Where The Lawyers Are

Where The Lawyers Are
By Karin Ciano


We are told that bank robber Willie Sutton was once asked, “Why do you rob banks?” He is said to have responded, “Because that’s where the money is.” While the quote may or may not be accurate, the sentiment is spot on; if you want something, go get it where it is found. It may be true for robbing banks, and it is certainly true for networking with lawyers.

For most of us, law school is not an end in itself; it is preparation for a legal career. That career will take place off campus, far from school, among people who may rarely venture onto a law school campus. My thesis in this article is that it is never too soon to start meeting these people—and I would encourage you to make it a priority.

1. Practicing lawyers are not (usually) in law school.
Look around. Most of your law school professors do not practice law. Compared to other systems in which teachers are expected to continue in the trade, such as medical school, in which teaching doctors treat patients, or architecture school, where professors design buildings, law school is more like a research lab. With the notable exception of clinical and adjunct faculty, law professors work mostly on campus; they do not go to court, do not meet clients, and do not draft documents. It’s just not part of the job description. For the past half-century at least, law schools have been about legal theory first, doctrine second, and skills third. Which has been great for developing our understanding of why the law is the way it is. However, if you want to learn what the law is, or how to use it on a client’s behalf, you are going to want to meet practitioners.

2. We are also not on campus.
Let’s face it: for lawyers, time is almost literally money. Therefore, practitioners (again with the notable exception of your adjunct faculty) do not usually take time out of a workday to come to campus. Yes, we’ll show up for the occasional event, especially if there’s a nice lunch and continuing legal education (CLE) credit, or if we’ve volunteered to judge a moot court, or if someone we know is being honored with an award. However, it is a rare thing. I am pretty involved with events at my local law schools, yet I may set foot on each campus only two or three times in any given year.

So if you want to meet practitioners, do not wait for them to come to you.

3. When you want to interview us, we get nervous.
One option is to set up so-called “informational interviews.” Full disclosure, the title “informational interview” appears to be career-services-speak for “any meeting between a law student and a lawyer that isn’t a job interview.” No lawyer uses this expression to mean anything except meeting with a law student. (“Darling, I haven’t seen you in months—we should get together for an informational interview!” said no one ever.) Why don’t I like “informational interviews”? Because they take time out of my day for something, that sounds exhausting and unfriendly. I feel like I am going to be interviewed and I had better have some information. In addition, the career-services title makes me anticipate there will be an “ask” (i.e. you will want me to do something for you) which may be more than I am prepared to do that day.

There is a simple solution: Ditch the title, and call it what it is—chatting over coffee. I do that all the time, and because I do not feel like I have to prepare for an “ask,” it’s fun. It will be even more fun if you are buying and if you pick a coffee shop near me.

4. When we are at work, we are busy.
Besides the local coffee shop, there is another natural habitat where you can find us: at work. Since we’re practicing law all day—responding to client questions and requests, writing documents, researching, reviewing materials, going to court, taking depositions, sending nastygrams to opposing counsel, and what have you—it’s only natural to expect that you can learn a lot by watching us do our thing, also called “shadowing.” In many ways, you are right. As a law student, I loved shadowing opportunities. Careful observation is a fantastic way to learn how the legal rubber meets the factual road in intense settings where you cannot ask questions in real time (think court hearings, oral arguments, jail visits, or depositions). In less-intense settings, it can also be a great introduction to an environment where you will be investing some time (think summer job or semester internship). Obviously, take notes, get names, and debrief the heck out of it if you can.

However, be warned: what makes a great shadowing experience for you often reflects a crazy day on the job for us. If we are working hard enough that it is interesting to watch, then we may not have mental space left over to connect with you. In addition, that can go both ways, especially when the shadowing event is a one-off. Like a hunter in a duck blind, you will know all about our movements and activities, but you will not actually know us. Moreover, isn’t getting to know each other the whole point?

5. We are at our best when we are learning, volunteering, or socializing at bar events.
So what is your best bet for connecting with us when we are comfortable, when we are not preoccupied with work, and when we are actually curious to learn about you? It is simpler than you think. We do not always admit it, but most lawyers with healthy law practices leave their offices on a regular basis to hang out with each other. Some of us serve on bar association committees; some volunteer with pro bono legal services organizations; some build houses or run 5Ks or package meals. Some play in bands, read books, ride bikes, or play softball. All of us need to get annual CLE credits, and we usually do it together. (Ask your local CLE providers if students can attend at reduced prices or free.).

A practitioner’s volunteer, educational, and professional-fun time is prime time to engage with law students. Consider, I am doing something that is interesting to me but is not a make-or-break moment for a client, so I am attentive, curious, and relaxed. Although an introvert, I have prepared myself to meet folks and am looking forward to it. I have probably even remembered to bring enough business cards. It is no surprise that the folks I meet at these events are usually the ones who become lasting connections, referral sources, and even friends.

For years, the FBA has been offering practitioners these opportunities to meet each other. I first started going to Minnesota FBA lunches and social events nearly ten years ago, while clerking for a judge. After meeting a few nice people, I started volunteering on committees. I met even more nice people, who got to know me, and eventually one of them asked me to help lead the Minnesota FBA’s law student outreach. Now I get to regularly meet law students in exactly the circumstances I’ve described—where we work together planning events, brainstorming ideas, and thinking about how we can bring students and practitioners together. I see the students’ talents in action and get to know them as people, and when they graduate, we often stay in touch.

What has been true in Minnesota is now available to law students nationwide through the FBA-National Law Student Division, and I would encourage you to take advantage of it. On every FBA committee, at every FBA event, you will find practitioners interested in learning, socializing, and doing well, most of whom could probably use a hand with their activities. They are out there waiting to be met—you just need to go to where they are.

Karin Ciano, a former federal law clerk and legal-writing teacher, is a co-chair of the Minnesota FBA’s Law School Outreach Committee, and a member of FBA-National’s Civil Rights Section. Karin has a sole practice representing plaintiffs in employment and civil rights cases in federal court, and is a freelance attorney. She welcomes your questions and feedback at karin@karincianolaw.com.

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