March 22, 2016

Building Your Network? Grades Matter Less to MBAs Than to JDs

Adina Sterling, an assistant professor at Stanford, wanted to know how networks form during the seminal internships that occur, for business school students, in the summer between their first and second years and, for law school students, between their second and third years. When MBA and JD students try to expand their networks within their internship organization, who succeeds and why?

So, as Sterling reported in the February 19 Harvard Business Review, she surveyed 251 MBA and law school students before and then after their internship experiences. To control the number of variables affecting how many connections they established during their internships she asked questions like, Did you have any preexisting contacts at the internship firm? How many new connections did you establish at the firm during your internships? How often did you interact with these contacts and how deeply? She also measured the size of the interns’ firms, the number of fellow alumni who worked at the firm, and—crucially—how good the internship student was academically (e.g., dean’s list? editor of law review? etc.).

Her results were all over the map: some interns made 20 new contacts over their 12-week internships; some only one or two. Not too surprisingly, Sterling found that among the MBA interns, those who knew someone in the internship firm before the internship started were more likely to create new contacts than those who didn’t. But she also found that among the MBA interns, academic quality did not ‘help’ the MBA interns compensate for their lack of preexisting contacts (or, put another way, the internship organization was not more socially open to academically brilliant interns than it was to non-brilliant interns; what mattered was preexisting relationships).

Underscoring the significance of Sterling’s findings were her results for the JD interns. For them, the ability to successfully build networks at the internship organization was ‘grade dependent.’ “For this cohort,” Sterling writes, “having a preexisting contact did not have a direct effect on the number of contacts they formed during their internship.” The JD interns that were more likely to expand their network were those ranked in the top 20% of their law school class—period. “It appears that without this academic credential, contacts [at the internship organization] were less willing to broker new connections and help interns grow their networks.”

What gives? Sterling surmises that the difference between MBAs’ and law students’ networking success during internships comes down to the kind of training their professional school gives them and their professions (law or business) expect from them. “In law firms, the training you receive in school is more tightly aligned with the skills you are expected to do on the job,” but for MBAs “there is no tight coupling between what is taught in business schools and the skills and knowledge that are required for business practice.”

Hmmm—this seems like one possible explanation for Sterling’s conclusion but not a very tight or compelling one. Couldn’t other factors be at play, such as how important academic attainment is within top law firms (regardless of skills needed to do the job) versus top MBA employers? In other words, maybe white-shoe law firms are just more elitist than the organizations that hire MBA interns? So one would want to know what kinds of firms Sterling sampled. Presumably, the kinds of organizations that recruit JD interns is much narrower (basically big corporate law firms) than the kinds of firms that recruit MBA interns (consulting firms, investment banks, tech giants, Fortune 500 consumer companies, etc.). This difference in the variety of the internship organizations might skew the results.

But still, Sterling’s takeaway seems beyond refuting: “you need a balanced approach to developing your network, and the approach depends on your context.”