The following is an excerpt from the Career Development Handbook.
Reading, research, and observation are critical parts of the career exploration process. But at some point, you will also want to take advantage of the human resources that can help you gain knowledge and experience in your field of choice. Often this interpersonal exchange is referred to as “networking,” and it is responsible for connecting people to the majority of employment opportunities. Though the cliché is “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” in today’s market, it is actually the combination of what you know and who knows YOU. The more people with whom you make an effort to connect and share your goals, the more potential advocates you have on your side during your professional development process. Networking needs to be active to be effective, and it is more than just adding someone to your LinkedIn rolodex or being present at a networking event. We would rather you think of impactful networking as a series of enjoyable and meaningful conversations. It is an exchange of information and ideas, it should feel genuine, and it will most often be mutually beneficial.
Sticking closely to the idea of conversations as a valuable piece of the career exploration puzzle, we want to introduce you to the concept of informational interviewing.
Format, Purpose, Direction
Informational interviews are an opportunity for you to ask questions of someone who is in a job or field that interests you. They are typically set up as short discussions (~30 minutes) over the phone, via Skype, or in person, that allow you to gain insight and make a meaningful professional connection. While you will want to bring a resume with you just in case your interviewee asks for it, and it would be wise to tell them a bit about you and your goals during the conversation, informational interviews are not about asking for a job. They are about building relationships as well as your knowledge base in a field or organization that you may want to pursue. Informational interviews are one of the least intimidating forms of networking – for both the professional and the student/job seeker. It is an opportunity for you to learn more about what a particular person or organization is all about, AND a chance for your interviewee to tell their story and give back to both their law school and profession by serving as a mentor to potential new talent. UNC Law alumni are a perfect first resource for informational interviews. Alums are often more than happy to spend some time with you to discuss how they got into their current role, share what they do and don't like about their jobs, and offer advice regarding courses to take and job search strategies.
To set up an informational interview, you will want to call, email, or ask in person. If this is your initial outreach to someone (vs. someone you know or see more often), you will want to introduce yourself briefly, including the fact that you are a UNC Law student with an interest in __(fill in the blank)__. Explain how you got their contact information (name of a mutual contact, LinkedIn, UNC Alumni Directory, their organization’s website, etc.) and why you are interested in speaking with them. Remember that these are informational interviews, so learning about their career path and current role or organization, as well as getting advice as someone interested in their field/organization is the right approach, vs. asking about job or internship opportunities. Make a direct request for an informational interview, giving both dates and times you would be available, as well as the methods of communication you are open to (phone, Skype, coming to their office, meeting over coffee). Make it easy for them to reply and say yes by giving them specific options. Remember to thank them and provide your contact information.
There are two schools of thought on attaching a resume to your initial outreach email. Your prospective interviewee may be intimidated by an attached resume if they don’t have hiring power and assume this is your only reason for reaching out, or they may not open an email with an attachment from an unknown sender. On the other hand, it is natural for a complete stranger to be curious and want to know a little bit about you. Your interviewee may be more compelled to talk to you based on your resume contents, or perhaps will pass it on to a colleague whom they feel might be in a better position to speak with you. It is your choice whether or not to include your resume at the onset, but if you choose to do so, make it clear that you have included it simply to provide additional information on your background before meeting.
Making the Most of the Conversation
When you meet with someone for an informational interview, bring some questions with you. Though your conversation will eventually flow naturally, you can jumpstart the conversation with a few initial inquiries. Ask questions you want to know the answer to (with the exception of their salary). These may be about their career path and law school experience, about their organization or area of law, about their day-to-day work, and/or for advice in your own professional development and opportunity search. For example, any of the following would be appropriate:
Tell me about your career path. How did you get where you are today?
What is a typical day like for you?
What experiences, training and skills did you bring to the position?
What are the advantages and disadvantages of your job? What do you like most/least?
What are the biggest challenges you experience in day-to-day practice?
What were you involved in when you were a law student – inside and outside of the classroom – and how do those experiences serve you in your current role?
How did you find your current job? What advice would you give in regard to the job search?
What competencies, skills, and experiences would you say are necessary to succeed in this practice area/company/role, and are there specific ways you would suggest I get up to speed during my time as a student?
Are you involved in any professional organizations or associations?
Would you mind looking at my resume and giving me your comments?
Can you suggest others to talk to about this career?
Following Up and Moving Forward
The follow-up process is just as important as the informational interview experience itself. As with a real interview, be sure to send a thank you note and/or email within 24 hours of your meeting. Be sure to reference specific helpful advice they gave you, your intentions to reach out to any other contacts they suggested, and include any information or documents they asked you to follow up with after your meeting (a resume, a list of cities you’d be interested in practicing in, or an answer to a question, for example). Add this person to your contact database (whether a spreadsheet, LinkedIn, or another venue), and make a note to follow up with them again in a few weeks or months to keep the contact fresh. You may find that reading articles relevant to their practice, holidays, or just the end of a semester may offer natural opportunities to reconnect and remind them of you and your exploration/search. While informational interviews are meant to be about relationship building, they can certainly lead to employment opportunities in the near or distant future and should be treated as an investment and the opening of a door.