Turning a "connection" into a "reference"
How NOT to do it:
Email From Kimm Walton, the Job Goddess: There was a student I talked to at one school who attended a black-tie awards dinner and sat next to an alum who was a stranger to her. After their dinner conversation she asked him to be a reference for her. She was offended when he said no, and asked me "Why was he so cold?"
This student (not from the U of Minnesota) had no idea about the difference between a "connection" and a "reference." In her defense, with myfriendsterspace.com offering the opportunity to amass hundred of "friends" in cyberspace with to share life's most intimate details, these nuances might have escaped her notice.
A connection may say:
1. "In our single meeting, she was well-behaved and used the correct fork."
2. "When we met in my office once, her questions were very well phrased."
3. "Throughout our limited email correspondence, she has refrained from using the smiley face."
A reference, may say "I am delighted to serve as a reference because...:
"of the splendid contribution she made during class and in follow-up discussions with her and her classmates."
"of the persistance she showed in after-class discussions as she was determined to understand the material and to learn to apply it outside of class..."
"her approach to being a student member of the Bar Committee that I chair was thoroughly professional and her contributions were thoughtful and substantial...."
"of her contributions as a research assistant to my most recent article..."
A "connection" is like a blind date -- not the person you would ask to bear your children or with whom you would pick china patterns on the actual blind date.
The "reference" stage of your relationship comes later -- soonish if you are diligent and create opportunities to grow the relationship, later or never if you don't work at it. Here is some perspective:
Because you are not "known," you are limited in what you might ask your connection to do on your behalf. As always, only ask questions to which the answer might be "yes."
1. Ask for a meeting or a time for an extended phone call.
2. Ask for advice. Advice is free and has no strings attached. Ask about the practice, the employer, the city or state, the career path. What classes should I take? What do you wish you had taken in law school that might have helped you do your work? I can take classes outside of the Law School -- can you think of anything that might help me become a skilled practitioner? Are you active in the Bar Association? How has bar association work helped you?
After asking for advice, you may begin to build a relationship -- which runs two ways. When you have taken some of the advice, report back in a thoughtful way. In your meeting (in person or by phone), you should have learned something about what might be important to your connection. When you learn something that she might think is important, call or send an email.
When you think that the "connection" knows enough about you to offer a recommendation that would be useful, go ahead and ask!