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March 20, 2015

Repaying a Different Kind of Loan

by contributor
Mentor and mentee meeting
Networking is a different way for lawyers to pay it forward.

Mentor and mentee meeting In my capacity as associate director of professional development at Seattle University School of Law, I work with students and alumni on crafting job search strategies. A big focus of my career counseling centers on encouraging students and grads to network. Even though networking is effective, it’s a tough sell.

I’ve learned to follow up, “Tell me about your networking plan,” with, “Hear me out! Networking isn’t so bad.” For many people, networking is a dirty word (one that may need some rebranding, but that’s a post for another day).

It’s tough for people to reach out to strangers, but aversion to networking goes deeper than that. After all, talking to strangers is an inescapable element of lawyering; most people realize when they enter law school that they’ll need to build new professional relationships. Though striking up conversations with new professional contacts intimidates some, the reason I’m most often given for a dislike, or even hatred, of networking is that it feels like asking too much. Students and recent grads regularly ask me why someone they’ve never met would be interested in having coffee with them when the student will be doing all of the taking — information, advice, and suggestions for additional contacts to approach — with seemingly little to give in return.

There are several reasons attorneys are willing to sit down to these coffee meetings: attorneys (by and large) enjoy talking, they wish to build their referral networks, and they feel a sense of kinship with the student/grad, but the most powerful reason of all is a desire to pay back what others did for them when they were new to the profession.

I recently met with a group of attorneys who had taken time out of their busy (billable-hour-filled) days to meet with a group of law students. When I thanked them for being so generous with their time, they were quick to thank me for giving them the opportunity to pay forward what had been given to them when they were law students. This is a common sentiment.

Lawyers seem especially keen to “pay it forward.” Maybe it’s our legal training; we’re taught that to not fulfill a promise is to breach. Or maybe it’s that, these days, we’re very familiar with borrowing. You can enter law school even if you don’t have the money, but you’ll pay for it later, with interest.

For those who think of networking as taking too much and giving too little, consider the networking you do early in your legal career as a loan, one you’ll pay back with interest (and one that you’ll enjoy repaying much more than paying back that Stafford or Perkins). Don’t hesitate to approach more seasoned professionals with your questions; just remind yourself that when you sit down to coffee, lunch, and informational interviews, you’re making a “withdrawal.” For every three people who meet you for coffee as a student or recent grad, make a plan to give your time to four people in those shoes once you’re gainfully employed and full of wisdom to share. For every job fair you attend filled with lawyers willing to dish the secrets to their success, plan to attend one yourself on the attorney/employer side of the table, and be the attorney who stays after the event to talk to the law students and new lawyers. This exchange is all part of the profession, and the willingness of lawyers to repay this kind of loan is part of what makes our profession so great.

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