Over the course of a career, almost every lawyer learns that their personal network is their most valuable asset and plays a critical role in generating clients, advancing within a firm, and finding new jobs.
“I wish I had waited longer to build my network,” said no lawyer, ever.
Indeed, when lawyers seek my advice about getting a new job with a law firm or a company as in-house counsel, I tell them it’s not just (or even primarily) about having a polished resume or sterling pedigree. The quality of your personal network is paramount.
And while most people understand that having a strong network is important to find new job opportunities, often overlooked is the fact that most employers view candidates who have strong networks as an asset.
What Your Personal Network Says About You
A network can be leveraged to help the firm or business achieve its goals, such as identifying new business opportunities and recruiting talented new employees. It also says something important about a candidate, namely that the person is likely ambitious, proactive, collaborative, a good communicator and curious. Someone who lacks these qualities tends to lack a strong network. In this sense, one’s network serves as a leading indicator of a candidate’s potential to contribute as an employee.
- First, let’s dive into ways lawyers can identify more (and more enjoyable) networking opportunities, as well as a few tips for putting your best foot forward when connecting with someone new.
- Second, because it’s not always obvious for lawyers in the early stages of their careers, we’ll explore a few concrete examples of how a strong personal network comes into play in the context of someone’s day-to-day work experience — not merely when it comes to finding the next job opportunity.
There’s More to Networking than Cocktail Parties and Small Talk
The way to build a quality network is through networking, and there’s the rub. “Networking” is a generic term and it’s not something we learn how to do in law school. For many lawyers, it’s a word that conjures visions of cocktail parties and awkward small talk with strangers.
But networking doesn’t have to be intimidating, complicated or feel like work. Dare I say, in some instances it can be really fun. It’s often hard to know where and when new opportunities will arise, and valuable connections will be made, so get active, get out there, and allow serendipity to work in your favor.
Here are a few networking ideas to consider:
1. Meet people with the same hobby
Have you ever wanted to learn to cook, play tennis or paint? Taking a class or joining a group can be a great way to connect with people while doing something that interests you. You never know — maybe someone in your new cooking class, or your new doubles partner, might be best friends with the hiring manager at your dream firm, or the general counsel at a company that’s in need of a new lawyer.
2. Get active in alumni committees and events
One of the regrets I hear lawyers most often express is losing touch with law school classmates. And it’s a valid regret, because former law school classmates, who scatter across firms, companies and geographies, can be such valuable connections. It’s never too late to reinvigorate that network.
It’s a bit cliche, but it’s true that new opportunities often come from the most unexpected places. From coaching Little League baseball to being active in PTA initiatives to volunteering at the local animal shelter, good things tend to happen to those who put themselves out there.
4. Attend industry events
Many lawyers default to networking at legal industry events, such as those hosted by bar associations. And while networking with other lawyers is important, if your goal is to get an in-house job or generate new business within a particular industry, you need to venture out. For example, if you’re looking for an opportunity to join a technology startup, then start showing up at startup events — almost every city of any size has an ecosystem of founders and investors you can become a part of.
5. Get active on LinkedIn
Every lawyer has heard that it’s important to network on LinkedIn. But many lawyers don’t know how to network effectively on the platform. It’s not just sending a bunch of connection requests to people. It’s much more about coming to the platform with an abundance mindset and engaging with and supporting what other people are doing. Leave thoughtful comments on other people’s posts. Send a direct message congratulating someone on their success. Instead of thinking “Who can help me here?” try “Who can I help here?” — and when you do they tend to reciprocate.
Now that you have some ideas for meeting new people, the next step is to make a positive impression. One of the reasons it’s great to meet people in nonprofessional settings (e.g., a cooking class) is that conversation can often flow more organically than in a traditional networking setting. However, wherever and whenever you make a connection, you should be ready to put your best foot forward. Here are three ways to do that:
1. Be message ready
Have a ready response for obvious questions you may get, such as “So, what do you do for a living?” Also, keep in mind your current objectives — are you looking for new clients or a new job opportunity (or both)? Your message should be tailored to your objectives.
2. Actively listen and ask questions
While you need to be message ready, ideally you want to make the conversation about the other person as much as possible. We all care about ourselves, first and foremost, so if you can keep the spotlight focused on the person you’re engaging with, they will almost certainly walk away with a positive impression of you. The best way to be a great conversation partner? Actively listen and ask lots of questions.
3. Follow up
When you meet someone new who you’d benefit from having in your personal network, make sure to get their contact information and follow up with them. Add them to your LinkedIn network. Touch base with them periodically. Send a handwritten note if you really want to stand out.
Your Personal Network in Action
As we’ve discussed, it’s critically important to have a strong network to identify and land new job opportunities, as well as develop new business opportunities as a lawyer. But there are a host of other situations most lawyers encounter throughout their careers when it’s valuable to have access to an engaged and supportive network.
- Every lawyer needs a mentor, and while many law firms assign mentors to junior lawyers, it’s not always a great fit. And sometimes lawyers need mentors on the outside. If you’re intentional about building your network, potential mentors are almost certainly part of it.
- You may assume a leadership position in an organization you’re passionate about, and your strong network will allow you to help the organization further its mission, such as by fundraising or increasing its membership.
- When you know lots of people from different backgrounds and domains who have varying skills sets and experiences, you can become a “super connector” who introduces people who can benefit from knowing one another (which creates reciprocal benefits for you as a result).
These are just a few practical benefits of having a strong network. There’s a reason the old cliche that “your network is your net worth” sustains.
You have to be intentional and strategic about developing valuable relationships. Networking is important-but-not-urgent work that is easy to push aside when there’s work to be done. But make time for this critical activity that will play an integral role in your legal career. Just like any worthwhile investment, the value of a network compounds in your favor over the long term of your career.