When Karen Murphy receives a resume, the first thing she does is ask around the office to see if anyone knows the applicant. Murphy, firm administrator for Drewry Simmons Vornehm, is one of many people who say that knowing the right people – and understanding how to talk to them – can offer new lawyers an advantage in a competitive job market.
Why networks matter
Indianapolis attorney John Ryan, hiring partner for the health law firm Hall Render Killian Heath & Lyman, said employers are looking more and more for people who have broad connections in their communities.
“I can’t stress enough how important it is to build a social network,” Ryan said. “It’s not very often where we hire an attorney that doesn’t already have some connection to our firm.”
Murphy said applicants who have a large network hold the promise of bringing new clients to the firm.
“I don’t believe they teach marketing in law school, and (lawyers) all hate the word ‘sales’ – they don’t want to hit up their colleagues, friends, or classmates for whatever type of practice they’re doing,” she said.
But one young Bloomington attorney with a solo practice attributes a lot of her success to her ability to network.
“If you want to start your own practice, one of the qualities you must have is you have to be able to rub elbows,” said Megan Lewis of Lewis Law. She says that growing up in Bloomington and attending Indiana University Maurer School of Law has enabled her to build a strong network in her hometown.
“People who move to a new area, I’m sure it would be hard to start a new firm, because no one knows who you are,” Lewis said.
Law schools know that the market for graduates isn’t as promising as it once was, and some schools have begun stepping outside of their traditional lesson plans to help students understand the importance of skills like networking.
Caroline Dowd-Higgins, director of career services for IU Maurer School of Law, said empathy, learning how to listen well, and learning how to develop client relationships are important skills for new lawyers to have.
“We’re actually in the third year of a pilot of a brand new class at IU-Bloomington called ‘The Legal Profession,’ and the whole idea is to teach things that haven’t traditionally been taught in law schools,” she said. “It’s a different kind of class – you don’t get this at other law
The class, which is required for all first-year law students, assigns students the task of conducting informational interviews with at least five attorneys, which Dowd-Higgins said helps students develop confidence when they’re talking to people they don’t know.
The class also puts students in situations that they would be likely to encounter in the profession, like receptions and other events. IU Maurer invites alumni to attend these events, where students practice their social skills.
For the first time, law students were invited to participate in the Indiana State Bar Association’s Solo and Small Firm Conference held in June. Donna Bays, conference chair, said the students participated in exercises designed to help them think like professional lawyers.
She said that some of the training included how to exchange business cards, etiquette about paying for lunch, and how to give an “elevator speech” – a short, verbal resume.
Dowd-Higgins said that people looking for a job should always be prepared to talk about themselves and explain why they’re valuable.
Networking on the job
Having social skills may get you in the door, but building a successful practice requires an ongoing effort to communicate with clients and take an interest in what they do.
Murphy said in her 14 years as firm administrator, she’s noticed that lawyers tend to stick together at social events, rather than branch out and visit with others.
“I have fought this for a while – we are largely in the construction industry. I was able to get them to willingly join different trade associations … but when they go as a group to an awards banquet, they tend to hang out with each other.”
So the firm has tried to restructure activities to encourage intermingling between attorneys and clients. At trade events, she said, “We don’t fill a table with our own people any more; we try to fill half the table with clients at trade events.”
For the shy lawyer, chit-chatting with important people might be unnerving. Murphy recognizes that.
“I’m a firm believer that until they get used to it, in the buddy system, two of them go to an event so they can bounce conversation off each other,” she said. “Some are really good at that, but others are not.”
Lewis said she goes to a lot of events, sits on the board of directors for a few non-profits, and even works the crowd at the Bloomington Community Farmers’ Market.
“You kind of have to take risks,” she said. “You have to get out there and join community organizations and make friends.”•