I regularly have the privilege of speaking to law students nationwide about how they can stand out in this stagnant economy. During the past eight months, I have polled more than 400 law students in cities across the country. They tell me that they struggle with follow-up, which is a key component of career and business development; often lack the mentoring relationships they need to make the most of their law school experience; and lack confidence in their networking prowess. They are, however, using professional social networking tools and microblogging in greater numbers than do practitioners. Those tools will serve them well as they enter a profession that’s undergoing a notable transformation.

While substantive scholarship is essential in legal education, practical preparation is critical for student success in this job market. Law schools that foster skill-building in these areas will nurture stronger candidates and, ultimately, rainmaking alumni.

Despite the value that many rainmakers gain from mentoring law students and young lawyers, only 35% of the students polled reported having a mentor and even fewer were engaged in effective relationships. For instance, when asked whether he or she (each questionnaire was conducted anonymously using Zoomerang.com) had a mentor, one student commented: “I do, but he’s short on the mentoring. In fact, I’ve barely talked to him.” Another wrote, “Yes, but with minimal contact.”

Mentoring works best when the student or junior professional knows what he or she wants to achieve before the relationship starts and is open to every possibility. More importantly, the individual must know what he or she can offer the mentor in return. It’s helpful to take a minute and search for information about the mentor on LinkedIn or elsewhere to identify common interests. Many professionals reveal details about themselves on social networking platforms that are more extensive than what may appear on a firm Web site (e.g., work history, hobbies and group memberships).

The key is to avoid setting the foundation of the relationship on the need for employment or business. It is better to seek guidance and insight instead rather than naked business assistance. Individuals who find meaningful opportunities to interact with a mentor are more likely to create a sincere relationship.

Successful students and practicing lawyers find role models whose values, work-life balance and success levels they can emulate, taking generational differences into account. A mentor can help one confront the difficult questions and incorporate the answers into a plan of action. They can keep one honest about who one is and would like to do.

Law schools (and later, law firms) that foster genuine mentoring relationships will produce graduates (and practitioners) with deeper networks, greater confidence and the necessary guidance to answer the challenges of a modern career in the law.

The best results will come only if individuals stay connected and follow up, both with mentors and with others in their broader network. That said, 43% of the students polled did absolutely no follow-up whatsoever with people they have met. Law schools easily could provide better guidance in this regard. I often suggest using a mailing list or Google alert to track accomplishments by contacts. Ultimately, this is a skill one can hone over time and incorporate into an effective routine.

A good person to start with is one’s mentor, since that’s a safe and established relationship, and build confidence from there. This work is of critical importance, given that only 33% of responding students considered themselves “effective networkers.” Most thought of networking as handing out business cards in large conference rooms where strangers are having boring conversations in uncomfortable suits. The best networking, however, is done one connection at a time. Social media tools allow for far richer interaction than do grip-and-grin sessions. They enable individuals to engage with each other and build the commonality that fosters friendship.

Fortunately, the students I surveyed generally are taking advantage of social networking. Of those surveyed, 40% reported registering for a LinkedIn account, although few really use services of this type to their full potential. The findings are consistent with the 38% of private practitioners who reported using social networking sites in the Lexis Nexis Martindale-Hubble 2009 Networks for Counsel Study published in September. Interestingly, 12% of the students I polled reported using Twitter, compared to 6% of private practitioners in the Networks for Counsel study.

Although law students and legal professionals may have fewer choices about where they work in this market, those who act in advance and plant seeds that they allow to grow in time will have a better chance of building a solid future.

Ari Kaplan is the author of The Opportunity Maker: Strategies for Inspiring Your Legal Career Through Creative Networking and Business Development . He speaks at law schools, law firms and bar associations nationwide. The next program in his 30-Minute Thursdays webinar series called “Writing an Article and Expanding Your Network in One Hour” will take place on March 4, 2010, at 1p.m. EST.