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A Guide to a Networking Meeting
by J. Murray Elwood
Just as you prepare for trial, or make notes before a meeting with a major client, or ready your questions for a deposition, so will your informational meetings succeed if you keep in mind a simple script. Only remember that at these self-marketing meetings you're not a lawyer interviewing a client. You are having a friendly conversation and are asking for a little advice so that you can better market yourself into a new job. This chapter offers an easy guide for your informational meetings. If you follow its general outline, it will benefit you enormously. You will gain the information you need to meet your goals and find your new direction. We all have our own conversational style. Adapt this script to your own needs and your own idioms.
They are three obvious stages of the informational interview, and they are not hard to remember:
The Entry Phase
When you first meet your contact, as when introduced to anyone for the first time, make a real effort to put that person at ease. Don't plunge head first into your agenda until you have first established a human contact. Exchange a few natural pleasantries. Any complimentary icebreaker will do.
One easy way to begin is with a quick "room-read." Something in the office environment will suggest a commonality, a conversation opener: Family pictures, a view out of a window, or a desk ornament. If you live in an area known for its sports passions, such as Philadelphia or Chicago, then maybe a comment about some favorite team's recent success or failure. Above all else, make it genuine and then say:
I want to thank you for taking the time to see me . . . I'll try to be brief and to the point . . .
This step is crucial to the whole process. You let your listener know, up front, just why you are there, what you are seeking, and what you are not seeking. Most people will still be under the misapprehension, no matter what you wrote in your letter, or what you've said during your phone call to schedule an interview, that you're going to ask them for a job. So you must take great care to put these assumptions to rest. Say something like this:
Before we begin . . . I want to make it clear why I'm here . . . I'm not looking for a position with your firm (or, I don't expect you to have a job for me) . . . Quite frankly, at the present time, I'm more interested in receiving some good advice - in hearing how you'd evaluate my credentials and how I should go about marketing myself within the legal community . . .
You have told the person what is not your reason for being there. So now, explain to your contact why you are there. Say:
As I mentioned over the phone, you might say that I'm doing some "marketing research" on myself . . . You see, I'm at a crossroads . . . I'm making some major decisions about the direction of my legal career . . . and it's important that I have enough input to make valid choices . . . That's why I'm seeking feedback from significant people in the legal community such as yourself . . .
Let me begin by telling you a little bit about myself, for the past ____ years I've been . . . [include a Profile statement here]
If you're talking to a friend, or a law school classmate, that you have not seen recently, then you might use these words as an opener:
It has been a couple of years since we have seen each other; so let me briefly bring you up to date . . . For the past . . .
After your Profile, use some short transitional phrase to move you to the Body of your informational meeting:
I guess my first question is pretty straightforward . . .
Body of the Meeting
First Conversational Level - TOPICS
These question areas are sometimes described as "pump primers" - themes to start the conversation, carry it along, and help the other person offer the information you need. Use just two or three of the topic areas suggested below. Adapt these questions to your needs and the chemistry of the moment. Remember - you are not taking a deposition or cross examining a witness. Keep the conversation low-key and informal. Always present yourself during an informational interview as reasonably focused, even if you are not quite sure of your direction. Never dump your uncertainties on another person during a self-marketing meeting, or ask what you should do with your life. Never.
There are two possible scenarios: Either you are staying within the legal community - looking for a better position - or you are using your legal experience as a credential and seeking to transfer your skills to another venue.
a) A Job Search Within the Legal Community:
Are my legal career objectives realistic in terms of today's market?
Do I have the kinds of credentials that legal employers are seeking?
In light of my goals, do I need any other credentials to make me a more marketable candidate?
Would my chances be better with a larger or smaller firm? Why?
If you were in my shoes, with the credentials I have described, how would you go about marketing yourself?
Do you think that I may have overlooked any other areas where I should market my skills? Are there any other bases I should cover?
How has your own legal career developed? Was it planned or did it more or less develop on its own?
If you had it to do over, would you do anything different?
Did you have any significant mentors along the way, or did you do it on your own?
4. Employment Trends
How do you read the present local business climate?
How does the local legal scene compare with law firm trends on the national level? Downsizing? Hiring?
b) A Job Search Outside of the Legal Community
Would you consider a law degree a good credential within the ______ industry?
To what extent are my legal skills transferable?
Is such a move into ______ realistic?
Could you describe to me a typical workday?
If you were attempting to transition into this industry, how would you go about marketing yourself?
What credentials best qualify a person for the position I am contemplating?
