Helen Cox, a legal sector marketing consultant, explains how to put the fun back into networking, by developing new client and referrer relationships in a way that plays to your strengths. (Updated 10 October 2023)
Success as a lawyer relies as much on building a network as it does on legal expertise. But if the thought of another evening 'working the room' at a networking event is unenticing, what are your options?
Fortunately, networking doesn't have to be a chore. Successful networking isn't about forcing yourself into conversations long enough to deliver your pitch and collect a business card. The best networkers put themselves at the heart of the communities they want to be part of – and enjoy themselves at the same time.
Your approach to networking
When young associates are sent out to network, success is typically measured by the number of new contacts they come back with. The process can be pretty painful, particularly for the shy, but at least there's a concrete result at the end.
Unfortunately, it probably isn't the result you want. The most successful associate – the one with the most business cards – has just confirmed how pushy and insincere some lawyers can be. New contacts does not equal new relationships.
The accomplished lawyer takes a different approach. You aren't looking for a quick fix, getting names to add to your list or working out how each person you meet can help you. Your focus is on building relationships – learning about people, and understanding their needs and interests. You make an effort to keep in touch, regularly, rather than just calling when you need a favour.
And you look for opportunities to help your contacts out. If you think they should know one of your other contacts, you introduce them. If you come across something that might interest them, you share it. They're at the back of your mind as a possible fit when someone asks you for a recommendation.
There's usually no immediate payback, indeed it could be years before you reap the rewards. You are enjoying the relationship for its own sake, and because you want to be part of that community. But if the opportunity arises for one of your network to help you out, you've built the sort of relationship that means you'll be the first person they think of.
"Networking isn't for everyone, but it is a necessity in business. Done correctly online and in person, it will have a huge positive effect. The key is not to sell, but to add value to your network."
Rich Dibbins, founder, Staxton Digital
Aim to build relationships with existing and potential clients and with potential referrers.
- Other lawyers with different areas of expertise can be a rich source of referrals. Even direct competitors may refer business to you when they face a conflict of interest – provided they trust you not to try to steal the client away from them afterwards. Other lawyers may have got there first, so do you offer the potential referrer anything special?
- Identify anyone who knows or comes into contact with your potential clients. Marriage counsellors, estate agents, and criminal defence lawyers all have clients who may need the services of a divorce lawyer.
- Experienced recruitment agents often have strong networks in their area of expertise, whether that's legal recruitment or filling high-level vacancies in an industry you target.
- It's often possible to identify a few key figures in any sector – the people who know everyone (or at least know someone else who does).
- Don't forget your existing network of old school friends, university alumni and former colleagues. Make an effort not to let them drift away.
It's not hard to find networking opportunities. For example, business networks like the Chamber of Commerce and trade associations, events hosted by clients, or local arts and charity events that attract higher net worth individuals.
Look for events that are about something more than just networking. If an event is enjoyable and worthwhile in itself, you naturally find yourself in contact with people who share an interest with you. There are obvious topics of conversation. You can build relationships without the pressure of having wasted your time if you don't come away with new contacts.
Be strategic. Which seminars, conferences and exhibitions are your target clients likely to attend? Be where they are.
Get involved with causes that matter to you. Becoming a trustee, for example, lets you build relationships with other trustees, and with the wider community of supporters at fundraisers or other events. At the same time, you are boosting your reputation – and getting personal satisfaction.
Think about how networking ties in with your wider PR strategy. For example, there will be opportunities to network at events you sponsor, or speak at. Your own events, such as client briefing seminars, are another opportunity.
Don't forget social media and in particular LinkedIn. While online networking isn't a replacement for talking face-to-face, it can be a useful way to identify new contacts you want to meet, and to stay in touch with your existing network.
"Don't just go to networking events. Go to events – and network while you are there."
Paul Hudson, marketing director - Europe, Travelers
Techniques for the shy lawyer
Networking isn't easy for the introverted, but it can be learnt.
- Practice makes it easier. Observe what's going on around you and engage people in conversation in everyday life, when there's less pressure to perform. Use social groups (like the tennis club or parents' meetings) as a training ground.
