On networking

BY MITCH WEBBER

1. Like dispositive, vis-à-vis, and coldcall, “networking” is a word heard too often in law school. But unlike the other three, we knew what networking meant before arriving here. Networking is the word we would use in polite company when we meant to call someone a brown-nose, ass-kisser, glad-handler, or expert bullshitter. As in, “That fellow in the bow-tie and tweed jacket seems like a terrific networker. It’s really remarkable how he can speak so superficially and disingenuously for such long stretches. I’ll bet he’s headed to b-school!”

But first-year law students learn immediately that our administration imposes an entirely different connotation onto networking. Law school administrators tell us to network. They give talks and offer panels on networking. They instruct students that networking is what we should be doing at law school. It’s a Very Important Talent, and one we can learn and cultivate.

Whether we’re attending receptions or working at our clinicals, we should always be on the lookout for networking possibilities. Even when we’re only amongst our classmates – that can be networking, too. After all, who knows who among us will make it big?

Take a quick look at the Office of Career Services’ website. Among OCS’s many useful links – to recruiting updates, job listings, alumni surveys, etc. – there’s an entire tab devoted to networking. “There is no question,” the site announces in Introduction and Basics, “that the number one way to get any professional job, legal or non-legal, is through networking.” Scroll down to the networking how-to: “Even though you are looking for a job, do not ask for a job! … Now of course you are looking for a job, or else you wouldn’t be networking! Everyone, including the person you are talking to knows this. However, it is important to play by the rules.” (These rules include: project self-confidence, keep a card file of people you meet, and whatever you do, never never NEVER let on that you’re only interested in a person as a tool to getting to job!) Even the very first sentence on OCS’s “Clubs and Organizations” site announces, “Harvard Law School offers exceptional networking opportunities through its clubs and organizations…” God forbid we should join a club because we enjoy doing what the club purports to do!

And I’m certain that this past weekend, HLS told its admitted students that one of principal assets of our class size is its endless networking possibilities.

2. I don’t mean to dispute the importance of networking. What troubles me is that our school is so giddily eager to promote networking.

In the world we live in, OCS is probably right: most people find jobs and advance based on whom they know. But at the same time, nepotism plays a big part as well. From legacy admissions preferences, to taking over the family business, to British royalty, nepotism plays a considerable role in politics and professions. Saul Bellow’s son recently published an entire book on nepotism’s role in government and the market. (The fact that he found a publisher surely had nothing to do with his father’s prominence in the industry!)

What distinguishes the case of a father hiring his son from the case of a personal contact offering up a job to a networkee who wouldn’t have otherwise received the offer?

Networking and nepotism are functional equivalents. Networking, as I understand it, means trying to secure employment or profession advancement through personal contacts, rather than through merit. Networkers conduct social intercourse, not for the pleasure of it, but in order to exploit the relationship for personal gain. It’s using people. In that sense, networking is even worse than nepotism, since in a nepotistic relationship, the beneficiary didn’t initiate the relationship for “manipulative” purposes.

So why doesn’t OCS instruct us to exploit family connections? My guess is that nepotism still sounds wrong. Any decent person would be ashamed to admit to getting places through family connections. Networking, on the other hand, as been appropriated by professional schools and turned into a trait for which we should take pride.

3. What else does networking remind us of? It’s right there in the name: the Old Boys’ Network.

When we hear charges of Old Boys’ Network workings, we’re repulsed to imagine middle-aged WASPs smoking cigars on the golf course, plotting ways to exclude women and minorities from their law firms and country clubs.

Granted, today Jews, African-Americans, and women are all but undiscriminated against in the legal profession. But like nepotism, the Old Boys’ Network is analogous to networking. Employment and promotions are usually a zero sum propositions: one person hired means another person excluded. We would recoil to admit, “I didn’t get here on account of my qualifications. The boss and I belong to the same yacht club.” And yet apparently it’s an achievement to say, “I networked with the boss at the Harvard Defenders.”

The point is, before even entering the field, it might be nice if the law school at least pretended that we’ll deserve our accomplishments. We’re already going to be lawyers. There’s no need to so encourage us to be sleazy.

Mitch Webber is here because he knows someone…

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