Remember the second core premise of this guide: contribution to communities is what creates opportunities. In order to contribute, you must understand what is being done and where you fit in. You find out what is being done in the field you’re looking at by talking to people.
Reading news articles and industry publications are essential adjuncts to learning from people. You must show that you are aware of the basics of the field you’re interested in. But you won’t really understand an industry until you hear how insider’s think and when you read between the lines.
When you’re beginning to reach out to people in a field, your goal in early conversations is to understand the most basic aspects of their work.
You can begin calls with a quick history about yourself. Make this fairly fast – your goal is not to sell yourself but to engage the other person and make them feel invested in the conversation. You should develop a quick summary about yourself which is practiced but without sounding rote.
In the days before your call, read the attorney’s firm biography, their LinkedIn biography and as many recent relevant publications as you can. Check what schools they went to. Think about any ties you have to their background and mention it. Re-read and skim as much of this material just before your call to refresh yourself. You’re studying people the way you’d study for an exam.
If it’s possible to tie what you’ve learned about the attorney into the conversation in an organic way, do it, but don’t get into too much detail about what you know about the attorney – you don’t want to seem like a creep. Visiting any twitter or facebook profiles can be useful for the flavor of how you’ll talk to them but never mention anything you found on there. It’s public but it’s personal.
If you listen to podcasts, spend some time thinking about what makes for an effective interviewer. Take some notes. There are some good Youtube tutorials as well that break down what makes for effective interviewing. It’s worth taking a little time to get better at this craft. The craft lies in the give and take of conversation. You’re not here to interrogate, and you want to give your conversation partner some sense of your values and interests so they can connect with you.
Show up prepared. You’ll want to have questions in advance that you’ll ask. Write these out if that’s helpful for you, and it’s okay to have them handy but don’t rely on them. It’s a good idea to take notes, but don’t get hung up on them. If you find you’re too hung up notes, ditch them. If you’re doing this right, you’ll be having dozens if not 100+ conversations, and it’ll be difficult to remember everything even from the most stimulating conversations. Reading back on your notes weeks later will be valuable. Be sure to take note of who they are and their personality. Ask yourself what seems to motivate them, what interests they have. Remembering the things people enjoy and are drawn to are great ways to sustain connections over time. When you share that you remembered those things, people feel seen and understood.
Don’t ask obvious questions. You should never ask a question you can google the answer for. You don’t want to seem like you haven’t done your homework. If you can help it, don’t ask questions like “what do you like about your work” or questions like that. They’ve probably gotten them before. Try something distinct, like “I see you worked briefly in California before moving to NYC. Is there anything different about practicing on the West Coast?”
You’re here to make an emotional connection with someone. Pay attention to what excites the person you’re talking to. Look at how their eyes light up and notice the emotion in their voice. Follow up on the things that excite them, and be willing to set aside the questions you had in mind (this can be good deposition technique as well).
The easiest opening question is something like “tell me about your path into corporate real estate”. This is open ended enough that it gives them range to talk about what they want without being so unstructured that they can’t figure it out.
When you’re at the beginning stages of your inquiry, don’t ask about job opportunities. I know that it’s what you really want, and it takes extra effort to not ask about it. It’s worth it to not rush. The people you’re getting to know will appreciate that, and it takes pressure off them to deliver some outcome for someone new that they’re doing a favor.
You want to get some understanding of what exactly attorneys in that field do on a day to day. Where do they go for news? What sorts of business development have they found most helpful (this tells you about their personality, and you’ll get an understanding of how they think about their competition).
What skills are most in demand in a field – this is one of the most important questions you can ask. You’ll also want to know about legal trends affecting their industry. This can be a goldmine – find out what are the cutting edge issues and you can get on top of these issues. We’ll cover that in “Building your audience.”
Find out what organizations or bar associations they are active in. Find out how they learned about it, what they’ve gained from participating in those groups. This is vital for you to find which groups to join, which we’ll cover in “Find your bar association.”
You want to find out where they think their industry is heading in the coming year. You can ask them how they think other law firms will be hiring in that space. Which firms will probably grow? Which clients are growing. Find out the paths attorneys take – which law firms seem to be the hotbeds of talent for a certain industry? Which roles make it more likely people will join the government or a client. Which clients seem to hire in-house attorneys more?
You’re also here to gather information on your product-market-founder fit. Do you just like the kind of work and the people doing the work? Think back to the questions we poised there. Perhaps you can find a way to ask these attorneys those questions to learn their preferences. For myself, I quickly surmised that while I had the technical background for both patent prosecution and patent litigation, I had strong oral argument skills and I enjoyed the people dimension. While other people would say they hated the stress and drama of depositions and trials, I was drawn to it. And I got repeated feedback that litigation seemed like a fit for my personality. So I moved towards that. But be sure to test your assumptions, don’t limit yourself.
You’ll have to master the art of reading nonverbal cues. If you ask for an opinion on a particular firm or company and you detect a note of hesitation, pay attention to that. You don’t necessarily have to probe for it. Maybe you do that in another conversation, or with another attorney. An underrated way to get to know someone is to find a way to give them an opportunity to complain about something. It’s fair game to ask people what they don’t like about their line of work or what they would change about it – you want to know what to avoid, after all. Ask the attorneys you talk to what they’ve been most proud about in their career. Or what made them feel the best in the past week.
You’ll want to balance direct questions about the person you’re learning from with questions about the law firms or clients in their niche. On one hand, people love talking about themselves and sharing their opinions. On the other hand, people don’t want to feel interrogated, and sharing opinions about third parties can be just as insightful about their values and perspective.
There’s also space for you to share about yourself – you want them to be connected to you and have some feeling about who you are. And you also want to set up an atmosphere that makes you more of a colleague than a supplicant. A great way to do that is to be lighthearted in your responses. It’s risky to make a joke at their expense, but it’s great if you can show the confidence to make a joking response to their question (about anything, it doesn’t have to be at your expense).
You’ll find you get lots of questions about your interest in the field, and potential obstacles you face. You’ll face largely the same questions in interviews. Each of these calls is an opportunity to prepare for how you’ll handle these questions in an interview. It’s free interview prep.
As you keep showing up and getting practice engaging members of your community, muscle memory will take over. The conversations will be fluid. You’ll charm people with your knowledge and your dedication to your craft. People will be impressed with who you’ve gotten to know and the things you’ve learned. They’ll start asking you questions to learn from you. You’ll be more confident. You’ll feel more bold in who you reach out to – maybe that successful partner you thought was inaccessible, or that superstar associate you want to emulate. It’ll get easier and more fun.
We discussed the importance of contributing to a community. As you continue to develop your industry knowledge, you’ll start to connect dots and exercise your own judgement. What do you see as the future of this niche? As a new entrant, you will be driving its future. Every informed conversation you have with someone in a community is an opportunity to share what you’ve learned from these conversations and what direction you’re taking your career.