How did you happen to become interested in this particular area of work?
Was your own career planned, or did it more or less just happen?
What parts of your job do you find the most enjoyable / least satisfying?
If you had to do it all over again, how would you go about it?
What kinds of changes have you noticed in the industry over the past five years?
Do you anticipate much growth within the industry in the coming years?
Any developments on the horizon that will affect future opportunities?
What are the current employment trends? Downsizing? Hiring?
For the positions we have been discussing, what matters more - experience or credentials?
What credentials best qualify a person for the position we have been discussing?
From what I've told you of my background and credentials, would you say that I have a reasonable chance of transitioning into this field?
What periodical resources, or employment listings, are available for the job seeker within this industry?
Second Conversational Level: STORIES
At the same time that you are discussing the above topics, you will also attempt to weave accomplishment anecdotes, or success stories, into the fabric of your conversation. Well-prepared career stories are used in informational interviewing, not only to make you and your skills memorable, but also to practice them for later use in actual job interviews.
Well-prepared career stories should flow naturally in the give-and-take of the conversation. This article describes the power of storytelling when used in an interview and will show you how to develop your own accomplishment stories.
As you are talking with your networking contact, listen for conversational "openers," or commonalities - experiences similar to your own. Use these openings as a way for you to contribute to the conversation by describing your own experiences.
To illustrate: Let's continue the story of Calista Kent from the last chapter. She is the Senior Associate exploring possibilities within the nonprofit sector and has set up a meeting with Allegra Pavarotti, Executive Director of Women's' Care, a United Way Agency.
In describing her role as Executive Director, Ms. Pavarotti mentions, that in addition to United Way support, her agency also benefits from corporate matching grants and private contributions. This entails a large amount of time spent on development work within the local business community. Calista recognizes that Ms. Pavarotti's expression of concern is an opportunity for her to describe her own skills and experiences in this area, so she responds:
I know what you mean . . .When I was Chair of the Heart Association's Corporate Development Committee, we were facing a three-year decline in the yearly amount of business underwriting . . .So I decided that the best way to gain better access to these companies was through the backdoor . . . I used my contacts with their in-house legal departments to gain entry to the corporate chief executives and grants people . . . As a result, our committee not only stopped the decline in the amount of corporate underwriting, but you know, we were able to increase corporate contributions to the Heart Association by 25 percent over the previous year.
How long should your marketing or informational interview last? As a rule - shorter rather than longer. Twenty minutes, perhaps thirty at the most. Pay attention to subtle non-verbal cues for closure: a glance at a watch, the repetition of a flat "uh-uh," a look over your shoulder towards the door, and so on. The Legal Career Guru once interviewed the head of a university's Psychology Department about using certain diagnostic tests with law students. After about five minutes into the interview, the Guru noticed that the psychologist was flicking imaginary particles of dust of his sleeve. The Legal Career Guru beat a hasty exit, surprised that a psychologist was unaware of his non-verbal cues for a "brush off" . . . or maybe it was a conscious gesture!
Remember the three "R's" to the final stage of the informational interview:
If your contact is relaxed, seems to "lean" into the conversation, begins telling his or her own career stories, and genuinely appears to enjoy talking with you, then go with the flow. Sometimes interviewers are so flattered by the request for their advice, or become so interested in the process of an informational marketing meeting, that they will extend the time even up to an hour. But when you sense that your time is up, say:
Well . . . you've answered all my questions . . . thank you very much for your time (patience, insights, courtesy, etc.) . . . I deeply appreciate your kindness and I would like to get back to you if something comes up in the future . . .
After you have established your own credibility and thanked your contact for taking the time to meet with you, say something like this:
Can you think of anyone else I might talk to?
In addition, if your meeting has gone well, your contact should give you the names of a few associates and friends who might assist you in your career search. So, you might also say,
Would you mind if I used your name?
You will find that the name of a referral in your letter and in your meeting-scheduling call is a great door opener. "Friends of friends" will readily see you.
Since there is little danger now of a mixed-message, offer your resume as you leave,
By the way, in case some other referrals come to mind, my resume has my phone number and e-mail address.
Send your contact an e-mail or drop them a brief line thanking them for their time and the advice you received from their meeting. And after you move on to your new direction, set some time aside, now and then, to help others along the way. You, too, were once a stranger in the Land of Egypt.
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Be proactive. Jobs don't come looking for you the way they did 10 or 15 years ago. You have to find them by asking questions, doing research, networking with everyone you know.