LL.M. students and self-imposed inequality

Valuable information is flowing all around us, but many LL.M. students and graduates are left out of the conversation. 

I have written many articles on the importance of networking, and if you have ever met me at an event, I very likely emphasized networking during our conversation, as well. What’s my obsession with networking? It really is an obsession for two reasons: First, I know how important it is for professionals to be connected, and second, I am an introvert and networking is something I have to push myself to do. I therefore understand how easy it is to avoid networking — but I also fully appreciate the consequences of doing that. 

Networking is crucial for everyone but it is of the upmost importance for the career development of LL.M. students. Why is that?

When I came to the U.S. in 2011, I “knew” two people: My roommate, to whom I had spoken on Skype for about 30 minutes, and one other person who I had met in Germany 6 months prior for about an hour. How much was I able to accomplish in New York, “knowing” two people?

In order for me to live happily in New York I had to start connecting to New York. To connect with a place you have to connect to the people, and that’s absolutely crucial to our wellbeing as expats. The more social interactions we have, the easier it is for us to adapt to the newness all around us. It’s also important for our professional success in the new country because connections are important for finding opportunities. I am sure you have heard these two sentences during your LL.M. study: If you want to find a job, it is very important that you network, that you go out and meet people. But do not do so with the expectation of finding employment.

What now? Let me try to explain.

Let’s have a quick look at what a social network is. According to Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler in Connected, a social network is a collection of people with a set of connections between them. These connections and ties between them differentiates a network from a mere group. That was fairly easy. But why are networks better than groups?

What makes a network much more valuable than simply being part of a group of people is that with a network something can flow, something can be transferred, between people. Through their interconnections, through their ties, things can flow. If people are not connected, nothing can be transferred between them.

The Internet, for example, is an interconnected network. What is transferred is data. So, what can be transferred in social networks besides diseases? A very valuable commodity: information. And information is what we need as foreign LL.M. students and graduates in the U.S. 

Let’s take a look at my first days in New York again. When I arrived in New York, I desperately needed a job. I only had two places to look for positions: online (or newspaper) or through my law school.

Here is a question: Would I have learned about more opportunities had I spent an additional two or three hours on indeed.com or simplicity? No, because the information available online does not magically multiple by me staring at it. Once I have clicked through all the job boards, I am done for the day.

 Here is another question: Would my chances of finding employment have increased had I more information about opportunities? Yes.

And here is the final question: How could I have learned about opportunities, other than through the Internet and my Law School? From others. Let’s call it gossip.

We only hear gossip if people share it with us. And people only share it with us if they know and like us.

When we as foreigners arrive in the U.S., we face something called “network inequality.”

We are not part of any U.S. information chain, at least that is true for the majority of us. No one in New York knew that I was here, and quite frankly, no one cared. There was information flowing all around me, and I was left out. 

When we talk about inequality, we usually talk about inequalities that arise from race or gender. But there is another inequality, an inequality which directly affects every foreign LL.M. in their first months in the U.S. Christakis and Fowler call it network or positional inequality, “an inequality not because of who we are, but because of who we are connected with.” Or, who we are not connected with.

Christakis and Fowler write, “Your chances of finding a new job may have as much to do with the friends of your friends as with your skillset… Network inequality creates and reinforces inequality of opportunity.”

The good news is that we can do something about this inequality. We can start connecting with people, start becoming part of a U.S. social network, part of a communication chain. When law school advisers and mentors tell us that we have to network, it’s because they know how important it is not to be left out of communication chains. It’s not something we just make up because we don’t have any other advice to give. It is a well-documented and inescapable fact. I suggest reading articles from Mark Granovetter, who found in a survey of residents of a Massachusetts town that over 50 percent of jobs were obtained through social contacts.

Social contacts lead to jobs. That’s a fact and no moaning and crying will help us.  

So, why on earth are we also told not to expect employment through networking? 

These are two different messages. When I say that the importance of social networks in finding employment is inescapable, I answer the question “Why should you network?” When I then proceed to tell you not to expect employment when networking, I answer the question “How should you network?” Why and how are two different things.

Don’t go in with the expectation to find opportunities, because that will influence your behavior in a way that is counterproductive to building relationships. 

If we do not network as foreign LL.M. students, we face network inequality and it is our sole responsibility to change that.

Desiree Jaeger-Fine is principal of Jaeger-Fine Consulting, LLC, a career management firm for international attorneys in New York, and author of A Short & Happy Guide to Networking (West Academic Publishing) (forthcoming).