Lawyers: Are You Already Behind Your Networking Targets For 2017?

By now you should have already attended at least three networking events and reached out to at least three people who referred you business last year.

If the prior sentence is at all familiar to the language you use inside your own head, I have two words of advice—please stop.

Specifically, please stop thinking this way. Lawyers tend to be perfectionists, and perfectionists tend to come up with goals that require perfect executions. For example, rather than setting the goal of attending more impactful networking events, they tend to set goals that require them to attend at least one networking event per week. This, of course, is to make up for the fact that they didn’t attend enough networking events last year. Nor did they work out enough or do the other things that are typically the subject of failed New Year’s resolutions.

Building a network of contacts requires regular and sincere attention. It doesn’t, however, require robotic regularity. You can miss a day or even a week and make up for it the next. People are generally forgiving because they too are busy and imperfect.

Moreover, it is particularly hard to tackle an ongoing problem and break it down into daily steps. As a consultant to lawyers, I know that it is often easier for my clients to respond to networking emails in batches than do it every day. And in this context networking emails includes everything from the LinkedIn invitations you haven’t responded to the lunch invitations that are sitting in your email inbox to the email you promised to send to an important potential client but haven’t gotten around to it yet.

Trying to be perfect everyday will inevitably lead you to fail, and that single day of failure will cause anxiety and guilt, which in turn will make it even more likely that you won’t meet your attorney networking goals the following day. So please give up the illusion and burden that you need to be perfect to grow a successful and thriving network of contexts. You are much more likely to be successful if you set aside 10-15 minutes on your calendar several times a week and get to as many networking emails or phone calls as you can during that time. Whatever you don’t get to in one session–and there will always be leftovers–you will get to the next time around.

One final tip: Building a network is easier when you have an accountability buddy; you help them keep on track with their goals and they do the same for you. The accountability buddy can be a lawyer down the hall, your administrative assistant (trust me, they already know you aren’t perfect), or even a business consultant.

Networking is important, but it’s not like oxygen or water. So please stop stressing over it as if a single missed day or week is actually life threatening.

How to Avoid the Most Serious Mistake Lawyers Make on LinkedIn

Although many lawyers are fairly active on LinkedIn, they often don’t take full advantage of it to grow their practice and book of business.  In my experience coaching attorneys, lawyers primarily use LinkedIn to establish and accumulate first-level connections.  Thus, for example, a lawyer attends a networking event and hands out a business card or two.  A few days later, one of the people the lawyer met sends her an invitation to connect on LinkedIn.  Occasionally the lawyer will initiate this dance and send out the invitation to connect.  Following this pattern, over the course of a few years the lawyer accumulates 300-500 connections.  And that’s pretty much all there is to it.

If you are using LinkedIn solely or primarily to build connections you are missing out on the primary benefit that LinkedIn provides.  Specifically, LinkedIn is an enormously powerful and largely free way to collect information that you couldn’t have collected at any price 15 or 20 years ago.  If you are old enough to remember what a rolodex is, imagine asking a few hundred of your business connections to show up in your conference room so that you could peruse their list of contacts.  This is not something you could have done before the advent of social media platforms such as LinkedIn.

And why would you want to be able to review profiles of the people that your connections know?  It’s for the most straightforward and low-tech of reasons—to request an introduction.  Requesting an introduction is what LinkedIn is all about.  It’s its highest and best use and if you aren’t using LinkedIn to ask people you know to introduce you to folks they know, you are making a serious mistake.

LinkedIn is an especially important tool for lawyers who serve businesses.  In part this is because LinkedIn has more than 300 million users, making it the largest English-based business social networking platform in the world.  More importantly, lawyers who serve businesses want to connect with people who have specific job titles, and LinkedIn makes it very easy to search by job title.  For example, a client who is a business litigator and white collar criminal defense lawyer wanted to meet more in-house counsel.  In the matter of seconds LinkedIn allowed us to identify a dozen general counsel in the local area, each of whom was known by someone in their network.  In the parlance of LinkedIn, this lawyer’s network had 12 second-degree connections with nearby general counsel.  It turned out that two of the general counsel were connected to the same person.

This goldmine of information led to the next step; reaching out to the person the client knew to find out how well that person knew the general counsel and whether they would be willing to make an introduction.  It’s too early to know whether this outreach will generate a new client.  But this much is clear:  there is no easier, faster, or cheaper way for lawyers to identify general counsel and other networking contacts.  That is why lawyers who don’t use LinkedIn to ask for introductions are making a serious mistake.

How Many Networking Organizations Should A Lawyer Join?

Lawyers tend to join bar associations and stay as members without regard to whether their membership results in quality referrals or new clients.  In my role as a business consultant to lawyers and law firms, I have spoken with attorneys who have belonged to a bar association for more than a decade even though they have received no leads or referrals from other members of the association. Given that time is precious, lawyers should evaluate more closely than they do the relative benefits of the various organizations with which they are involved.

It is not uncommon for an experienced lawyer to be involved in ten or more professional associations. These can range from bar associations, alumni groups, networking groups, trade associations to which their clients belong, and charitable organizations. Most lawyers don’t have a strategic approach to deciding how to allocate their time and efforts among these organizations. They tend to hang out with competitors at lawyers’ groups and are often reluctant to join new organizations that would allow them more direct contact with potential clients. Lawyers are creatures of habit and tend to return to the same associations over and over again.

