruit. These students didn’t have phone calls with lawyers, never went on coffee chats, and didn’t bother with firm tours. And yet they still landed jobs at law firms. This goes to show that networking isn’t necessary for getting a job at a law firm. But this isn’t to say that you should outright dismiss the concept of networking. In many cases, networking will provide a valuable opportunity to learn more about potential employers. It can also help you make a good first impression with a firm, and make up for potential weaknesses on your resume.
Whether you decide to network depends on your personal circumstances. There is no right answer.