You Need a Montage: Informational Meetings Scene I (Identifying Candidates)

Sam Halpert, PSJD Fellow 2014 – 2015
Christina Jackson, Director of Public Interest Initiatives and Fellowships
(with thanks to the professional development teams at UC Berkeley, Washington and Lee, and Seattle University Law Schools)

Okay, grasshoppers. Last month, I confessed my job search skills are weak and committed to questing with you to learn from PSJD’s resident career development guru Christina Jackson. Since then, we’ve re-made our resumes and cover letters. But now, the real work begins, for to master the art of informational meetings we must remake ourselves.

Creating a Strategy for Informational Meetings (Tip 5)

The goal of an informational meeting is twofold: First, it allows you to gather information and advice. Second, it helps you develop professional relationships. A master of these meetings has power far beyond one who can research and write application documents quickly and with confidence.

Resumes and cover letters are documents you send out during your job search. Planning for and following through with informational meetings involves putting your self out there, all the time. Although these meetings aren’t job interviews, how you present yourself and your credentials matters. They may reveal otherwise hidden opportunities. At PSJD, we do our best publicize positions, but often job opening info travels by word of mouth. Attorneys upon whom you make a good impression will remember you when they have openings or even recommend you to friends for positions for which they believe you’re qualified. Also, these meetings aren’t just for the beginning of your job search. While extremely helpful for beginners, they’re critical at later stages as well, helping to narrow practice areas or geographic locations—even to choose particular offices. This means you’ll always want to be reaching out to other lawyers and maintaining contact with practitioners already in your network, whether or not you’re looking for work.

If this idea sounds daunting, I agree. Christina’s ramping us into this task over three posts.  First, we have to learn how to identify candidates for these meetings and how to decide whom to contact first. Next, we’ll practice crafting our initial meeting requests. At the end of the week, we’ll discuss how to follow through with a meeting and follow up on one. After reading this post, you should be able to create a list of candidates for informational meetings and decide to which people you’ll reach out first.

NB: I’ve created a little spreadsheet tool in Google Drive to help myself. I’m sure there are more sophisticated programs out there, but this one was easy to make, and makes sense to me based on Christina’s advice. If it helps you, feel free to download it for yourself. What we discuss today involves filling in the first sheet of the tool (“Add/Edit Contacts”). (I marked down which people I wanted to contact in the first group (and so on) in the “Notes” section of the sheet.)

Part I: Identifying Candidates

Informational meetings are like job interviews in reverse. You initiate the contact, and you ask the questions. People who enjoy their work are happy to talk about what they do and are usually willing to help. In return, though, you must be prepared to use their time effectively. As a first step, this means you need to make sure you’re reaching out to the right people.

  1. Set parameters for your search. Contacting people takes time and energy; you need to focus your efforts. (Also, when you begin meeting with people, they’ll want to know why you were interested in talking to them in particular.) To begin developing a list of candidates for your informational interviews, you should first identify your areas of interest. Think about classes you’ve enjoyed, areas of practice you thought about before law school, or things that simply sound cool. Talk to classmates, read professional articles, and attend extracurricular events, noting what piques your interest. (The PSJD Resource Center’s “Practice Area Guides”—as well as your friendly neighborhood Career Office—are also a good place to start.)

    Next, limit your geographic preferences. It’s both prudent to use these meetings to connect to the legal market in areas where you’d like to practice and impractical to talk to practitioners in many different locations. Get a particular perspective on one or perhaps two geographic regions where you’d like to set your law career. (Remember, for the holidays it may be most efficient to focus on the geographic area where you’ll be spending winter break.)

    After some brainstorming, my list included 4 categories and 2 geographic regions. In general, my areas of interest were pretty broad for someone who’s already graduated. But, Christina noted that the breadth of your list can often depend on what you’re choosing to focus on. For example, if your interest is criminal defense, you’re aiming for a tightly-bound world of work. My interest (Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) doesn’t have an official place in the US legal pantheon. As a result, I’m still searching through several different fields that touch on ESC rights. Bottom line: your list will look different depending on where you are in your career and what you’re hoping to do. But always ask yourself whether you could be more focused in your search, and whether you’re ready to articulate your career goals more clearly.

  2. List the people you know best and work outward. Make a list of people you already know that have or might have connections to your areas of interest within your geographic range. Don’t just look for people with your “dream job”; also find people with information or experience that might help you clarify your job search or achieve your intermediate goals. Start with your professional and social groups, including:
    • Classmates & Alumni (Law school & undergrad)
    • Law School Faculty and Staff
    • Family (nuclear & extended)
    • Friends & Neighbors
    • Colleagues & Supervisors (present & former)
    • Volunteer organizations
    • Religious groups
    • Professional contacts (from conferences, CLEs, etc.)

    Once you’ve worked through these possibilities, if your list feels thin in certain areas then think about who you might want to cold call, looking at names from:

    • Local trade & professional associations (i.e. your local state bar association)
    • Trade magazines and journals
    • Newspapers
    • CLE faculty rosters

    I’ve had a variety of legal work experiences, so I was able to come up with a decent list drawing mostly from people I know directly. My list wasn’t complete, though. According to Christina, your initial list should always include: (1) supervisors from all your legal jobs, (2) all professors you studied your areas of interest with, and (3) all classmates (law and undergrad) doing work in your areas of interest. I had to backtrack and add professors I hadn’t developed close relationships with, as well as classmates with whom I haven’t spoken in a while.

  3. Set contact priorities. Start with the people you know best, and to whom you feel safest reaching out. In particular, your Career Development Office is probably sitting on a wealth of contacts and has the expertise to help you figure out who your best bets are. Another advantage of your CDO is that you know you aren’t imposing on them for help—helping you with this stuff is their job. Personally, I worry hugely about bothering busy people. Christina stressed how important it is not to worry about imposing on your contacts, especially in this early stage of planning:

    “If people don’t want to be bothered, they just won’t write back. If they do write back, they’ve made a conscious decision to help. Take them up on it. You may not feel as though you have anything to offer them, but most people probably received help themselves at some point; they want to pay the favors they received forward.”

I can’t think of better words to leave you with than those. Good luck building your lists; we’ll talk about what to do with them on Wednesday. Until then…

Wax on, wax off,
-Sam

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