Do you want to build a long-term career in private practice? As you likely have noticed from observing your firm’s most successful partners, a critical enabler will be your business development ability. It’s not the only factor: law firms also care about your legal skills and your internal contributions like mentoring more junior lawyers. But nothing lets you write your own ticket like a solid (and portable) book of business.
Success in business development is a cumulative process, built through years of strategic investment of your time and energy. It requires commitment and a well-crafted, regularly-updated plan. One of the most important components of that plan is networking. Through savvy networking, you will build your contacts, expand your referral network, and burnish your brand.
For some people, networking comes naturally, but many of us find it daunting at first. Fortunately, networking is a learnable skill. Here are a few tips to help you become a more effective networker.
Some networking opportunities are pretty obvious: events sponsored by bar associations, legal industry conferences, service on committees with other lawyers. But don’t narrow your focus exclusively to professional events. Networking can happen at college reunions, community gatherings, and even on a flight. In other words, don’t wait until your next conference — you should be networking everywhere you go.
Do you have kids? Chat with other parents at the playground or at school events. Attending a fundraiser? That’s a perfect opportunity to meet people. Are you involved in an affinity group or diversity initiative? Those can be great venues to build connections based on shared heritage or interests. Are you a veteran? Attend a military event and use the opportunity to make new contacts.
Set yourself up for success.
Networking shouldn’t feel like a chore. Make sure you are putting yourself in situations where you’ll be in a positive frame of mind. Attend events that are relevant to you personally and that you find enjoyable. As with any activity, you will be more successful if you’re having fun.
If it makes you feel more comfortable, bring a “date.” A colleague or a friend can help you work the room. But be careful. Don’t bring someone who will serve as a crutch and prevent you from circulating.
Keep in mind that every networking “event” offers an opportunity to build your brand, and that first impressions matter greatly. Be sure to represent yourself well, both with respect to your physical presence as well as the substantive content of anything you’re presenting. Be genuine and embrace your personal style.
Do your research in advance: find out who will be there and make a list of “targets.” You want to make the most of your time, so be strategic: arrive with a plan to prioritize engaging with the most relevant attendees. Prepare some stock questions that you can use to help start a conversation. For example, if you’re attending an event for lawyers, you might ask: “What are the biggest challenges your law firm has faced during the pandemic?” or “What have you found works best with regard to business development?”
Be ready with your elevator pitch: a short summary of what you do and your background. When you have someone’s attention, you don’t want to be fumbling for words or going off on long-winded tangents.
When you first strike up a conversation with a new contact, don’t go straight to business. Nobody likes to feel used, and your first interaction is not the time to close a deal. Instead, build rapport, and let the other person talk. Ask open-ended questions, displaying a genuine interest in the answers. Remember that there is value in building relationships with a wide variety of people, including those who are unlikely to become your client. For example, making strong connections with other attorneys in private practice can lead to fantastic referral relationships that yield lucrative dividends over many years.
Take the time to follow up with everyone you meet after a networking event. Add your new contacts on LinkedIn, making sure to add a quick personalized note. Sending something by mail can also be remarkably effective. The important thing is that you have a process in place and stick to it.
Understand that practice makes perfect!
If you aren’t already comfortable attending networking events, try breaking down the process into small steps. Set yourself the goal of making three new contacts at each event. Commit to making a post on social media before each event you attend: this helps elevate your brand and may even lead to contacts approaching you! If you make it a habit to set and achieve attainable goals like these, I guarantee you will find that networking becomes increasingly natural over time. Good luck!