How To Present Yourself - Simple But Vital Tips
I find it odd that I am writing this; it would be sensible to presume that students at university know how to present themselves in class and during networking events, wouldn't it? Well, as it turns out, no, it wouldn't. I have witnessed quite a list of bizarre behaviours from fellow students, including two people who turned up to network with a 'Silver Circle' law firm in their tracksuits; a handful of students who didn't consider that they may want to prepare some questions to ask, in order to not look ill-prepared; one person who freely admitted to a member of recruitment staff for a law firm that they weren't really interested in them (which then begs the question, why were they there in the first place then?); and countless students who decided that silence would be the best policy during workshops. Consequently, I feel it important to clearly lay down some tips and pointers, should you ever be considering whether a QC will mind you wearing your Nike trainers, or whether it matters if you stay silent during a negotiation exercise, because "after all, I did speak during an exercise last week". Before I start, I do however feel obliged to make it clear that I am not purporting to be a model student, if such a thing really exists, but rather a student who now has the benefits of hindsight and maturity (it is surprising how being just a few years older than other students seems to make such a big difference with what one understands as felicitous or incongruous with the environment).
DO NOT Underdress - EVER
I can not emphasise this point enough. Turning up to an event, which often has required a lot of time, energy and resources to organise, in a casual ensemble is never acceptable. Rarely, it may be advertised as being a casual event, in which case smart casual at very least would still be a safer bet. However, for the most part you ought to dress as if you were going to work or an interview. In a way, you are going to an interview, as those who make a good impression are often fondly remembered come the time to submit applications for TC's, (mini)pupillage, vac schemes etc. In fact, I have been told a handful of times that students have been offered interviews during these events, having made such a grand impression on the partners/QC's. Furthermore, dressing appropriately makes it more likely that you will generate the attention of the recruitment staff at these events (I think it goes without saying, but I shall regardless, that the two people I saw in their tracksuits didn't get the chance to talk to any partners, as they were preoccupied talking to those who seemed to be taking it more seriously). Lastly, and this is applicable regardless of whether it's an event with an external speaker, a roleplay assessment or just a normal workshop session, dressing for the part makes you perform better. To some, this may seem an illogical leap to arrive at, but if you dress as if it's the real thing you often are able to perform to a higher standard, as if it was truly the real deal. I know this to be true from personal experience too. If the class are all dressed in their casual attire, it encourages an environment in which things are taken as jokes and messing about more, a place where you don't really have to behave as you would in a real court, for example. However, when dressed in a manner appropriate to the activity at hand, the behavioural improvements become apparent almost instantaneously.
Speaking In Class IS Vital!
I can only speak from my experiences at York, but from this I know how much difference getting involved properly can make; not only with your grades, but your understanding of the topic, your relationships with tutors and fellow students, and your morale! At my uni, participation in class made up part of the overall grade for the module, but far too many students seemed to think that if they submitted a great essay then their grade was certain to be good; this is NOT the case. Similarly, if you don't get the grade you were after for your summative assessments, a little boost from your participation mark can make a big difference (I should know, one assessment I got a low-to-mid 2:1, but got very close to a 1st overall due to getting 80 in class contributions). Furthermore, getting involved really does help to develop skills which are certain to be central to your working environment in the future; be that teamworking, research, feedback and critiquing, dispute resolution, solution finding/problem solving, empathy and being able to see things from others perspectives, reflection, and so the list goes on. If you don't get involved you are doing yourself a great disservice, missing out on the opportunity to further yourself greatly.
Questions? Well, Here's Your Answer
ALWAYS write down some questions to ask when you're attending an event. If it's networking then they'll appreciate your interest and research into the firm (researching to find your questions is inevitable, if you don't do this then you'll be asking questions which to which the answers are easily available online, making you look ill-prepared); if it's an interview or assessment centre then it'll look good to the recruiter that you did real prep work and want to know more (this is especially true at the moment, with a less inspiring grad to available job ratio than we've seen since the financial crash); if it's an external speaker then asking questions may result in them telling you something which really boosts your chances with getting a job (much in the same way, there are quite a few people I know of who got jobs, internships, interviews, tours and shadowing experiences etc. purely by asking the right questions to show genuine interest and drive to make it happen). If you simply neglect to prepare wuestions in advance for any event, you're going to look like you're too immature and unwilling to accept personal responsibility to get things done for them to give you a second looking at.
Work Smarter, Not Harder
Another pointer which ought to be a given, but sadly isn't. There is absolutely no point in turning up to anything (a workshop class, a lecture, a networking event, assessment centre etc.) with reels and reels of information and questions; not only will these make it impossible for you to keep track of what to say and ask next, but it also looks really bad if you're having to sieve through page after page to find the point you want to make. Instead, simply bullet-point information so that it takes up less than a page. The main thing is that you have enough information to be involved in a reasonably intelligent conversation, but not so much that it looks like you're carrying around the complete works of Charles Dickens. Not to mention, this looks like you've just copied and pasted stuff off of Google instead of putting real work in, and often leads to students rambling to deliver drone after drone of irrelevant nonsense, rather than focusing on a simple bullet-point line and then expanding on that point using their own brain. I can't tell you the amount of sessions I turned up to and found others with 15-20 pages on a single point of law (seemingly thinking they'd be able to impart all of this 'wisdom' in the 5 minutes they'd have to talk through it), only to be left floundering trying to find a single phrase 9 pages in. PLEASE, filter out anything not entirely relevant, highlight important words and questions to make them stand out, list your questions in order of importance so that you always get your most important and clever one answered, even in a ime restricted scenario, don't tell people things you don't know yourself because you haven't done proper research, DO provide context so that others aren't left guessing what you're talking about or asking, and do not think you're on 'Suits' and try hogging the time to do your best 'Louis Litt' slam on the question being considered; it doesn't come off well, at all, and often leads to you presenting yourself as being condescending (which neither fellow students nor lecturers, firm partners nor guest speakers want to see, hear and be subjected to - it also damages any chance of bagging that training position (many firms now make it clear that someones personality is looked at as much as their academic achievements to make sure they're the right kind of person for their company)).
If you've made it this far, you're probably wondering why some of these points needed saying. And you're right, some of these are ridiculous things to point out, with scenarios which wouldn't be out of place in a Lewis Carroll book, but unfortunately they are all real situations I have found myself in. It seems to be that I'm not on my own with this either, having read accounts from students in other universities around the UK (Lancaster, Birmingham, Cambridge and a few others spring to mind) who have experienced similar odd behaviours and perplexing decisions made by law students. However, I do hope that having read this article, you have learned something which can improve your time at university and into the future, or have at least found something to be able to send to someone who is guilty of one of these 'sins' of law school!