Things I Wish I Knew, Vol. 11: Networking 101 – So what do I call them, exactly?

Dear incoming 1Ls,

It’s been a while since my last segment of TIWIK, and that’s primarily because I wanted to find a topic that would be most useful to you in the next month or so while you’re getting ready for orientation and school to start. (15 days! Whoo!) So I got to thinking and I remembered that my first year almost exactly a year ago, the first month was filled with what I soon came to regard as a four-letter word: networking.

If you’re anything like me, networking will be a totally foreign concept to you, and you really will feel out of your league for a little while. What is supposed to come from this?, you’ll ask yourself. What is the purpose of this except to make me feel awkward and have to stand in heels for two straight hours?

Fear not, friends. Because for the next few weeks, I will be doing a series on the do’s and don’ts of networking that will make you feel at least marginally better about putting yourself out there.

Starting with this question: what do you call these people you’re networking with?

This has been one of my greatest struggles. In the South, you see, everyone older than you by ten years or more is “Ms.” or “Mr.” (Or, more precisely, “Miz” or “Mister”). It’s polite. It doesn’t assume. It doesn’t make you feel weird calling someone older than your grandparents by their first name. Sometimes you get an out, and the person has some kind of doctorate degree, so you can call them “Dr. So-and-so” with confidence. And with professors in college, it’s a no-brainer.

But what about that attorney you met at a networking event? Or the hiring partner at a firm? Or the Assistant U.S. Attorney? What about when they introduce themselves as “Dave” and as you go to send the obligatory follow-up email to thank them for their time, etc. etc., you start to type the salutation and you think to yourself, “Dude, we are so not on that level. I met him yesterday for ten minutes. I can’t call him DAVE.”

And really, it’s a pitfall of social conversation that we have not come up with a word that indicates a level of respect without the sense of formality that the title-last-name combination entails.

But working in a law firm this summer made me realize that a lot of my reticence to call “adults” by their first names stemmed from the fact that I usually don’t feel “adulty” enough myself to do it. I don’t see myself as one of them. Maybe my friends who’ve taken some time off don’t really have this problem having been in the work force before, but for those of us who went straight through from undergrad and have never called any person in a position of power anything but “sir” or “ma’am,” this is a tough transition. Particularly when you move from the southern U.S. to the northeast, where it seems like no one wants to be called any of those things. (Something I hypocritically realized the first time a Starbucks barista called me “ma’am.” Yeesh.)

I minored in anthropology, so I’ve made something of a study of this over the past year. If you don’t already know this now, you will soon learn: attorneys call their coworkers by their first names. They even call attorneys senior to them by their first names. It’s a mark of recognition within the profession and it’s a way of showing that they’re a part of the group and they recognize that their peers are too. Strange as it may seem to you, you’re a part of this group now, too. You’re an almost-lawyer, and you will soon have the same expectations thrust upon you that a “real” lawyer would. You deserve to elicit respect from your soon-to-be peers, and acting like an attorney is the first step to that.

Oh. Except judges. Judges are ALWAYS “Judge (insert last name here)” unless they tell you otherwise.

You will feel awkward. You will reread emails a million times trying to find a way to get out of doing it. But the sooner you suck it up and call them by their first name, the better. And soon it won’t seem quite so awful.


I’m rising 2L, but check out my posts about things I wish I knew as an incoming 1L so you’ll actually know them when you get here. My inbox is always open so you can comment on here, or shoot me an email at 

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