Q: How should a student act at a cocktail party after an interview? What should a student speak to the lawyers about?
A: Post-interview cocktail parties can be a tricky business. They occur often in New York, and elsewhere as well. The first rule is obvious: Don't drink. Try a diet coke. You need to keep your wits about you, both to behave professionally (even if others around you do not) and to maintain your powers of observation. You can gain a lot of valuable information about a firm by noticing how its lawyers behave when "relaxing." Observing interactions between partners and associates during a social occasion can tell you a lot about who holds authority and how the office operates. Do partners and associates socialize or does the room divide itself into groups based on authority, seniority, or practice group? Are interactions formal or informal? Is discussion about personal matters and interests or centered on business? Different areas of practice may attract different personalities or styles. One area of practice may be considered more important than another. This is a valuable opportunity to gain insight into the office politics and the personal style of people that could end up becoming your coworkers and bosses.
The second rule is to use the occasion to your advantage by circulating through the group as thoroughly as you can, without being pushy, and introducing yourself gently and diplomatically to as many lawyers as possible. Don't try to steal the limelight; you want to be seen but not heard too loudly. Instead you can use this opportunity to learn more about the office culture.
The third rule is to ask as many questions of lawyers as you can about what it is really like to practice law at their firm. I think the best way to "sell" yourself at a cocktail party (or in an interview, for that matter) is to display a genuine interest in the firm to which you are applying. Lawyers (like other humans) like to be asked about themselves, if the questions are not too personal or obtrusive. They may think well of you if they see you are interested in them.
The final rule, if you can accomplish the others, is to relax (without using alcohol) and be as comfortable with yourself and with the other lawyers as you can under this somewhat unusual circumstance. Projecting a calm and confident appearance that doesn't seek to draw attention can give the impression that you are already a part of the group, which can help make it easier for whoever makes hiring decisions decide to extend an offer. As such, the time you spend and the impression you can make in a social environment are particularly valuable. In this regard, though, don't stay too long; you don't want to be the last one in the room. Once you have gathered some insight into the business and made the best impression possible you can head home for the stiff drinks you passed up during the event itself.