Harold J. Krent
Harold J. Krent
Katie R. Aune
Katie R. Aune
Matthew McElwee
Matthew McElwee

Think of it as a new “practice area.” Matthew McElwee did.

A second-year student at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, McElwee knew he would need to improve his interview skills as he pursued a career in corporate law.

So he got involved with the school’s Alumni-Student ConneKtions (ASCK) Week.

The series of events offers students opportunities to interact with alumni in informational interviews, mock interviews, informal coffees and dinners, job shadowing and a networking reception that offers practice on working a room.

“It was great timing because that’s right around the time that 1Ls start interviewing for their first summer position,” McElwee said about last year’s event. “It was basically a no-stress introduction to legal interviewing.”

McElwee did the informational interviews, mock interviews and what the school calls “Coffee ConneKtions,” where alumni treat students to coffee and shoot the bull on topics such as studying for the bar, interviewing and experiences in a particular practice area.

The weeklong program was exactly what McElwee wanted.

Thanks in part to his interview training, he worked last year at Synergy Law Group LLC as a summer associate. This summer, he will be at Kirkland & Ellis LLP.

“You are basically interviewing or being interviewed every day of ConneKtions week,” McElwee said. “You really get a feel of what on-campus interviews are like.”

The program, which returns next week, launched in fall 2009. Organizers skipped 2013 and switched it to the spring last year.

That benefited first-year students such as McElwee, said Katie R. Aune, the school’s director of alumni engagement and the program’s lead organizer.

“The move from the fall to the spring had to do in part with giving first-years more of an opportunity to participate after they had a semester of school under their belt already,” said Aune, who joined the school in January 2013.

Aune spearheaded another key program change: swapping out a day of resume review for a second day of informational interviews.

“When I started (and) talked to the career services office, their feeling was that doing two days of informational interviews was more valuable to the students since they already have the career services staff available to help them with their resume,” Aune said.

The program — launched by Aune’s predecessor, Tara Anderson — was designed to simultaneously increase the number of people who could assist students with career development while also giving alumni an opportunity to return to the school.

“We put it all into one week, really for the perspective of allowing alumni to volunteer all at once,” Anderson said, adding that “it’s easier to get students to sign up for things if it’s all happening in a row.”

For Harold J. Krent, who has been at the school since 1994 and became dean in 2003, ASCK Week was a welcome change.

“There was no organized structure in which alumni could come and give practical comments on resumes, interviewing styles and so forth,” Krent said. “Some people would call up and get an alumni adviser, but we didn’t have it elevated to where we could help 200 students in a week.”

Last year, the event drew about 60 alumni, creating about 200 total interactions with students, Aune said. This year, they have about 85 alumni, including 46 alumni who will interview students, for a total of about 300 interactions.

“It’s easy to say ‘I don’t have anything to offer’ or ‘I’m too busy,’” said Cook County Associate Judge Neera Lall Walsh, who earned her J.D. at the school in 1989.

She participates in the job shadowing portion, encouraging her visitors to speak not just with her but with everyone who works in her Leighton Criminal Court Building courtroom.

“That makes it all the more informative for students to see what it takes to make the courtroom run,” she said.

Cook County Associate Judge Patrick F. Lustig, a regular alumni participant, enjoys letting students shadow him in order to reveal “the human side” of the courtroom.

“I think when you’re in law school, you’re intimidated about what goes on in the courthouse,” said Lustig, who graduated from IIT Chicago-Kent in 1982.

“When you have an opportunity to shadow like this, you get to see the other side of it — the interaction between the judge and the lawyers.”

It’s an opportunity Lustig encourages.

“Not very often in your career do you get to just come and observe,” he said. “Once you’re actually in practice, you’re up against the firing squad. You’re in court all on your own. But this program, you get to observe. You’re not the one whose neck is on the line.”

Every school, of course, has a method for connecting students with the practicing bar. Some have specific career-prep courses, others host alumni visits and networking events of various kinds.

IIT Chicago-Kent’s approach aims to bundle its efforts into one week to engage both students and alumni.

“The more that students can seek mentors and add to their networking, the better off they’ll be in terms of trying to position themselves for jobs down the road,” Krent said. “And at the same time, engagement with alumni is always important in terms of the school’s long-term health.”

Aune posts the list of participating alumni on schedule-planning site wejoinin.com, which students then use to register. She staggers registration — third-year students started registering on Friday, with second-year students on Monday and first-year students on Tuesday.

Aune estimates last year’s program drew around 100 students. With more alumni this year, she expects a larger turnout.

“The most important thing is that students take advantage of it,” McElwee said.

“It’s easy to let e-mails slide by, but this is one event where you definitely want to jump in with both feet. I was using it primarily just for practice and information, but if you were really looking to get a job out of this, it wouldn’t be that hard.”