Lately I've been getting calls from laid-off lawyers looking for help in augmenting their job search efforts. Contacting legal recruiters and submitting resumes online hasn't panned out for them. I also hear from attorneys whose business has dropped off.
One of my first questions is usually, "What kind of networking do you do?" Frequently, they confess that they aren't very comfortable with networking, so they haven't really done much. A recent caller lamented that he hadn't tried to maintain a network when he was busy. He just focused on doing good work. When times got tough, he contacted the handful of people he had kept in touch with, but that turned out to be insufficient.
I wasn't surprised at those responses. I read somewhere that 69 percent of lawyers are introverts. Introverts get drained by being around a lot of people and may find it stressful. Here are a few tips to make that essential networking activity more enjoyable, or at least less painful, for the reluctant networker.
1. GO WITH THE INTENTION TO HELP
Lawyers who go to a meeting or a reception with the sole purpose of finding a new client or landing a job interview usually leave frustrated and discouraged. They miss the fundamental point: Networking is about building relationships.
One of the quickest and most effective ways to initiate or strengthen a relationship is to help the other person. Recipients of your generosity, wisdom or connections will also be more motivated to help you when you need help.
When my coaching clients go to a function, I ask them not to leave until they have helped at least three people. It counts even if all they do is point someone to the restroom or bar. Possibilities for being helpful abound, however.
For example, at a social or business function they can suggest an online resource for a problem, answer a legal or other question, make an introduction to someone else at the event who may be of interest, promise to send a link to an article on the subject of discussion, or go up to talk to someone standing alone.
Most of my reluctant networker clients report that when they attend with the goal of helping, they feel more at ease. Some report, with some surprise, that they actually kind of enjoy themselves.
2. DEVELOP STARTER QUESTIONS
The most common networking concern voiced by lawyers: "I don't know how to get (or keep) the conversation going." The most common complaint: "Conversations at those things are so shallow and boring."
The solution: Develop a few questions in advance that you would find comfortable asking strangers, and then listen with curiosity to their responses. You won't need to have any pithy comebacks or brilliant insights. A follow-up question sparked by your curiosity can keep the conversation flowing and interesting.
Here are a few examples to prime the pump of your brainstorming:
• How is the economy affecting you (or your business, industry or company)?
• What do you like to do for fun when you're not hanging out at events like this?
• How are you taking advantage of the extra time you have right now? (If business is slow.)
• In your opinion, what makes a great ______? (Fill in whatever they are: real estate lawyer, CEO, engineer, salesperson, parent, etc.)
• What kind of summer vacations did you enjoy as a kid?
• If you were president, how would you fix ______? (Fill in with the economy, health care, global warming, the war in Iraq or any other problem that people have opinions on, provided you can avoid arguing with them.)
• The practice of law is changing. What do you think it will be like 10 years from now?
• How is your organization dealing with generational differences in the workplace?
Follow up with the people you meet by sending them an article or idea that relates to their interests that you discover while talking to them.
3. GET INVOLVED STRATEGICALLY
Avoid the scattershot approach to networking. Do some research and planning to target the most effective events to attend. Search for "index of associations" or "encyclopedia of associations" online to identify organizations that your potential clients or employers tend to participate in, including local and state bar association sections, if appropriate. Ask existing clients or someone in the industry which meetings they find valuable. Visit the meetings of several organizations.
Identify a couple of organizations that you enjoy the most. Attend their events regularly and get involved by volunteering to work on something that interests you.
Regular attendance conveys reliability and provides the opportunity to reinforce new relationships. Your service will set you apart, and build connections to leaders and influencers in the group. Most organizations welcome volunteers who are reliable and willing to work, even when they are new.
As you fulfill your commitments, group members will develop trust in you, and desire to help you. They will unconsciously judge your abilities as a lawyer by how consistently you show up and perform the duties you take on, even when the duties don't require legal expertise.
Remember that networking is about building relationships, not about selling yourself. Although you may get lucky enough to hear about an opportunity the first time you meet someone, odds are that more persistence will be necessary. People usually need to get to know you to feel comfortable to hire you, refer business or share their valuable connections. They also need multiple exposures to you (in person, by phone or e-mail) in order to remember you when they hear of an opportunity.
Once you get that new job or big client, don't stop networking. There are more opportunities awaiting you, and life is unpredictable. After all, you weren't planning to need a network this time, right?
Debra L. Bruce is president of Lawyer-Coach (www.lawyer-coach.com), a law practice management coaching and training firm. She practiced law for 18 years before becoming the first Texas lawyer credentialed by the International Coach Federation (ICF). She is the former vice-chair of the law practice management committee of the State Bar of Texas and a past leader of the Houston chapter of ICF.