You are about to graduate or leave school for the summer. Whatever you do, don't neglect your opportunities for networking. Used correctly, email may become one of your best networking tools.
However, email is impersonal and two-dimensional. Attempts to network by e-mail offer no chance for the instant interpersonal click, and plenty of opportunity to miss the connections that begin in face-to-face meetings. You can make e-mail networking work for you, but you must understand and compensate for its limitations.
How can a three-dimensional person make a two-dimensional tool be productive?
(1) Be brief and informative.
(2) Ask direct questions with short answers.
(3) Ask for a phone call or personal meeting.
Typical misguided networking attempts test the limits of e-mail and try the patience of recipients because they ask for things that most people won't do for strangers and may think twice about doing for acquaintances. Wrong-headed emails usually do one or more of the following:
(1) Ask a long and complicated question. Why would a stranger take 30 minutes out of his busy day to answer a 10-paragraph e-mail that includes the story of your life?
(2) Ask for a job. This is like asking a stranger to marry you at the same time that you are setting up your blind date.
(3) Ask for a referral to a job within the recipient's organization. This is like asking to marry your blind date's sister before the blind date.
(4) Ask for referrals to friends of the recipient. This is like asking to marry your blind date's best friend before the blind date. Recognizing the limits of the medium, smart e-mail networkers write questions that quickly get the recipient to "yes."
Consider this particularly bad example of Attempted Email Networking:
Hello, my name is John Smith. I found you in www.martindale.com. I graduated from the same law school you went to. I am interested in finding an entry level attorney position in Your City and was wondering whether you could help me out. I have read your firm's profile and am very interested in your firm. Please let me know whether your firm has any opening. If not, could you please keep me posted if there is any opening for an entry level position in your firm or other firms in the future. Thank you very much for your time and attention.
Now consider this:
I am a 2006 graduate of the The University of Minnesota Law School interested in relocating to Your City. I am a native of Guatemala, fluent in Spanish and French, and I am completing a clerkship in Minneapolis. Perhaps you will have time to talk to me briefly during the next few weeks. I have a few questions about making the transition to practice in Your City. I have attached my resume in a Word document, so that you will know a bit about my background when we talk. Please let me know when it might be convenient to call, and thank you in advance for your time.
There are three problems with the first message: (1) poor grammar; (2) the writer skipped the crucial step of providing personal information B the third dimension -- that would lead to a connection beyond having graduated from the same school, and (3) it presumes that the recipient is willing to offer job referral services for a complete stranger. Not likely.
The best use of email for networking is a message that asks a direct question that leads to a meeting or a phone conversation:
(1) May I call you next Friday at 2 p.m. to ask about being a tax lawyer in Your City?
(2) I will be in Your City next week. Would it be convenient to meet with me either Monday at 10 a.m. or Wednesday at 3 p.m.?
(3) I heard you speak at a Litigation CLE last week. I have a few questions about [some topic] and would like to meet with you next week. Would it be convenient to meet with me either Monday at 10 a.m. or Wednesday at 3 p.m.?
(4) My [career services professional, favorite faculty member, former boss] suggested that I contact you to discuss [city, practice area, etc.] Are you available for a phone call next Tuesday?
After you have had a face-to-face or telephone conversation and after you have developed a relationship, your email connection may certainly be willing to answer your long question or direct you to a potential job opportunity.
Remember, the best emails are tailored to the situation you are in and are considerate of the needs of the recipient. Final caution: If you don't hear back, remember that email can be spam-blocked and that a busy recipient may look at your message and identify it as "not the fire I have to put out today." Follow up with a phone call or a letter.