Building Relationships In Law School: A Retrospective & Guide
March 17, 2011
It has been nearly six years since I graduated from law school, and like many I cannot believe how quickly the time has flown. Even harder to believe is the depth that my law school network has become. Looking back to my days as a law student, the one thing I never expected was to have friends that work in the jobs, live in the locations and move in some of the circles that they do. Perhaps I did not have enough experience or foresight at the time to embrace the possibility that many of the people I passed in the hallway, saw at “bar review” or at “3L Thursdays” would turn out to be as connected and influential in their own right. I am very proud of the amazing accomplishments of many of my classmates and friends, and I can say without hesitation that it is great to have the ability to reach out to a network of professionals that I have a personal connection with.
As a student it is very easy to get lost in the shuffle of law school and overlook your current contributions to and position in the profession. As a student, I placed the majority of my focus on moving through the law school experience, and foolishly assumed that many of my important professional connections would be made through my internships, interactions with practicing attorneys or after graduation when I began practicing law myself. What I overlooked were some of the great relationships that I was making with my classmates during law school. As we know, relationships are everything and can be a great help as you move along in any profession. So what does this mean to you, the current law student matriculating through the “hell” known as law school with no time to spare? Take time to cultivate your relationships with your classmates just as carefully and methodically as you would a partner at a law firm you may be working at during law school. Why? Let’s break it down by class year to give a more relevant and applicable perspective:
1L’s: Think 1st impressions; they are lasting ones:
Your first semester is over and grades, most likely, have been posted. Right now you are either:
A. flying high and basking in the light of great first semester grades;
B. frantically trying to figure out where you went wrong and how you can improve your grades or ;
C. stuck somewhere in between.
For those of you who did well, congratulations! For those who have room to improve, be encouraged; many successful lawyers would rather spend a day at the DMV instead of having their first year grades shared in a crowd. Many students who start off slow first semester or even first year are late bloomers, but rests assure their “light bulb” moment will come. Don’t shun anyone from your study group or even your law school network merely because they got a C in Civil Procedure I. Many that round out the bottom of the curve rank at the top of the list in personality and will network their way right past you. One thing you will learn very quickly is that in the legal world, like many professions, personality counts for something.
It is easy to get caught up in the wave of your 1L year and lose sight of the fact that you, as well as every member of your 1L class, were all at one point accepted to the same fine institution. At the end of the day your aptitude for success is comparable, and this success, for some, may come later in life. Burning a bridge as a 1L is a bridge that is often not forgotten. For example, a friend and former law school classmate of mine is a very successful attorney for a government agency we all know and love and report to with each pay check received, the IRS. She is a source of invaluable information about the U.S. Tax Code (which, I believe is written in Chinese) and whenever possible, without compromising her position (or any major government intelligence), she is happy to give me free tax interpretation and translation. In fact, she is happy to do this for most of her law school friends. This is a friend that you can call any time of day or night and she will stop whatever she is doing to answer your question. She recently spent time helping a student she never met secure an externship because I asked her to. Trust me, this is the type of person you want on your team. But of course, there is that one classmate that she will never forgive for his flippant dismissal of her nine years ago during our 1L year. To this man’s misfortune, he publicly second-guessed her intelligence in a not so polite way because he just did not believe that she was as smart as he was. Little did he know that she would graduate Magna Cum Lade, head first to a coveted associate position in BigLaw, followed by an even more coveted position as an in-house attorney. As for him? Well we are not quite sure where or even if he landed. The bottom line, he missed out on free tax advice, IRS insight and generally a good person to know all because he counted her out. The advice is simple; do not count anyone out of the game, at least until you are the one calling all the shots!
2L‘s: Think Business Development; no good practice or associate can grow without it:
In the practice of law there is a premium placed on business development (particularly important for women and diverse law students). A common business development tactic at many large and mid-sized law firms is for associates to invite friends and colleagues from various employment fields out with the firm for a night of mingling and networking. As an associate, you can never underestimate or know all of the business needs or clients of your firm, and the person you invite could be just the connection your firm is looking for. Remember this the next time you interact with the person in your class who is interested in a practice area that seems a bit obscure, or with the annoying gunner that is so intense it makes you absolutely crazy!
This is a lesson that came to life recently for my law school roommate. When I began thinking about this article, I solicited a few opinions about the importance of keeping in touch and forging relationships in law school. My law school roommate, another successful attorney who in this day and age is deemed a living legend by rounding out her sixth year in BigLaw with no plans of leaving, shared a story with me about a classmate of ours who was very intense and had somewhat of an “interesting personality.” Recently, while assigned to a deal for a very important firm client, who should show up as the associate working on the case for the opposing counsel? You guessed it, the interesting personality! My roommate shared how thankful she was that she was not one of our classmates who clashed with this individual (and there were several who did) as it was invaluable for her to be able to tell the partner she was working with that the associate on the other side was a classmate from law school. Maintaining just a cordial and casual relationship with this person inevitably helped her in making the logistics and closing of this transaction much easier to accomplish. No one says that you have to like everyone in law school, but remember that these are professional relationships and treat them as such. It is highly unlikely that you would be dismissive, rude or just plain obnoxious to a co-worker who you were less than fond of. In law school you should try your hardest to implore these same tactics because again, you never know when or where these individuals may surface later on in life.
3L‘s: Think employment; as if you’re not already!:
Clearly, in these days of a major economic crisis many students are still looking for post graduation employment. Although at this present moment you may not be able to call on one of your classmates for help with a job that you have your eye on, I promise you that within two years you will feverishly be searching your mental rolodex to find someone who can get you access or information. And although you may never find yourself in an interview with the guy who sat three rows ahead of you in Torts, he may be the person that is called on by the hiring managers to shed some light on your character after you finish your interview.
Of course, it is always possible that two people attend the same law school at the same time and never cross paths. At the same time, it is not only possible but far worse if you did know each other and your classmate has nothing good to say about you. Consider closely what I am suggesting here: not merely that your classmate has nothing to say about you; rather that he or she has nothing good to say about you. It is easy to see through and translate when one merely shrugs his or her shoulder and says, “I remember X, he was OK… I guess”, meaning instead that “he was a bit of a jerk, and while I know I am suppose to be past that at this stage in my career, clearly I am not, but I wouldn’t want to stand in the way of his future employment…even though he really was a jerk.” The advice here is that time flies and character counts. Classmates quickly become your professional peers who can help open and just as quickly help close doors in your career.
Relationships are everything and maintaining them while in law school can really dictate much of your success once you venture beyond the halls of your law school campus. It can be a great help as you move along but an even greater hindrance if not properly attended to. In my own life I have found my relationships to be invaluable in ways that I would never have imagined. Whether it be providing a referral or receiving one, contacting one of my prosecutor friends for advice on a speeding ticket, reaching out to a classmate working in the White House to set up a tour or contacting a friend in Atlanta in entertainment so we can meet the Real Housewives, I have learned how truly great it is to maintain relationships, and hope you recognize the value in cultivating these relationships in law school.