Networking can be awkward, even for the most seasoned professionals. Of course, it’s especially difficult when you’re just beginning your career.
Knowing that, the Office of the Dean of Students held a mock cocktail reception for students who wanted to practice their networking skills in a no-risk environment with young attorneys who offered honest, constructive feedback. The reception was part of the Keystone Professionalism and Leadership Program, which offers opportunities for students to strengthen practical skills that are essential for workplace success.
About 51 students, most of them 1Ls, attended the practice reception on April 1, the day before the Office of Career Services’ annual firm●wise event. At firm●wise, firm representatives filled the Green Lounge to meet members of the 1L class, looking for future summer associates.
People sometimes think networking comes naturally, but it doesn’t, Dean of Students Amy Gardner said.
“Our students have the training and the smarts to do any job, but in today’s legal and business environment, you need more. You need to be able to navigate the social aspects of making contacts, building relationships, and finding mentors,” she said.
Katie Mott, manager of leadership and professionalism initiatives, conducted the program, which was sponsored by the New York office of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. Attorneys from Winston & Strawn and Schiff Hardin also participated. First, students formed small groups around each attorney and made conversation. Then, the attorneys provided feedback to each student on how they did. They were encouraged to be tough and direct so that the students would eliminate any behaviors that could hurt them in a real networking experience.
After the initial feedback, students had another round of conversation with a different attorney, who then also gave feedback. They were instructed to practice skills like introducing themselves, asking questions, and juggling food and drink while talking. At the mock cocktail reception, soda replaced wine and beer and the hors d’oeuvre chosen were meant to be tricky, Gardner said – lots of dips and toothpicks. The event ended with a group discussion of best networking practices.
Tal Chaiken, ’12, an associate at Schiff Hardin in Chicago, made conversation with a group of students about living in Hyde Park, undergraduate majors, and their summer plans. When it was time to give feedback, she advised the students to “try not to be in groups this large. In general it’s really hard to stand out in a group this big. Find the person who’s standing by themselves or only has one person talking to them.”
Chaiken also gave individual feedback that was encouraging but honest. She told one student to make more eye contact, and another to talk about her summer job in a way that focused more on the work and less on the great location. She also told the students to be able to follow up anything they say to a potential employer or mentor. For example: “You should have an answer as to why you want to be a transactional attorney, if you’re going to say it.”
Many of the lessons were more physical in nature. For example, students were instructed to practice entering and leaving a conversation. Rachel Zemke, ’16, and Lauren Faraino, ’16, were talking to Amanda Penabad, ‘12, who clerks for Judge Robert W. Gettleman of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. “I think we’re going to get a drink,” Zemke told Penabad, as they left for the soda table. “It was nice to meet you.” Penabad then complimented the graceful departure.
One student said she should’ve worn a suit with pockets, because she was receiving business cards from the attorneys. Rachel Bukberg, ’16, learned that when you’re holding a drink and a snack, it’s best to approach someone already standing at a table.
After the event, Bukberg said she found the exercise helpful.
“So much of the first year of law school is focused on academics, which can make it very easy to forget that for most of us, networking events require practice and energy as well,” she said. “Receptions can be particularly difficult to navigate because, unlike formal interviews, they require us to take initiative and talk about things other than school and a specific job.”
Zemke agreed, and said the mock cocktail event “gave me an increased sense of confidence in interacting with people in a professional setting. Being able to get direct feedback about my networking skills made me much more comfortable in what I could do well and in knowing what to improve.”