New lawyers often overlook their law school alumni organizations as rich networking venues, eschewing them in favor of other professional organizations. Becoming an active and engaged alumnus is an excellent way to add value to your law degree, meet attorneys in a social setting and open doors to leadership and future employment opportunities. This column provides some suggestions for becoming an active alumnus, discuss pathways to leadership roles and highlight the benefits of engaging with your alumni organization.
How to Get Involved
Because the most visible elements of an alumni organization — alumni boards — are often populated with well-established and successful attorneys, some believe that making monetary donations to their alma mater is the only way to gain notoriety. However, involvement with your law school’s alumni organization may be easier and less expensive than expected. Contributions of time are crucial to the livelihood of a law school; in fact, they are as important as contributions of money. And while both time and money may be short in the years just after graduation, making time for alumni service is key to developing professional connections that will help move your career forward in the long term.
Employed and unemployed graduates can benefit from alumni engagement. New graduates should plan to attend events such as reunion or homecoming weekend and connect with alumni through local or regional events sponsored by their law school or a local chapter of the school’s alumni organization. Recent graduates are important players in an alumni program because of their immediate connection to the school. A familiarity with curricular offerings, faculty, student organizations and the school’s culture make recent graduates particularly well suited to serve as admissions contacts, student mentors and guest speakers.
An alumni office or alumni organization likely will have tasked various committees or groups with addressing areas in need of alumni support. These typically include admissions, career planning and student services or student organizations. Additionally, alumni offices usually maintain a roster of alumni volunteers that can be relied on for assistance in organizing events and maintaining contact with classes of graduates (known as "class agents").
Admissions offices count on alumni for support in recruiting prospective students and retaining promising accepted students. Whether conducting admissions interviews, making phone calls to accepted students or attending admissions events, recent graduates play a vital role in bringing new students to a law school. Even new graduates who do not have extensive career experience can share their enthusiasm for their law school with accepted students.
Serving as a mentor is often a rewarding way to volunteer. Many student services and career planning offices offer mentor programs that pair alumni with student protégés. Mentoring demonstrates a continuing commitment to the law school and student’s success. Alumni offices may flag mentors for other alumni service opportunities.
Volunteering to speak at a career planning or student services panel is another way to contribute to your alma mater with time, rather than money. Speaking to students helps keep you connected with the law school community, including faculty and administrators. You may also add speaking engagements to the "publications and presentations" section of your resume. As you progress through your career and set your sights on more senior roles, demonstrating your competence and experience in public speaking will be an important part of your marketability.
Make yourself known to your school’s alumni office. High-profile and influential alumni often earned those distinctions because of their willingness to volunteer their time. Volunteer to organize events, host or facilitate receptions or serve on committees. These volunteer opportunities are the first stepping stones to board service and future acknowledgements for alumni service. Committed volunteers, particularly those who have demonstrated their ability to make a positive impact on an organization, are often identified for more formal roles like committee chairperson, chapter officer or board member.
Kevin R. Steele, first assistant district attorney for Montgomery County, knows firsthand the benefit of alumni engagement. He is an elected member of Penn State Alumni Association’s alumni council and was recently nominated by his peers to serve as vice president of the organization. He concurrently holds a member-at-large seat on the board of directors of the Dickinson School of Law Alumni Society, a constituent society of the PSAA. According to Steele, "Networking with fellow alumni provides an opportunity to enhance relationships within a common academic framework. Becoming involved in leadership within an alumni organization allows people to utilize their skills and give back to their school in a meaningful way."
Once you begin to volunteer for alumni service, participate in alumni activities and attend alumni events, you will find ample opportunity to get to know attorneys from your alma mater. It is through these volunteer commitments that you can begin to build your professional network.
In addition to taking on one-time commitments and attending events, consider serving as a committee volunteer to make new connections. If you can invest time in a long-term project (like planning a class reunion or organizing a dinner for a visiting faculty member), serving on an alumni committee and working regularly with the group will expand your professional circle.
Remember that alumni events are professional events. While you can have fun, maintain a sense of professionalism. Take committee service seriously and lend the same level of attention to detail as you would to your work product. Arrive at meetings and events on time and professionally dressed. Follow through with the responsibilities you accept. Ask for help and feedback if you are working on a team. And there’s the obvious for social events: avoid excessive use of alcohol; steer clear of politically incorrect or controversial conversations; and be inclusive, friendly and interested in your colleagues. To break the ice, ask questions about the other attorneys’ practice or their experience in law school. You will likely find common ground, even in discussing the differences in your law school experiences.
When you attend meetings or events, don’t bring a classmate with you. Force yourself to engage with individuals outside of your existing group of contacts. Make a point of introducing yourself to other alumni in attendance. Volunteer to partner with someone you don’t know. Your alumni colleagues are probably like-minded and interested in networking, so take the opportunity to connect.
Recent graduates often feel uncomfortable networking with senior attorneys. Junior attorneys have confessed their belief that making an effort to build professional relationships is somehow disingenuous or shallow. New graduates generally become more comfortable developing professional contacts as they discover the symbiotic nature of those relationships. Senior lawyers can attest to reaping rewards from professional connections like client referrals, jobs, recommended hires and leadership opportunities. Developing a supportive professional network is a normal part of being a lawyer.
Reaping the Rewards
Aside from the benefits of service to the profession and networking with other attorneys, alumni who are engaged with their law school stand to benefit from participation and service.
As all recent graduates know, the legal job market is more competitive than it has ever been. Engagement with an alumni organization can demonstrate a candidate’s "get-up-and-go" qualities on a resume. Employers appreciate the difficulties job seekers face, and will likely look favorably on resumes that show activity and leadership during a period of nonlegal employment or job seeking.
Alumni connections can also provide direct assistance in a job search. Professional contacts developed through alumni service might notify you of job openings not being advertised broadly. Additionally, while an employer’s decision to interview or hire you will be based on your own merits, a nod from an alumnus who can speak about his or her professional contact with you — even in a nonpractice setting — may get your resume more attention than it may have received otherwise. In a time when employers report receiving several-hundred applications for every job posting, a recommendation from inside the hiring organization can be a key factor in receiving an interview. Your professional contacts may also offer advice on crafting a cover letter and resume that hit key points of interest to the hiring director, or they may provide helpful hints for an interview.
Matthew Esworthy, a partner in the Baltimore law firm Shapiro Sher Guinot & Sandler and president-elect of the board of directors of Dickinson’s alumni society, established a Maryland alumni chapter to promote the accomplishments of new graduates entering the local legal community and provide job-search resources. He recognizes the importance of alumni connections in a job search and works tirelessly to help recent graduates develop relationships with practicing attorneys by serving as a career mentor.
"Clearly the economy is far worse than it was in 2001 [when I graduated from law school]," Esworthy said. "Jobs are scarce, and newly minted lawyers have no idea where to turn for help. As a partner in my firm, I see this firsthand. I receive telephone calls on a daily basis inquiring about available positions with my firm or any other opportunities of which I may be aware.
"What motivates me is the memory of how hard it was to break into the Maryland market. It is my sincere desire to ensure that our alumni across the country do not find themselves without the support of Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law alumni network."
New graduates who feel shy about making new connections should remember that the senior attorneys who participate in alumni events often became involved to build their own professional networks. Alumni organizations are designed to benefit both the school and its alumni through making professional connections.
Amanda DiPolvere currently serves as assistant dean for admissions and financial aid at Penn State University Dickinson School of Law, where she also spent five years as director for career planning and development.
Robin Fulton is the director of alumni relations at the school. She previously spent five years in the office of career and professional development at American University’s Washington College of Law in Washington, D.C.