GUEST BLOG By Shaun Sanders,
3L at Chapman University’s Dale E. Fowler School of Law
Last week I discussed some of the fundamental factors to networking that I feel are often overlooked by my classmates. This week, I’d like to talk more about the right “networking attitude” and mindset to adopt when diving in.
Be the Networker you Want to Be
I am known to be somewhat of a social butterfly and am often approached by friends for advice on how to improve their networking. They are usually shocked when I point out that I am, by nature, somewhat of an introvert. I have always enjoyed people, but I am still prone to somewhat crippling anxiety when it comes to public speaking or putting myself into the spotlight. However, ever since I was a child, I wished I was like the kids who seemed to just naturally position themselves into the center of interest. I want to be the type of person who can speak in public, and I want to be the type of person who can meet new people easily. Over the years, I have identified others with networking attributes I admired and then consciously pushed myself out of my comfort zone in a “trial by fire” of social awkwardness. As a result, I am now pretty comfortable with striking up conversation with others and have gotten to the point where people assume this is “just me being me.”
Awkward moments are inevitable. At my law school, there are still a handful of students who are aware of the “Sanders Shuffle.” It was coined after I had completely botched a networking opportunity event at my school. I, and other first-years, were dressed up and mingling with various lawyers, judges, and other professionals from the local legal community. I hung close to a group of 4 friends and, together, we tried to join into groups where the professionals were chatting amongst students. However, every time we attempted to join a group, the professional in the circle was on the tail-end of his conversation and left to join some other group. It was frustrating. I eventually went to the restroom and, when I came back, the group I had been hanging out had managed to lure a professional into its circle. I walked over and stood on its outskirts, but no one made any gesture or acknowledgment that I had come back — and I was determined to actually talk to someone that night. So I sort of “wiggled” into the circle.
Imagine a tight circle of 4 individuals all engaging in conversation when suddenly someone gently forces themselves into your ranks. That was me. I was that guy. The circle went silent. The professional, a respected judge from our county, stared at me with disgust. I realized that I had completely ruined the moment. As conversation picked back up, I noticed the judge made a conscious effort to not make eye contact with me. I didn’t even hear the words that came out of his mouth most of the time, as I was too busy trying to figure out a way to dig myself out of this hole.
When I had a chance to ask a question, I raised my hand. The judge’s eyes scanned across everyone else to see if there were better opportunities for his time, and seemed to begrudgingly acknowledge me. I asked, “Would you have any advice for a first year student who, while at a networking event, chooses to sort of ‘wiggle’ into a conversation and completely embarrass themselves?”
The circle was quiet again. The judge stared at me. Then his smirk and laugh led to the rest of the group joining in. From that point on, he became a good contact of mine and I learned a couple valuable lessons (first, never to try that again… and second, that even in a completely serious setting, a bit of self-deprecation goes a long way to breaking ice).
Trying to be the networker I want to be has resulted in me realizing how simple networking really is. Sure, there are people out there who will never want to speak with you or spare a moment of their time to exchange even a few words over e-mail, but a vast majority of people want the same thing most of us want: someone else to do the work. We have all met people who, despite being a stranger, manage to make us feel completely comfortable with them. They are usually the de facto life of the party, etc. But what is really going on in these situations?
No one likes to feel awkward or disconnect with others, but few put themselves into a position of being the “ice breaker.” Ice breaking doesn’t take any skill or charm, just the willingness to be the first to extend a bit of hospitality to another. When it comes to professional networking, this often manifests itself as the ability to get to know the person behind the title first. It can be as simple as bringing up a baseball game or some common point of interest between the two of you or, for people like me who aren’t really sports fans, it can be as simple as asking someone, “So, how’s your week gone?”
I have built countless relationships within my network by starting things off with opening myself up as a willing ear to hear their problems, issues, stresses, etc. Mutual venting is a fantastic way to set the tone of your conversation as being more personal and flexible. From that point, with that foundation in place, it becomes so much easier to make the person feel as if a personal investment in you is worth their time or attention… because you’re not just another student, you’re an individual they understand.
The final bit of advice I can offer stems from a personal issue I faced in law school. I come from the technology industry where even a CEO is only a text message away. Not hearing back from someone within a few days time usually means there is a problem. But that isn’t how things work in the legal environment.
No matter how interesting you may be, or how good of a relationship is that you formed with someone — law is grueling, and people get behind. As a result, it is on you to keep the ball moving. I often make a point to try to connect with someone once per week when I am trying to schedule a time for coffee or a chat. On its face, sending unanswered e-mails once per week may seem overbearing or even risk annoying the individual… and it may. Fortunately, in the professional world, people who legitimately don’t want to talk to you (or simply can’t due to time constraints) will be forward about it.
There have been three or four times where my attempts to meet someone have ended with a blunt “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you,” or “I don’t have time to speak with you,” etc. The vast majority of times, however, have resulted in me finally being able to get that meeting once the person’s schedule opens up. No animosity, awkwardness, etc. It’s simply business. In fact, but for my persistence my first-year, I would have landed my dream-internship at a large financial investment company. As I would find out later, the guy I was trying to get in touch with had some personal priorities arise that he had to take care of which spanned over two months of time and led to me feeling pretty deflated about my chances of getting in. But persistence worked out.
In other words, unless you are specifically told to stop reaching out to someone — keep reaching out. Keep trying. It can be as simple as replying to the previous e-mail you sent with, “Just touching base again. Hope your week is going well!”
I hope some of this advice has been helpful to you. I know it can be difficult to make the first move, so if you need practice, feel free to reach out to me first.