Networking for the Reluctant: A Guide

As someone who was part of creating ATLAS, it perhaps sounds disingenuous to tell you how much I dislike networking. Networking, in as much as the word implies a mercenary approach to human relationships, is pretty awful. Surely it's enough to do good work without having to figure out how to sidle up to people I don't know but whose work I admire. Right? Wrong. 

 Meeting and forming relationships with others working in your field is partly about finding your professional ‘tribe’, and making your first steps into this community. By building relationships with - as Patricia Sellers calls them - your mentors and your buddies, you create a space to learn from their experiences, and to give and receive support. As there is often no clear path into a career in public international law, connecting with people who already doing the sort of work you wish to do (or wish to do more of) is important – and often essential. It becomes far easier to motivate yourself to get out there and meet people whose work and careers inspire you once you realise how much you likely already have in common with them. Those who choose to work in public international law are usually value-driven. They often have a philosophy of why they chose to do the work they do. If you are driven by similar values, you should already have the basis for a professional relationship. As someone who dislikes networking, but who has ended up knowing a lot of people, this is my advice:

i.  Figure out what drives you 

The more you understand what you want to do and why, the easier it will be to figure out who to approach and what to say to them. If you don’t know what exactly you are interested in, the answer is NOT to approach everyone for a conversation about their work. You’ll never map all the possible options. Nor will you speak to all the relevant people. You will be wasting their time as much as yours. If you’re not sure about the area you want to work in, spend more time thinking about what issues you feel passionate about and what drives you. Your fit career-wise has far more to do with understanding who you are, than it has to do with an assessment of all possible options. 

ii.  Most people understand you want to chat, and are fine with it

Everyone I know who works in public international law has benefited from people who gave them advice and/or help at the early stages of their career. Most people are happy to help someone coming up in the field. It may be, however, that the person with whom you are attempting to get in contact does not reply. This is not necessarily a sign that they are ignoring your request. Working in some PIL careers is hectic, especially if travel is a large part of the job. If someone doesn’t reply, don’t assume the worst. It’s fine to wait a month and then email again (though not with an accusatory “you didn’t reply to my first email”). Also consider a wider range of choices. There are some PIL lawyers who are senior and/or known as being particularly helpful. The consequence is that they get deluged with requests.  

iii.  Take care of the contacts you already have

It is far easier to maintain contacts than it is to build new ones. If you've completed internships or worked in organisations prior to or during your law degree, nourish these contacts. Knowing people who have experience in the ups and downs of PIL/ domestic human rights work can be invaluable, even if their path is not yours. Support comes in different forms – having someone to talk through the stress of applications, look over cover letters, and advise on the development of core skills such as advocacy and campaigning can be very useful. Others may be a source of compassion and support as you progress through your career. Maintaining contact may only require few emails a year (or popping in to say ‘hi’ if the organisation is based in your hometown). Do NOT only get in contact with you need advice or help with an application. This is rude.

iv.  Making new contacts: take a creative approach

Many people think of the first approach as being to physically walk up to someone and introduce yourself, usually after an event. While I cover this below, this is not the best way to introduce yourself to someone. Here are different ways to go about making new contacts:

(a) The walk-up: If you are going to approach someone after they give a lecture or at an event, be prepared. Under no circumstances ask them questions, the answers to which are easily discoverable on Google. Try to distinguish yourself. Introduce yourself and brieflystate your interests and any work you’ve done. If you are going to ask a question, make sure it’s something that suggests you’ve prepared to meet them (but one that doesn’t require a lengthy answer which only makes things a bit awkward if there are others clustered around with their own questions). If the person is working on something of interest to you, ask if you can contact them over email and get their card. If you email, make it short – where you met them, restate your thematic or geographic interest, and indicate you’d like to stay in touch. Ask a question if you have one, but don’t manufacture one for the email. If the person you are emailing travelled out to attend the event, give them a few days to get back to their office. 

(b) The cold email: This is perhaps the method that has the lowest chance of success as the person will never have laid eyes on you before you appear in their inbox. Do not cold-email indiscriminately. If every individual interested in working in PIL did that, those working would start hiding under their desks. Email only people whose work and career paths truly resonate with you. Make sure there is no other way to reach them – for example, through a contact you already have. Set out briefly who you are, your interests and why you are contacting them. It is more likely they will reply if they can discern that you are committed to this career path, and have been proactive in getting practical experience. If they respond, do maintain contact by emailing three to six months later to give them a brief update. Do not ask them for something every time you email. Always thank them if they give advice or read over something for you. Do not track down people on Facebook or through their private email accounts unless it’s absolutely urgent. Some people are relaxed about it but others are distinctly less so.

(c) Mutual contacts: A far superior way of introducing yourself is to be referred by a mutual contact - including former or current university professors or colleagues. This is a key benefit of contact-making. Eventually it results in a web of contacts, minimising the need for cold approaches.

(d) Contact via publications/ blogs: This method of contacting people has several things to recommend it. First, you don’t have to wait for them to speak at an event near you. Second, by the very fact you are contacting them as a result of something they have written, you are demonstrating your shared interest. And third, people are generally chuffed to receive a message about something they've written. Most people take great care when they publish something and there is often very little feedback, save from those who already know you. If someone takes the time to write and comment on what's been published, the author will usually acknowledge the email. Not every acknowledgement ends in continued correspondence of course, but it’s a start. If you come across a blog piece, an article in the popular press, or an article in an academic journal, consider sending a message to the author through the platform where the piece is published. Set out who you are, your interests, what you thought of the article, and any questions you may have had. Don’t manufacture questions – it’s fine simply to explain your interest in the topic and that you’d like to stay in contact.

(e) Write something yourself and send them the link/ organise a panel: If there is an area of PIL you're interested in working in or in which you'd like to advance your career, consider - as Beth Van Schaack advises - writing a short blog post about it. When you send an email to someone who works in that area, include a brief summary of, and a link to, your blog post. This signals that you are a person who is actively making your way into the profession and are interested in contributing to the discourse. If your university or organisation is able and willing to organise a panel/ event on the relevant topic of interest, assist with the event - by inviting the speakers and/or by being the rapporteur. Through this proactive approach, you set yourself apart from other cold emails, and are more likely to rouse the interest of the person you are emailing.

 v.  Stay in contact

If the person has responded and seems open to staying in contact, make sure you maintain sporadic contact. Email at least twice a year to update them on what you are doing. Do not ask them for something in every email, and don’t joke about them not getting back to you. People often intend to write back but get overwhelmed with work and family. Making them feel bad about not replying will not make the process of writing back enjoyable. Keep emails short and don’t be deterred if they don’t always reply. If they never reply, at some point you’ll have to give up but send about three emails before you do.

vi.  Always say thank you

Always say thank you if the person you’ve approached gives useful advice and especially if they’ve commented on something for you, or facilitated an introduction. It sounds simple, but it’s surprising how often people simply vanish once they've received the help they've asked for. For some people, a failure to say thank you could easily bring a professional relationship to an end.

Sareta Ashraph is a barrister specialised in international criminal, humanitarian, and human rights law, and is a co-founder of ATLAS.

Sareta Ashraph