by Mary Crane
Law firms and other legal employers schedule summer social events for multiple reasons. These activities provide a relaxed atmosphere in which an employer can promote its culture. They also serve as an important means via which employers discern whether prospective hires can successfully navigate a variety of social settings. Employers know that a future lawyer’s ability to connect and build relationships is critical to his or her long-term success.
To conduct social conversations that work, focus on the following five principles:
Forget your “elevator pitch” and concentrate on connecting
Throughout your summer employment, it’s highly unlikely that you will need an “elevator pitch,” a term coined in Hollywood’s studio days, when ambitious screenwriters hoped to catch an unsuspecting movie mogul on an elevator. Once the magnate was cornered, screenwriters pitched their favorite storylines. They often spoke at lightning speeds because they had the length of an elevator ride to sell their best ideas.
No employer I know expects (or wants) summer hires to “sell” themselves during business-social events. Instead, they hope that summer associates and interns will use these activities to learn about the organization, meet people affiliated with it, and start building relationships with colleagues and new contacts.
Instead of an elevator pitch, develop a one- or two-sentence descriptor that will help others remember who you are. For example, a summer hire might say, “I’m the firm’s only summer associate from the University of Texas Law, and I’m working with Mary Smith in M&A.”
Demonstrate an interest in others, and you will immediately become memorable in the most positive way. Arrive with a handful of questions that you can ask virtually anyone. If I were a summer associate working in Chicago, for example, I might be prepared to ask:
- What are you working on right now?
- What’s the most memorable project that you’ve tackled during your career?
- What do you see happening in your practice area during the next five years?
- I’m new to Chicago. Is there one thing that I should make time to see or do while I’m here?
- Do you have plans for a summer vacation? Where do you plan to go?
Notice that I’ve suggested a mix of topics. This enhances your ability to connect with guests who are solely focused on work as well as with those who wish to establish a more personal connection. Seek to connect with people wherever they are and whatever their interests.
Every lawyer and lawyer wannabe should memorize the following Dale Carnegie quote: “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get people interested in you.”
Escape or redirect awkward conversations
You may become involved in a conversation in which someone raises a potentially sensitive issue or makes an insensitive remark. Handle this situation well, and you will immediately distinguish yourself as a true professional. Three potential strategies include:
- While I generally discourage clients from avoiding difficult conversations, you may wish to make a quick escape when a conversation among a group of people you don’t know well moves in an uncomfortable direction. Simply look at the person standing next to you and say, “Excuse me for a minute. I need to freshen my drink.” With any luck, by the time you return, the conversation will have turned to another subject.
- Criminal defense attorneys excel at this technique. When confronted with a hostile question like, “How can you even contemplate defending someone who did such a despicable act,” a good lawyer will respond, “Thus far the allegations are just that…allegations. Our system guarantees every accused person the right to a fair trial.” This response acknowledges the question and then shifts the focus from the alleged crime to the import of a fair trial. In a social setting, you can deflect by saying, “That’s an interesting question, and I’d like to point out ….”
- Disagree respectfully. Politely acknowledge that two people can view the same set of facts and develop contrary opinions. Simply say, “I respectfully disagree with your conclusion.”
End conversations and move on
Everyone who attends business-social events does so with the understanding that participants are expected to mingle. No one should find a particularly interesting attendee and monopolize his or her time. Enjoy each conversation in which you engage. When you sense that the conversation has begun to wane, tell the other person how much you enjoyed meeting him or her, indicate that you would like to stay in touch, and move on.
In many professional settings, initiating a business card exchange may be the easiest way to bring a conversation to a close. A special note for summer hires: At internal events throughout the summer, please do not offer your business/personal card to coworkers and colleagues.
Don’t forget to follow up
If you genuinely wish to become memorable, don’t just show up for social events and initiate a handful of conversations. Instead, start building relationships by engaging in some simple follow-up. At a minimum, do the following:
- Immediately after the event, and while your memory is still fresh, make a note of the conversations that you had, any key issue that you discussed, and interesting factoids that are worth remembering.
- Use your favorite relationship management app to keep a record of the people you met, their contact information, and any other information that you have recorded.
Think about all of the people with whom you had a conversation and send follow-up emails to at least three. Your email should reference the event, specifically state that you enjoyed meeting the other person, and articulate one thing about your conversation that made it particularly memorable. For example, a summer associate interested in health care might write: Thank you for sharing your thoughts about the firm’s health care team.…
Mary Crane is a presenter on professionalism and business etiquette at the annual CDO’s Career Immersion program. To read more Things You Need to Know from Mary Crane, visit her blog at http://marycrane.com/things_you_need_to_know.