Who Do You Know?
by Andy Serbe, '13
Last summer, I found myself sitting at lunch with two top entertainment lawyers in Los Angeles. One of them asked how I got an internship with the Los Angeles Daily Journal, the largest legal affairs newspapers in the nation. The paper has been around since 1888 and is a must read for the 250,000 lawyers and judges in the nation’s largest legal system. Charlie Munger, vice-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, is chairman of its board of directors. Mr. Munger, who also founded the prestigious law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson, is a revered figure. Frequently people told me how lucky I was to work at the Daily Journal.
I told them a bit about my background. I was a senior in the Communication Department at the University of Illinois. Writing had always been my greatest passion and strongest skill. I worked for two sports news websites, one partnered with Sports Illustrated. The lawyer quickly cut me off. “Who do you know?” he asked.
Here’s what I hadn’t volunteered: the President of the Daily Journal Corporation is Gerald L. Salzman, a University of Illinois alumnus and a member of Alpha Kappa Lambda, my fraternity. I was working at this important internship in Los Angeles because I knew somebody. I had a connection.
Americans love to believe we get where we get in life on a pure analysis of our skills and accomplishments. The truth is a lot different, though. Roughly 70 percent of Americans got our jobs through a personal connection, according to a U.S. Department of Labor survey. The connection advantage does not end with your first job, either.
American corporations spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year facilitating networking opportunities for their employees that they expect will bring in new or more business. I saw this firsthand in Los Angeles. Law firms and bar associations host events several times a week aimed at facilitating relationships. There were cocktail receptions and black tie dinners, outings to sports events, picnics, concerts, and fist-sized shrimp and endless trays of sushi. I was 22 and not yet a college graduate but the rituals that attended these events weren’t foreign. Alpha Kappa Lambda facilitates networking, too – minus the booze and jumbo crustacean.
I connected with Mr. Salzman through one of his fraternity brothers, Chris Disher, who remains especially active in Alpha Kappa Lambda. Mr. Salzman oversees a public company that builds software for public institutions besides publishing several newspapers and a magazine. He took the time to give an opportunity to a member of the fraternity interested in working in journalism. Personal connections only get you so far, though. They’ll get you to the plate, but it’s up to you to knock it out of the park.
My First Day …
My first day on the job I participated in an interview of Kathryn Ruemmler, who had been President Obama’s White House Counsel. I was then assigned to interview other major figures in the legal industry, mostly unassisted. I was expected to do my own research, draft questions and show up prepared. I didn’t fetch people coffee or lunch or make them copies. Instead, I interviewed Lynne Hermle, who defeated Ellen Pao’s high-profile gender discrimination suit against a major venture capital firm, and Ted Boutrous and Marcellus McRae, who successfully challenged California’s teacher tenure rules. One of my stories, about an insidious virus known as Valley Fever that disproportionally attacks African American prisoners in California’s Central Valley, attracted the attention of the local NPR affiliate, which interviewed me.
I was assigned to cover a major trial between BP West Coast Products, LLC and some of its franchisees that lasted several weeks. This was my first experience in a courtroom, and I was alone, but within a couple weeks half the people involved became sources on whom I was on a first-name basis.
Of course I had editors who coached me on writing and story development and guided my research. What they could not teach me in a 12-week internship was how to behave in professional situations. They could give me pointers before I left the office, but in the field I was on my own. The University of Illinois has taught me a lot, but I perfected those skills through my fraternity.
Greek organizations are social by nature — everything you do as part of one, from philanthropy events and exchanges to internal elections, hones essential skills in professional settings such as public speaking and social awareness. Public speaking courses can teach you how to write a speech and make you deliver it in front of a class, but anyone who’s taken CMN 101 can tell you it won’t make you comfortable in that setting, nor does it provide you the ability to walk across a room in which you know no one, and walk out knowing nearly everyone. Greek organizations also facilitate connections through networks of loyal alumni willing to consistently invest in the success of their undergraduate brothers and sisters. They prepare people in ways that classes just don’t.
Despite understanding all of this, I was flustered when the lawyer at that restaurant asked about my connection. He quickly put me at ease.
“Everybody knows somebody,” he said.
What he didn’t say but what I knew already was that connections are only as good as what you make of them. The day Mr. Disher asked if someone was interested in interning at a media company, I was the first to raise my hand. Once I got the internship, I worked hard to show I could do the job. If applying for jobs through mass mailing and blind applications is a half-court shot these days, building networks and connections makes it more like a free throw, or a layup. The opportunity is there, but so is the pressure to make it count. The execution is entirely up to you.