BEING SOLO

Create Your Own Business Networking Group

By David Leffler

In my Being Solo column I like to pass on to you good ideas that you don’t need a bundle of cash to implement and that will improve your solo practice in one way or another. This column does not require you to send $5,000 anywhere to buy a foolproof system for becoming a millionaire, nor do you have to go to some silly meeting where some guy with a fancy suit and a big gold chain around his neck tells you that if you sign up for his multilevel marketing scheme, someday you’ll own a mansion and a sports car just like him.

Nooo, you just have to read this column, which, if you’re a member of the ABA General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division, gets mailed to your office or home, so you don’t even have to go to the newsstand to pick up this magazine. It doesn’t get easier than that. (Of course, those of you who feel like you haven’t gotten value until you’ve paid large sums of money can drop me an e-mail and we’ll work something out.)

No Money Down

For this issue’s column I’d like to pass along a method that has successfully generated significant business for my law practice. A “business networking group” is a group of businesses owners or representatives who meet as a group on a regular basis to support each other’s business development through education, networking, one-on-one meetings, and referrals.

For more than ten years I’ve been a member of a business networking group here in New York City called The Business Connection ( www.tbcny.com). In the early years I didn’t get much business from the group, but as my relationships developed with other members, the referrals started coming. In most instances there has to be trust for someone to make a business referral to you, and this trust takes time to build.

There’s no replacing time to build a good relationship. Many of the people in my group go back ten years with me, and we’ve been witnesses together to each other’s business developments and current events over that time. Sitting around the table at our first meeting after 9/11, we definitely didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we endured and our bonds only grew stronger.

If You Build It, They Will Come

I strongly recommend that you consider building your own business networking group instead of joining an existing one. Advantages of starting your own group include greater control over the initial members, control over the structure and operations of the group, and some prestige in being the founder.

If your first reaction is, “I could never build a business network,” I’ll let you in on a little secret: You almost certainly can. Read on to find out why.

Groucho Marx once said, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.” But imagine creating an entire group made out of you and people whom you find acceptable. How good could it be? As it turns out, plenty good.

As a solo lawyer, you deal with other business owners who have good potential to refer you business. Consider your insurance agent, your banker, your accountant, and even the owner of your local print shop. You may not realize what a great source of referrals they are until you meet with them regularly as part of a networking group.

“Fine,” you say, “but who’s going to want to join a group that I start?” Once again, plenty of people. Try calling just a couple of the people whom I’ve suggested, and see how they respond when you ask them whether or not they would be interested in becoming a member of a networking group that you are forming. Many business people would jump at the opportunity to be part of such a group because lawyers are looked upon as influential members of any business community.

Details, Details

In building a networking group, you will want to pick no more than one member from each business category because you don’t want internal competition among members. Sometimes this gets difficult to sort out. Banks these days are selling more and more consumer financial products, and a member who is a banker can conflict with a member who is a stock broker.

One solution that my group uses in some cases is to have an agreement between two members who overlap somewhat to divvy up the overlapped portion so that only one member markets that portion to the group and the other does not. The banker may agree to promote only his or her company’s banking account and loan services and not the bank’s stock brokerage services, which would compete with the stock broker member’s business.

There may be more than one potential membership category for a particular profession. For instance, there are three lawyers in my networking group, and none of us overlaps with the legal business of the others.

The membership fee should be enough to cover your expenses, but try to keep your expenses low so that cost does not become a major factor. The cost of your meeting place will be your major expense. You can meet in the back room of a restaurant, a member’s office, or even at your local bar association if it rents out meeting rooms to members. You can decide to cover the cost of an annual holiday party through membership fees as well.

How often you meet as a group will be something you have to decide based on how much time you want to commit to the group and what you want to achieve. The more often you meet, the more likely that the bonds between members will grow and everyone will benefit. That may require a meeting every week, every two weeks, every three weeks, or even once a month. However, I don’t recommend meeting only once a month; with such a sparse schedule, a member who misses a single meeting will have no contact with other members for a full two months, which is a long time.

Which leads me to absences. There should be a strong policy in place that encourages members to attend meetings. I’d recommend allowing no more than two absences a year before one’s membership is reviewed.

If you choose to create your own business networking group, the smart thing to do is to create an executive committee of three or four members to run the group. That way it all doesn’t fall on your shoulders. The executive committee will handle things such as reserving meeting spaces, handling the bookkeeping (which should be fairly simple), giving initial consideration of new members, processing new members, and any other administrative duties that may arise. In my group I am in charge of bookkeeping and running the bank account, including depositing and recording dues payments and paying the group’s expenses. I’ve taught my secretary how to do this so I spend very little time on it, and you should seek to similarly delegate these tasks if you can.

Activities at group meetings can include an update on each member’s business, which includes a request for what each member needs at that moment, thank-yous to other members for referrals and other assistance provided, and presentations by members. For instance, as a lawyer you can give a presentation about a particular aspect of your practice that would be of interest to most of the other members, be it preparing a will or keeping costs down in a business litigation.

A Great Tool for Marketing Your Law Practice

A business networking group can be a very rewarding experience, both for the business it can generate and for the friendships it can foster. Business networking also requires next to no money to start, unlike that $5,000 plan to become a millionaire. But if anyone tries that plan and becomes a millionaire, let me know how it works.

David Leffler is a member of the New York City law firm Leffler Marcus & McCaffrey LLC, which represents clients in business matters and litigation. Prior to that he was a solo attorney for more than a dozen years. In his spare time he blogs at staringatstrangers.com. You may write to him at lefflermailbox@aol.com.

Copyright 2008

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