Mention "networking" to a law student and watch her cringe. Suggest an informational interview and prepare for her eyes to glaze over. Law students are told frequently about the value of these activities but generally find the idea of an informational interview intimidating and overly time-consuming. Why should I bother? What should I ask? How do I arrange one? How do I prepare? This article will answer those questions.
WHY SHOULD I BOTHER WITH INFORMATIONAL INTERVIEWS?
Despite their seemingly intangible benefits and the daunting task of approaching strangers for advice, informational interviews can be invaluable in a job search. For example, one student looking for career advice talked to five different attorneys in his practice area of interest. He initially planned to speak with only two, but each of them gave him additional names to contact. These advisers gave him tips on how to tailor his resume and cover letter specifically for jobs in this practice area. Furthermore, he was able to use the names of some of these contacts in his cover letters. Tailoring his application materials led to interviews, during which he was able to display a deeper knowledge of the field than most entry-level candidates. When it came time to negotiate his offer, he was armed with current information on the state of the market and salary standards.
Think of informational interviews as a long-term investment, not one where you expect an immediate return. You are not meeting with Attorney X to ask if his firm has a job opening or if he knows of job openings elsewhere. You are meeting with Attorney X to ask specific questions about his practice, his career and career path, and steps you should be taking along your career path.
WHAT SHOULD I ASK?
Many advisers tell students not to expect an informational interview to lead to a job offer -- but that it may. Even this may give students the wrong impression. You should pursue informational interviews to obtain information. Interviews are not just clever ways to wrangle a meeting with an attorney: They are goals in and of themselves. In order to make effective use of an informational interview, you must be clear about what you want to accomplish. Throw away the list of generic informational interview questions that you found online and develop a list of topics that apply to your situation.
Are you trying to decide between two cities? Then your questions might focus on that. "Partner X, if I hope to pursue a career in environmental regulatory law, is the highest volume/most interesting work in Washington, D.C.?" If Partner X practices environmental law in Phoenix, ask whether her practice deals more with federal or state agencies. Ask her how often she travels to Washington for hearings and meetings. Does she collaborate with a Washington-based firm for some of her cases?
Are you hoping to learn more about a particular practice area? Let's pretend you are considering a career in bankruptcy law. "Associate Q, do you feel a clerkship with a bankruptcy judge is essential for beginning a career in this field? Would a clerkship in a non-bankruptcy court be of value to employers? I see that you represent creditors exclusively; how did you decide to focus on a creditor practice and how does it differ from a debtor-side practice?"
There are also some standard questions that can be asked of almost anyone. Are there particular courses that you recommend I take in school? Are there internships or clinical opportunities that would be particularly tailored for my career path? How has the economy affected your practice (practice area, geographic location, etc.)? Do you expect this practice area to grow, shrink or remain stable in the next five years?
HOW DO I ARRANGE AN INTERVIEW?
Now that you are (hopefully) persuaded of the value of informational interviews, how do you actually go about getting one? Your law school's alumni network is an excellent place to start. You can of course request a meeting with anyone, but attorneys with whom you have some connection, such as an alma mater, are the most likely to be helpful.
Your initial contact should be made through e-mail, which allows the recipient a few days to think about the request. E-mail also allows you to say a bit about yourself and what you are seeking, which can be difficult in a voicemail or initial telephone call. In your e-mail, indicate that you will follow up by phone in two or three days and then make that call. Do not be concerned that calling is being "pushy." It's not. If, however, you don't receive a reply to an e-mail and two voicemail messages, accept that the attorney is probably not able or interested in speaking with you at this time. Don't be discouraged, just continue on to your next contact.
Your e-mail query should be brief but clear about who you are and what you seek. Here is a sample query:
Dear Ms. Attorney:
I am currently a second-year student at the McDonald School of Law and am considering a career in tax law. As a fellow McDonald alumna, I wonder if you might be willing to meet with me briefly to discuss your practice? I would be happy to come to your office or meet you for coffee, whichever you prefer.
I will take the liberty of phoning your office to follow up on Wednesday, Aug. 10.
In-person meetings are the best way to conduct these conversations because people are generally more candid than in a telephone or e-mail dialogue. If you are seeking meetings with attorneys in locations other than where you attend school, try to set up several meetings while you are in the area, perhaps over spring break or winter break. Your e-mail query could then say something like "I will be in Los Angeles the week of March 13-16 and would love to meet with you in person. If this is not practical for you, I would be happy to telephone you at a convenient time."
If it is simply not possible for you to meet with an attorney in person, do not worry. You can still have a productive discussion on the telephone or perhaps with video-conference equipment, if your school offers it.
HOW DO I PREPARE?
Assemble your list of questions and topic areas in advance but be prepared to go with the flow of the discussion. If your attorney is the chatty type and is off and running with the advice, go with it. If your attorney seems to be waiting for you to prompt him with questions, you will be happy you prepared your list in advance.
Students often ask if they should take notes during these meetings. I see nothing wrong with taking notes -- on paper. Do not bring your laptop and take notes on it! Taking notes telegraphs your interest and desire to retain the advice the attorney is offering. Be careful not to write constantly, however; maintain sufficient eye contact.
After your meeting, send a thank you note immediately (within 24 hours). This need not be lengthy, just something to thank the attorney for her time. Try to add one mention of something specific you discussed to keep the note from being too generic. For example, "Your advice on the Poverty Law Clinic was especially useful; I will be contacting Professor Smith as you suggested." If the attorney was especially friendly or helpful to you, keep in touch. Send him an e-mail when you land a fantastic summer internship or your first job. Before you know it, you have a professional network.
Alyssa Dragnich, Esq., is the Assistant Director of Career Services at The Dickinson School of Law at The Pennsylvania State University.