How Having an MBA vs. a Law Degree Shapes Your Network



You’ve probably heard the expression “It’s not what you know, but who you know, that matters.” The sentiment is rather demotivating. After all, why go the extra mile if success is just determined by connections?

It’s true that networks influence the resources, support, and advocacy you get during the course of your career, but networks can form in many different ways. (Good news for those who aren’t so fond of networking events.) In studying how young professionals form networks, I found that you don’t necessarily have to be gregarious or well-connected to meet the right people and get ahead at work. Rather, in certain contexts, what matters more for growing your network is how qualified for the job you appear to be. It turns out that what you know affects whom you get to know.

In two studies, I surveyed 251 MBA students and law school students before and after they completed an internship. I first asked whether they had any preexisting contacts at the firm (people who they at least moderately trusted and had met more than three times), and then whether they established more connections over the course of about 12 weeks. Specifically, I wanted to know if they got to know any employees who gave them insight into the organization and its goals, strategies, and important people. I asked how often they were in touch with these contacts, how long they had known them, and how close they were. And I gathered information about the companies (e.g., the size of the office, the work performed, the number of alumni working there) and about the students’ academic accomplishments (e.g., whether they were on the dean’s list or working for a prestigious law journal).

I found that some people were able to form many new contacts (over 20), while others only made one or two new connections. What separated them was how people signaled their ability — and this differed among business and law firms.

In the study of MBAs, I found that students who started the internship with a preexisting contact were able to form more new connections than those who did not know anyone prior to starting, even after controlling for individual differences in networking ability. The survey revealed that these contacts acted as brokers, or “super-connectors,” introducing interns to others in the company and helping them grow their networks. I found that these initial contacts were more predictive of network growth than other indicators of students’ skills, such as academic grades. In other words, knowing someone at the firm sent a clearer signal about an intern’s quality than their academic credentials. Having a prior contact led to new opportunities to form relationships, whereas having good grades did not.

This wasn’t the case in the study of law school students. For this cohort, having a preexisting contact did not have a direct effect on the number of contacts they formed during their internship. I found that it only helped the most qualified students, those ranked in the top 20% of their law school class, who were able to meet and connect with more people through their contact than interns who were not at the top of the class. It appears that without this academic credential, contacts were less willing to broker new connections and help interns grow their networks.

So why the difference between law and business settings? It seems to come down to the varying importance placed on formal credentials and academic training. In law firms, the training you receive in school is more tightly aligned with the skills you are expected to do on the job. That’s a likely reason why contacts helped high-achieving interns gain greater visibility and broaden their networks.

On the other hand, when it comes to business settings, research has shown people don’t seem to put the same amount of stock in grades or who made the dean’s list. In fact, some researchers, like my colleague Jeff Pfeffer at Stanford, have suggested there is no tight coupling between what is taught in business schools and the skills and knowledge that are required for business practice (which may be why academic grades do not align well with compensation for business professionals). So instead of using signals such as academic performance to infer how good of a worker someone is, people look at other factors, such as their connections.

Moreover, there is a difference in matriculation for law and business students. In business schools, recruiters start interviewing students for internships during their first semester, before grades are available. In contrast, law school students are recruited for internships during their second year. This difference may be another reason why business students’ grades did not come to the fore the way law students’ grades did.

The bottom line is that you need a balanced approach to developing your network, and the approach depends on your context. When valued skills and ability can’t be clearly signaled, having a good contact who can vouch for you and serve as a pathway to others can help you grow your network and establish important connections. In this instance, you may be better off going to the networking event after work. However, in contexts where it’s easier to tell who is skilled because, for example, work performance is easier to decipher through quantifiable output (such as total sales per quarter), signaling your accomplishments more clearly might help you expand your network.

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