(What + Who) < How
June 23, 2011
At some point in our lives most of us have heard the cliché "it’s not what you know but who you know that matters." While etymologists might not know its origins, they know this particular saying has been around for nearly a century — and, depending on your perspective, embodies either (a) an uncontroversial realization that our networks influence what we can obtain, or (b) a jaundiced worldview that individual merit is meritless.
Like many of these dichotomies, my guess is the truth probably falls somewhere in between, and swings more toward one side or the other depending on the economy. We’ve already seen this pendulum at work in the online marketplace when web traffic to Monster.com, founded at the height of the 1990s tech boom and representing the "what you know" school, got surpassed by LinkedIn (its slogan: "Relationships Matter") as jobseekers hope to cash in on the "who you know" during these technically-not-a-recession-anymore economic times.
So for those of us still in law school, which approach will matter more when it’s time to find a job? Which perspective should we be focusing on before we graduate?
Sure, what you know and who you know are both important. And yes, the degree of importance for each shifts relative to the other based on the circumstances. But both of them are eclipsed by a third variable: it’s not what you know, it’s not who you know, it’s how other people know you that matters most.
In a closed industry where reputations and referrals play an almost-unavoidable role in shaping one’s success, how we’re perceived by others takes on special importance. Those perceptions also become crystallized while we’re in law school. With gunners on one end, schmoozers on the other, and the rest of us somewhere in the middle, our reputations in the classroom carry over to the courtroom when we’re starting out our careers.
THE GUNNERS: The contours of what exactly constitutes "gunner" status varies depending on who you ask, but here I’m talking about the folks who are bona fide legal geniuses — and go out of their way to lord the fact over everyone around them. The folks who still talk about their LSAT scores years after the test. The ones monopolizing discussion in class because they like the sound of their own voice. The kind of people who revel in the confusion of their classmates, because it means their place at the top of the curve is still secure. Sure a gunner might represent the epitome of "what you know matters", but what rational person wants to work with one 40+ hours a week? Or feels a compulsion to help one secure a job or sign a client or win a trial after enduring 3 years of unwarranted gunner arrogance?
THE SCHMOOZERS: Masters of the "who you know matters" school, the schmoozers are the folks who know every single person at the law school… even if the people they know don’t necessarily know them in return. The first person to hit the club and the last one to leave, they’re the classmates always up-to-date on the latest law school gossip. They also keep an expansive array of class outlines by their side to complement the "Cs get JDs" window decal proudly displayed on their sports car (a sports car given to them by their car salesman father, who also coincidentally taught them how to interact with the rest of the world). These might be some of the best-connected people you’ll ever meet, but are they competent enough to be entrusted with a case? And even if they might be, are you really willing to put your own reputation on the line by sending a client their way?
THE REST OF US: Conscientious enough to speak to the people around us, but not obsessive to the point of Facebook-stalking everyone. Knowledgeable enough to advise most clients on most issues, but also knowledgeable enough to know what we don’t know. Willing to ask for help when necessary and willing to provide it when asked. Even without the most detailed knowledge or the most expansive Rolodex, these are the folks who take all facets of what they do seriously — and as a result make the best (and most employable) attorneys.
As soon-to-be newly-minted lawyers starting out in a profession dominated by people who have been playing the game a lot longer than we have, how we’re known by our peers and our professors is far more important than how many of them we know or what we’ve learned from them. And when it comes to reputations, every law school has people falling into these 3 categories — the question is, which one are you?