College and law school placement offices tout informational interviews as a strategy for students exploring their career options, but it is an important tool for experienced attorneys making transitions in their legal careers, as well. If you find yourself unemployed, underemployed, or in need of retooling your practice skills, knowledge gleaned from informational interviews can be just the edge you need.
Relentless networking is essential to a job search and career development. Informational interviewing takes your networking efforts to the next level. Just about anyone you meet can be a potential source of information. You never know who knows whom or what leads they may have.
An informational interview is NOT a job interview! Rather, it is a way to gather intelligence and expand your network in hopes of gathering leads for your career advancement. It can take the form of any interaction during which you ask your target about their insights regarding the current job market, a particular area of practice or potential employer, whether they have any ideas for an attorney in your situation, and their recommendations regarding whom else you should contact. It can be as low key as a brief chat in person, on the telephone, or via email, or a formal in-office meeting, coffee, or lunch (with you picking up the tab, of course).
The cardinal rule of an informational interview is not to ask your contacts directly for a job. If you ask a contact if they have a position for you, the answer most likely will be “no” and you are no further along in your job search. If you ask instead for ideas, advice, and/or contacts, you have gained something useful from the interaction, and not made someone uncomfortable in the process. Most people enjoy being helpful, feeling like an expert, and talking about themselves and their careers.
Let your contact know that you would like to pick their brain, and arrange for a good time and place, whether it be in person or on the phone. Ask for a short amount of time, and honor that limitation. Be prepared with questions, and research the person, firm, and practice area beforehand so you don’t waste your time or theirs. Stick to the topic, but allow for some freewheeling conversation, as you don’t know what information might emerge. If the interview is with someone you do not know well, you want to be prepared with a brief introduction of your skills, desires, and situation. You want to present yourself as someone who is experienced and knowledgeable, yet humble and adaptable. Since the purpose of the interview is to gather information in a short period of time, however, remember to listen more than you talk!
Always ask, in closing, if they could suggest anyone further for you to contact for advice and whether you can use their name as an introduction. It is important, in return, to ask whether there is anything you can do for them, such as providing information or introductions, and thank them for their time.
To follow up, a short note after the informational interview is an absolute must. It can be via email, or a handwritten or typed note. After, once again, thanking the person for their insights and referrals, mention something that you discussed, either adding further comment or stating how you plan to take action on their suggestions. Include your resume, “in case it sparks any further ideas” for you and encourage them to pass it along to anyone they deem appropriate, if you are engaged in a non-confidential job search.
Note: do not take your resume to the informational interview as it may make the contact feel like they have been misled regarding the purpose of the meeting. If you learn about an interesting job opening in the course of an informational interview, apply later on your own. If your contact offers to facilitate the application, you can send a resume later.
Furthermore, if contacts refer you to other people to call, send a quick email to let the source know that you connected with those additional people, with thanks for the introductions. This serves to further remind them of you and your search in case they have new ideas. And, once you have landed a new position, contact all of the people you met with along the way to inform them of your new contact data, and thank them for their advice, assistance and referrals.
An informational interview may not yield results immediately, but do not give up on the process. Each connection is a link in the chain of contacts that will help you reach your goal. At the very least, you will be building your network of contacts which may come in handy later in your career. Furthermore, you will have gained practice in telling your story and polishing your interviewing skills. Of course, the object is to ferret out the job opening of your dreams, and candidates who are armed with knowledge and introductions gleaned from informational interviews are ahead of the competition.