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Thursday, June 01, 2017

Sponsored Post: Network Inequality: When No One Knows Our Students

The following is by Desiree Jaeger-Fine, Esq. (principal of Jaeger-Fine Consulting, LLC and author of A Short & Happy Guide to Networking (West Academic Publishing) and is sponsored by West Academic.

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 many minority and socioeconomically disadvantaged students. The way we build and grow social and professional networks amplifies and exacerbates existing inequities in society. It is an inequality that emerges not because of who we are, but because of who we are not connected with. One’s chances of finding a job as a law graduate can have as much to do with the friends of our friends and family as with our skillset. Network inequality, an often-overlooked disadvantage, creates and reinforces inequality of opportunity. What can and should law schools do about it?

We pass along the importance of networking to our students at every opportunity. But law schools often fail to recognize network inequality and how it affects the students. We repeat platitudes such as “join bar associations, go to events, have an elevator pitch, create a personal brand, have business cards, and conduct informational interviews.” If law students don’t act on our advice we blame them for their lack of social capital and initiative. “If the students only bothered to network, they would be in a better place.” We blame the victim for the problem. But is our advice always helpful? Does it acknowledge network inequality? Does it remedy or reinforce it?

By advising students in this way, we reinforce the importance of networking to those who have already gained substantial exposure to networking from their family and their organizational ties – their college, high school, neighborhood, sports teams, religious affiliations, just to name a few. Those students who do not begin law school with such a backbone of social capital and who have never been culturally exposed to networking will not likely act upon our advice. They can’t. And we reinforce pre-existing inequalities by priming those students who are already supported by a solid network without supporting those who do not. Is it appropriate, then, to place network responsibility solely on the student? Should law schools play a more prominent role in helping students recognize and overcome network inequality? In light of network inequality, we must not be content with demonstrating that social ties are important and offering cookie-cutter advice.
Mario Luis Small, author of Unanticipated Gains: Origins of Network Inequality in Everyday Life, emphasizes the responsibility of organizations and argues that

people’s social capital depends fundamentally on the organizations in which they participate routinely, and that, through multiple mechanisms, organizations can create and reproduce network advantages in ways their members may not expect . . ..

This is precisely why we encourage law students to join and become active in bar associations. But understanding law students’ connections, and how much their status may generate social inequalities, requires taking a hard look at their most prominent organization – their law school. It is not enough to tell our students how important networking is and then leave the responsibility solely with them – especially in situations in which networking inequality places some at such a serious disadvantage.

Law schools are a place not merely to learn skills but also to make and facilitate connections. The magnitude of a law student’s social capital advantage depends on the condition of her law school and how effectively her school can mobilize its connections to her advantage. A law student’s ability to build a network, especially if that student enters with network inequality, is strongly influenced by her law school, which, intentionally or unintentionally, might either dramatically increase or diminish that disparity. The condition of the law school along with its willingness to reduce network inequality will also determine whether students form ties to other organizations. Law schools maintain ties to many organizations and offer many types of resources that, if managed appropriately, can directly benefit the student.

While relationships are built through direct interactions between humans, a law school can and should facilitate such opportunities for its students. We cannot ignore network inequality if we want to remedy existing inequities in society. Network inequality reinforces such divisions. For many students, social capital will depend in large measure on how the law school structures student interactions with others and to what extent it offers a platform for social interactions in professional settings. For minority students and socioeconomically challenged students, new social ties are not merely made in law school, but in many ways by it.

My new book, A Short & Happy Guide to Networking, attempts to help law students better understand networking by eliminating the hoopla the popular press and others have created around a behavior that is as old as our society. The term networking is an invention—building relationships is deeply human. This book cuts through the clutter and outlines how everyone can build relationships in a way that is not only comfortable but enjoyable. No ploys or stunts, no templates or arbitrary rules. The more students and those who guide them understand the essence of networking, the more effective our efforts will be.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 1, 2017 at 12:55 PM in Sponsored Announcements | Permalink


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