Playing the Game: How to Master Firm Receptions

Second semester 1L: Just when you thought you had a handle on law school—or at least a toehold—the mountain shifts, and you’re back to scrambling against the rockslide. They warned you about cold calls and outlines, but most 1Ls feel ambushed by journal tryouts, firm receptions, and  the summer job search. That’s a lot on top of your classes. And getting gussied up to schmooze a tax partner from Whitebread & Smith LLP on a school night may reasonably bottom-out your to-do list. Don’t let it. When firms come to town, they offer more than steak crostini and an open bar. In some cases, they offer jobs, and in all cases, they offer an opportunity to make connections, practice your “elevator pitch,” and learn what the hell transactional law is. Think of firm receptions as a moot OGI. Use them to become fluent in the language of law firms, and to figure out which of your qualities law firms want most. This is how you get a job. 

As a 1L, I went to as many receptions as I could. By OGI, I had refined my process for preparing for and attending them. I should emphasize that it was my process, bespoke for my neurotic, deeply awkward personality. Thus, some of my suggestions may not suit you, but they got me a job in my target market. Without further throat-clearing, here they are: 

Go to firm receptions.

….especially if you’re targeting NY or D.C. because most of the attendees will be from those offices. There may be some folks whose grades are so stellar, their personalities so disarming that they need only smile and nod to get a callback. The rest of us need to be able to speak with enthusiasm about the stuff on our résumés. We need to articulate our reasons for coming to law school, the things we’ve found interesting about being here, and what kind of job we want. That takes practice. But where are you going to find law firm partners with nothing better to do but gab about their firms and listen to you jabber? Firm receptions, duh. This, in my opinion, is the primary benefit of going to them. True, sometimes people get callbacks from receptions. Many more will form good connections that they can lean on when they bid on interviews in the summer. But even if you leave a reception with neither, you’ll at least have practiced talking to attorneys. That matters, I promise. As long as you’re paying attention, you’ll have learned which parts of your narrative work, and which parts leave them glassy-eyed. You’ll know why Cleary is the “quirky” firm, and Covington partners brag about profits per partner (Hint: bring up “siloing” and they’ll love you for it). 

Bring backup but don’t travel as a pack.

If you can help it, go with a friend or a group. This does a few things. One, it keeps you honest. Like a gym buddy, you’re more likely to suit up and go if you have someone else counting on you. Second, going with people you know feels a lot less awkward. If there’s a lull in the conversation, it’s easy to bring up a common activity or interest and get people talking (“John and I are both going to be in the Libel show next month! Did you ever perform in Libel?”) Rolling in with a squad will also boost your self-confidence and put you at ease, but be careful not to cling to them too much. Covering ground at a reception requires flexibility. Often, that means gracefully exiting a conversation once you’ve made a lasting impression. Orchestrating a smooth departure is necessarily harder if you’re trying to extract two or three people from the conversation circle. Traveling as a pack also makes it hard to squeeze in next to that need-to-meet partner and easy to get lost in a string of introductions. Instead, try the tag team method. If you’re eager to peace out of a conversation, and you see bae near you, pull her into the circle, introduce her, talk her up a bit, and use that as an opportunity to withdraw. Finally, carpooling and sharing Ubers makes going downtown three times a week a lot more feasible.

Don’t be afraid to eat.

Few topics get people talking like food does. That’s especially true for lawyers with their firm’s credit cards. How lucky, then, that you can always count on a sampling of Charlottesville’s finest at these events. Don’t be fooled. The food is there less for your nourishment than to feed conversation. (“Have you tried the sushi? It’s delightful.” “Oh you if you like sushi you have to try my favorite sushi joint in D.C.”) So, eat in moderation. The same goes for alcohol. One glass of beer or wine might lead you smoothly into a conversation about Charlottesville’s excellent breweries and wineries, but any more than that will sail your résumé smoothly to the trash. Dean Donovan recommends one fewer drink than it would take for you to start “feeling” it. Eating and drinking at the same time? Not recommended. You should keep your right hand free and dry at all times to introduce yourself. You can’t do that with a beer in one hand and a plate of crispy shrimp in the other. 

Do your research. 

Shockingly, many people go to firm receptions knowing next to nothing about the firm. Don’t be so foolish. At the very least read the firm’s pages in Chambers (that free book that career services gives out).  Just that will set you apart, but if you want to go a step further, read about the firm on its website. That will tell you how the firm views itself, and give you a peak at the firm’s culture which you can then ask more about in person (“I read that your firm really values collegiality, how does the firm promote that culture?”). Partners and associates will appreciate that you’ve looked into their firm, and that you’re not asking clichéd 1L questions (e.g., “So, what’s your firm’s culture like?”). If you have time, look up the attorneys in attendance either on their firm’s website or on LinkedIn. That way you can identify the attorneys you need to meet, and bank some good questions about their backgrounds. It’s not creepy. If the firm sent a list of people they’re sending, the attorneys will be expecting you to know who they are. 

Don’t be boring, but don’t be a dick.

When asked, “Where are you from?”, aspire to more than one word with your answer. It doesn’t matter how obscure, boring, or podunk your home town. Have something to say about it. This goes for more than home towns. Frequently, during firm receptions, you will be expected to pitch yourself. You might see the spotlight coming, or it may land on you without warning. I’ve been to receptions where the partner asked everyone in the circle to share his or her journey to law school, and others where a partner singled me out for a “mock” interview. Saying, “I’m from Kansas, and this is the best law school I could get into” will earn you nothing but a courtesy chuckle. Take the time to work out an elevator pitch. Write it out and practice it with Career Services if you have to. Once you’ve memorized the highlights, you can adapt it to virtually any situation. When the spotlight catches you, you’ll be ready to perform. But being interesting does not mean everyone else must be uninteresting. Don’t hog the attention. When your classmates are waiting to talk to an associate, don’t take the conversation where no one can follow. If you’ve been talking for more than a minute, hook in one of your classmates. They will appreciate it, and the attorneys will take notice.

Go on time

Here’s a secret: attorneys are just as awkward at firm receptions as we are. Many of the ones that get sent to receptions are only a few years older than us and they’re no better at making small talk. Going right when the reception starts makes it a little easier on everyone. If you’re one of the first 1Ls to arrive, you get your pick of the attorneys while they’re fresh and eager to meet you. You don’t have to worry about sliding into a conversation circle or shouting to be heard. You can even ask the recruiters to introduce you to people. You also have the benefit of talking to many attorneys at once. The typical pattern at these events is that individual attorneys spread out across the venue and each receive a cluster of 1Ls. If you show up early, the pattern is reversed. You get to hold court with a cluster of attorneys. 

Follow through.

For better or worse, attorneys will remember you if you had a conversation with them. Though they may not remember your name, they’ll certainly remember what you talked about and whether they liked you. If you feel like you had a good conversation with a few attorneys, get your name in their inboxes. This requires you to remember their name (or get a business card), and email them the next day at the latest. It doesn’t have to be flashy or poetic. Your email should merely remind them of your conversation and thank them for taking the time to talk with you. Career Services can help you with the exact wording. If you do it right, you can email that person during the summer when you’re putting together your bid list, and they’ll be reminded of the pleasant conversation you once provided. This can translate into a good word with the hiring partner, or, in some cases, an early screener interview.