Alumni Networking – When You Know No One

handshake II, originally uploaded to Flickr by oooh.oooh.If there’s a networking events for alumni, can you go even if you’ll know no one there? Reader S wonders…

I just received an invitation to what looks like a really interesting and fun networking event for a BigLaw firm I used to work at. The invite went out to all its “women alumni.” Normally I’d hop on this in a second… Problem is, I only worked there for one summer–as a 1L–and only in a foreign office (and this firm isn’t one that’s very close-knit across offices). Would it be weird for me to go? Especially because I’ve “defected” to a different BigLaw firm?

I feel like the obvious Empowered Woman response should be a resounding yes. But something feels off. I’d go knowing nobody, and without the excuse of wanting to keep up connections or friendships from the summer I did spend with the firm, since I was in a different city. Also, is it somehow disloyal to my current firm?

I just feel like this sort of event seems more targeted to alumnae who’ve left for “neutral” reasons–going in-house, clerking, career shifts, etc.–not for those who left for essentially the same job with a competitor.

Great question. We’ve talked about how to network at a conference when you know no one, but not whether it’s wrong to go to an alumni event where you know no one.  Here’s my perspective, as someone who’s been at numerous alumni events (for companies, schools, and extracurriculars):

You probably won’t know hardly anyone there even if you spent a million years there. So go. (Pictured.)

There are a variety of reasons for this. Maybe the company or school has a million alumni. Maybe only a handful of them are attending networking events, or were free that night.  Either way, everyone in attendance at the event will have something in common: you were good enough to get into Company X, or School Y, or you were dedicated enough to spend time on Extracurricular Z — and you still value those traits or skills that you have in common. I’ll be honest that these networking events are always more enjoyable if you know someone else there, but it can be good if you know no one — you don’t get stuck talking to one person all night, you feel free to roam around and meet people, and you can leave as soon as you want because you’re not waiting to see if anyone specific person shows up.

In terms of strategy, I stick by my conference networking advice to try to go in with a targeted “wish list” of who you want to talk to… but otherwise I would recommend taking a look at the alumni website, just to refresh your memory — who were the big name partners? What new has happened in the practice area you were interested in (did they win any new cases, or do any big deals)? If, during your summer, you were working on a longterm project (e.g., The Huge Case That Just Won’t Die), check to see if there were any developments.  All of this gives you a little of “starter conversation” should you need it.

I wouldn’t feel too weird about your reasons for not working for a longer time at the firm.  Obviously you still respect the people who did work at it for longer than one summer, otherwise why would you want to network with them? I would spend some time thinking of a quick sentence or two for WHY you made the choice you did, or why you’re coming to the networking event now.  For example: “I’ve just moved to Boston (or wherever) and thought it would be fun to meet some of my fellow alumni of Firm X — I am always looking for intelligent, dynamic women.”  Or: “Even though I decided Firm Y was a better fit for personal reasons, I still think so fondly about my summer at Firm X that I had to come.” I would avoid comparing Firm X and Y, especially in a way that implies you made a better choice to leave Firm X.

As for loyalty, I say there’s nothing disloyal about networking.  Networking is a vital part of your career — it gives you more information and control over which paths you follow, may help you with amazing opportunities for jobs, and it can be a great way to make friends.  If you were going around badmouthing your current firm, I think it would be bad manners… if you were giving up secrets it would be more than just disloyal, and a breach of your ethical duties.

Readers, what are your thoughts on alumni networking — would you go under Reader S’s circumstances?  What are your best tips for networking at alumni events where you know no one?


  1. karenpadi :

    I do quite a bit of networking–in fact, I consider the meet-ups for this site as networking (and friend-making!).

    Here’s the thing, I network for me and my career. I don’t network for the firm (they aren’t paying me to go). I don’t network for my clients. I don’t network because it’s fun (well, sometimes it is kind of fun). I network because that’s how I establish contacts and get my name out there. It’s how I stay competitive in the job market (even though I am not looking for a job).

    Here’s something about networking that surprised me in the last year–it sets you up for plum assignments. Partners do catch on to things like associates going out and making connections. So when they have a major client-facing role open up, they will chose the person who is already out there and meeting people and demonstrating their social skills.

    Definitely go the the alumni meet-up. The firm is probably hosting it to drum up work from their alumni who went in-house. Assuming you are a junior associate, you will be a refreshing change from the partners who are trying to talk up the firm and justify their billing rates.

    Small talk will be super easy at an event like this. Just ask about when they were at the firm and where they are now. Per Kat’s advice, have a really good and rehearsed answer for when they ask the same about you.

  2. For what it’s worth, I was invited to an event like this at my prior firm — and promptly disinvited when they realized they sent the invite to the “all alums” email list rather than the “potential client alums” list. (I’m at another big firm.)

  3. Go!! Go and network and rock it :)

  4. Apart from Anonne’s experience above, I say go and don’t feel weird. They clearly view you as an alum since you were invited. You never know what it will lead to….

  5. As someone who has put together these kinds of events before, I say go! There are lots of reasons a firm hosts this kind of an event – to drum up business, to help associates learn how to network, to help senior associates identify alternative career paths if they’re not going to stay to make partner, or just to make sure their name stays out there. You are a valuable part of all of these things. And don’t worry about the whole “competitor” thing. In BigLaw, firms are competitors, but they also work together – for example, if a firm is conflicted out of something, that attorney may recommend another firm to work with. I’ve known partners who get a substantial amount of business through word of mouth referrals like this.

  6. I went to one of these for my old firm. Granted, I was at my firm for several years and had lots of good friends there, but I will say one of the best parts of the event (besides being reminded of how good a spread Uncle BigLaw puts out) was chitchatting with Mr. BigPartner. I was no longer a nameless associate working under him and just went up and started talking to him like a peer. Not sure about all firms, but our partners were hopeless at social interaction (even this guy, who’s a huge rainmaker). He was visibly relieved to have someone to talk to and I got to get some gossip from inside the rainmaker circle while helping to make myself memorable to him (he’s a big player in the space I’m in generally so he’s a valuable contact even if I’m not at the firm anymore).

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