- Work on basic technique. Make a habit of introducing yourself and shaking hands when you meet people, then asking them something about themselves.
- Get in the right frame of mind. Treat each event as a research project – finding out as much as you can about the people you are with – rather than anything to do with sales.
- Speakers at events are easy to practice on. Ask a question following up on what they talked about.
- Ask event organisers if there is anything you can do to help, as an easy way to involve yourself in the group and meet people.
- Ask existing contacts for help with introductions, but make a point of not restricting yourself to safe conversations with people you know.
- Look out for other people on their own and for cues inviting contact – looking at you, smiling. If they're shy as well, they'll welcome your approach.
- Try not to worry about being ignored or brushed off. Most people like talking about themselves, so this shouldn't happen too often if you're genuinely interested and they don't have other priorities.
- Be systematic in saving contact details and following up from time to time.
- Don’t be put off if you don’t see immediate results. It is about building a long-term relationship, and who knows where your careers might lead you in the future?
- If it feels right, ask questions like "What do you like doing outside of work?" You will see them relax and be themselves, and you will find out much more about them.
The good news is that there are plenty of shy clients too who don’t like going to networking events and who prefer a one-to-one coffee (or Zoom).
"You won't be the only shy person in the room. Look around and find someone standing or sitting on their own. They are feeling the same way you are and will be grateful you came over to talk."
Scott Simmons, BD coach and trainer, Legal Balance
Plan ahead. Find out who will be there, and identify any individuals you want to meet – new contacts and people you are keen to stay in touch with. Think about how you might break the ice – with a question about something that really interests them, or by offering to introduce them to someone you think they might want to meet. This is easier if you have checked up on their social media posts or their website news beforehand. "Congratulations on X", or "I see that you've done Y, how did you do that?".
Aim to arrive early, so you have a chance to meet any speakers and chat with the organisers. You can ask them for help with introductions.
Look out for people you know you want to meet and introduce yourself. Look for opportunities to make contact, for example when someone is standing alone. Lively, 'open' groups are easier to join than closed circles of friends or two people engaged in a face-to-face conversation.
Be genuinely interested in the people you meet. Ask open-ended questions that get them talking about themselves. Avoid controversy – unless you're confident about the reaction – and banal chit-chat (though you'll probably end up talking about the weather at some point).
Wait for a natural break in conversation, then gracefully move on to talk to other people you want to meet. Ask for a business card to prompt yourself to follow up later, and quickly jot down anything important you want to remember.
Make sure you have a system for following up and a plan for staying in contact with referrers, clients and key prospects. Your aim is to build relationships, not just expand your contacts database.
"Practice makes perfect: the more frequently you network, the less daunting it will seem."
Joanne Campbell, partner at VWV and BD manager of VWV Approach law firm network
Avoid basic networking pitfalls.
- Selling or talking about yourself too much. As soon as someone sees that you are trying to sell, the barriers come up.
- Being invisible. Make sure people you meet at least know your name and that you are a lawyer. If nothing else, offer them a business card.
- Hiding behind your phone or clinging to a colleague. Be truly present at events – looking around at people, ready to engage.
- Retreating to your comfort zone. If you leave an event without talking to anyone new, you've missed an opportunity.
- Food and drink. Don't get caught with a great mouthful of food. And don't rely on alcohol for confidence.
- Insincerity. Be yourself, or a politely edited version, or you will never create a real relationship.
- Looking over a person’s shoulder when you are no longer interested in them.
Networking top ten
- Don't sell, build relationships.
- Be genuinely interested in other people for themselves, not as a means to an end.
- Look beyond clients and potential clients to anyone who is involved with that community.
- Look for events and causes that genuinely interest you.
- Consider getting more deeply involved, for example as an event host or a charity trustee.
- Prepare for events; identify the individuals you want to meet.
- Don't hide; make a point of introducing yourself to people you don't know.
- The more you practice your networking skills, the better you get.
- Follow up new contacts and connect through social media.
- Nurture your network; look for opportunities to help them.