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Networking it

|Written By Robert Todd
Networking it

Law professors welcome one-on-one contact with students, just don’t bring chocolates.

Done credits a relationship with his first-year contract law instructor, Osgoode associate professor Thomas Johnson, for easing the transition from undergrad to law school. Done says the relationship developed when “I was a scared first-year law student and I think he recognized that and probably recognized a bit of lack of confidence early on.” Done says Johnson offered students the opportunity to meet with him in his office, and he was quick to accept. “I went to his office a few times and we just had general discussions. It developed into where I saw myself and where he saw some of my strengths were, and it just kind of went from there. It’s almost gone from a teacher-student relationship to a friendship.”

Done says he feels comfortable going to Johnson for questions as varied as “a quick legal question, where to work, what practice areas would be interesting, what classes to take the following year . . . basically just pick his brain, because he is so well connected both to the academic world and he’s a former practitioner.”

Done also says a relationship with Goodmans lawyer and Osgoode adjunct professor Dale Lastman helped him decide which firm was best for him to seek a summer position at. He says Lastman’s perspective, as a practising lawyer, was particularly important in augmenting the legal education he gets from Osgoode professors.

Jennifer Dyck, a University of Ottawa law student who spent the summer at Torys LLP, says she’s gotten to know most of her law-professor mentors in small classes, particularly a first-year class offered at the school, in which one professor is matched with about 20 students. Dyck developed a bond with that professor and now works as her research assistant.

Dyck says the relationship developed as she visited the prof for course-related questions, which helped her excel in the class, a factor in the instructor’s decision to ask her to serve as a research assistant. “It’s given me a lot of research skills that otherwise you only exercise when you’re working on a particular paper. Instead, I’m doing 10 hours a week of quite challenging research. I think it certainly helps in terms of learning to navigate different online resources, the library, and whatnot.”

Some law students, particularly those in first year, may be unsure if professors will embrace their attempts at friendship, or view it as an annoying and futile attempt at gaining favour. But many say they wish more students would make an effort to get to know them after class.

University of British Columbia Faculty of Law professor Joost Blom, who has taught at the school since 1972 and was dean from 1997 to 2003, says few students take the time to meet with him after class hours, except during exam crunch time. While he manages to get to know a few students throughout the course of a term, he says it’s hard to recall even the names of individual students in large classes. “In the course of a fairly long course, you would develop a certain at least acquaintance with these students,” says Blom. “But it’s really limited to what they ask you and how they respond to your questions in the classroom. So there’s not much in the way of personal knowledge you get that way.”

While there is more of a personal touch in smaller, seminar-style classes, Blom says the best way for students to stand out from the pack and get to know instructors — particularly at larger schools — is to take the time to ask questions during office hours, a move he says most profs embrace. “In my experience, you only get to know a small minority of students that way, outside the classroom,” he says. “The only time you get to know something more about the student than just what shows up in the classroom is when you get some occasion to meet with them, talk to them, participate in a club they’re in, that sort of thing.”

“It’s really useful if you get to know at least some of your professors well; not every one, you simply can’t. But typically, if you ask a professor to write a letter of reference, it’s just a lot easier for the professor, and a lot more convincing letter they can write, if they know you personally, rather than a name on a mark sheet,” he adds. “I think not enough students take advantage of the opportunity to just go and talk to the professor about the course. We’re here a lot and we’re always happy to see students.”

And while Blom encourages students to come forward for chats, he cautions against some potentially unsavoury behaviour. “Don’t e-mail them all the time,” he says, adding it’s probably a temptation. “And don’t bring them presents. That’s not a way to curry favour. . . . It’s always awkward when you get someone offering you a box of chocolates or something.”

Overall, Blom says a little added effort from students to develop a more personal relationship with a professor can be surprisingly beneficial. “Just taking the trouble to say, ‘Gee, I was wondering about this or that,’ or show an interest in the course, that tends to stick in a professor’s mind,” Blom says.

University of Alberta Faculty of Law professor Sanjeev Anand, who teaches criminal and constitutional law, says it’s important for students to be themselves when approaching professors. “Trying to be genuine with people is important, so I wouldn’t try to force a relationship,” says Anand. “There are going to be professors that they will naturally gravitate towards, either because of the charisma of the professor, or the interest of the subject matter, or because of questions they have. Let those kinds of relationships unfold as they do.”

“Don’t try to be a keener for the sake of a reference letter. That’s something I think most people can see a mile away.”

Anand encourages students to partner on an independent directed research project or get involved in a moot with a professor who shares similar interests. “There are always opportunities to get to know your professor without forcing it.” Once you find an activity that lends itself to developing a relationship with a professor, it’s important to not be intimidated, Anand says.

Deanna Morash, director of career services at Queen’s University Faculty of Law, says cultivating relationships with professors can be a good way for students to develop vital networking skills. “I think that this is certainly one way to network and start learning to network. I provide the message that networking can be a very important resource, and just the word can be intimidating to some students. I try to present it as, it’s all about talking to people and getting to know somebody and being interested in listening to their story and asking some questions. You start small, but you never know where just getting to know somebody will go.”

Anand, meanwhile, says reticent students should know that most professors can gain just as much from getting to know their charges as students can gain from the relationship. “Try not to be too shy. I think that is a mutually satisfactory relationship, in many respects,” he says.

“We benefit through our interactions with students as well. In first year, we get to see things from their perspective. Often times, we’re so immersed in the law and with a legal way of looking at things, that we forget about that other perspective that the first years bring. In second year, they bring an enthusiasm and a curiosity about the law and a passion about the law that is quite invigorating.”