A better approach would be for lawyers to measure the results of their networking efforts in terms of two metrics—leads generated and new clients acquired. That after all is the primary purpose of networking. Too many lawyers conflate obtaining MCLE credits with these goals. If a particular organization allows you to get MCLE credit conveniently, that has some value. But if that is all that organization does for you, reduce your involvement in that organization accordingly.

Lawyers often underestimate the extent to which their clients and best referrals originate from a relatively small number of people. Thus, rather than devoting approximately the same amount of time and energy to five or ten different organizations, lawyers would improve their networking results if they were more selective. For example, if a lawyer belongs to ten groups, it might be sensible to be marginally active in seven or eight, moderately active in one or two, and heavily involved in one or two.

Lawyers tend to resist a selective approach to networking for several reasons. First, it tends to contradict their perfectionist tendencies. If they join an organization they want to fully participate even if it’s not particularly sensible to do so. Second, they tend to evaluate the efficacy of groups to which they belong in terms of social comfort. They will often continue going to meetings because they feel comfortable with the people.

Third and perhaps most importantly, it can be emotionally difficult to look back and realize that you may have wasted years by continuing to belong to a particular organization. This is a fairly straightforward application of the sunk cost fallacy.  The fact that it was a mistake to prolong your involvement in an organization doesn’t change the fact that it would be a mistake to continuing networking there now.

So how about you?  Of the organizations to which you belong, which one or two are most worthy of your continued involvement?

Law Firm Networking: What’s In It For Us

Ten years or so ago I attended my first sales training class. The speaker emphasized that it was critical to recognize that all sales prospects listen to the same radio station. Its call letters are WIIFM: What’s In It For Me? Since then dozens of speakers and articles have repeated either this exact example or the notion that underlies it. Specifically, people are essentially self-interested and if you want to do business with them you need to tap into this aspect of human behavior. Much of economic theory is predicated on this view of humans as selfish, economically-driven creatures.

There is, however, a major flaw in thinking that everyone is always tuned into WIIFM. It isn’t true.

A growing body of research from a variety of disciplines including psychology and behavioral economics shows that altruism plays a much larger role in human decision making than the classical view ever recognized. To cite just one example, humans as well as some other animals have a sense of group fairness. We tend to shun or isolate members who are perceived to have treated others unfairly.

Professor Adam Grant of the Wharton Business School has written an outstanding book about how people who are altruistic can and often do succeed in business.  It’s entitled, Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. It paints a complicated and nuanced view of the role that altruism plays in successful networking. There is a risk of being too much of a giver. That can lead to being taken advantage of, and to spending so much time helping others that you don’t devote enough time to one’s own responsibilities. But as a general matter, givers get ahead in the business world and organizations with cultures that recognize and reward giving behaviors perform well economically.

This is especially important for law firms to recognize. Law is a service-oriented profession and an increasing percent of work requires teams of people to work together to serve clients. In this environment, it can be easy to overlook the contributions of those people who help their colleagues or who otherwise display giving behaviors.

So the next time a law firm leader or partner suggests that increasing pay or otherwise rewarding individual performance will incentivize lawyers and staff members to act in a certain way or reach a certain goal, you should explore the possibility that the firm would be more likely to succeed if it enacted business-development strategies that rewarded giving behaviors and recognized that people are not always listening to WIIFM. In fact, the success of the firm may depend on the extent to which the people at the firm are genuinely acting in a way that shows that they care about What’s In It For Us.

Networking Up: Attracting a Law Firm Mentor

You might be harboring contradictory sentiments about how a more junior attorney should interact with the most experienced or influential partners. One the one hand, your internal dialogue might criticize senior associates who you view as “kiss ups” or “ass kissers.”  But at the same time you know that you need a mentor.

So how do you cultivate a mentor in a way that doesn’t make you feel queasy?  The short answer is that it’s very typical to feel awkward when you consciously try to impress someone more senior.  In my experience coaching lawyers, I’ve seen that most attorneys are most comfortable networking with their peers. For example, associates hang out with associates and stay in touch with their college and law school classmates. These are examples of networking sideways or laterally.

One of the most successful lawyers I know had this said about him:  “His best skill is making a good impression.” In a workplace setting such as a law firm, people rarely think about going out of their way to make a good impression on the newest secretary or staff person.  To advance your career, there are some people who are more important to impress than others. So that statement is a quintessential compliment for someone who has mastered the art of networking up.  Up, in this context, broadly refers to the organizational chart.

There are ways to network up and minimize the potential fallout that comes from being seen as a “kiss up.”  One is to give appropriate credit to others.  People who hog all the credit for themselves tend to lose support among their peers.  It’s the wrong thing to do, and can also be damaging to their standing within the office.

But please don’t make the opposite mistake of not taking enough credit. This is often a particular problem for people who have socialized to fit in, be a team player, or who have been taught that they should not stand out.  In our society this attitude is more prevalent among women than men.

It’s critical to realize that advancing professionally requires making a good impression on certain individuals.  That’s how junior associates get better assignments; how senior associates become junior partners; how lawyers at all levels of seniority become rainmakers. You can and should do it ethically.

But do it—learn to excel at networking up.