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Why do so many lawyers dislike networking events? Usually it comes down to these three dreaded moments: walking up to a stranger, explaining what you do while you introduce yourself, and then forcing yourself to make small talk. However, if you can master these three key moments, you can make networking events much more productive—and a productive networking event is one that leads to referrals.
Moment Number One: Hello, Stranger
Whether it is an alumni association gathering or an event specifically geared to making business contacts, networking events have a way of reminding us of all the most socially awkward moments of our lives. We stand against the wall trying not to appear inept while looking sheepishly for someone we know, or someone to wave us over to their group.
But there is an important distinction between a networking event and that awkward first high school dance—everybody is at the networking event, whether reluctantly or not, to advance a business development agenda. Whether it’s an agenda to directly get new clients or to more indirectly make contacts that could lead to clients, everyone at the event represents an opportunity for everyone else there. So, fundamentally, everyone there is looking to meet you because to them you represent the same potential opportunity that they represent to you. Given that, you truly have nothing to be anxious about, so put a drink in your hand, turn to the person standing closest to you and just say hello! Frankly, it is amazing how open everyone is to meeting others at a networking event.
Moment Number Two: Make Your Introduction Memorable to the Listener
When it comes to introducing ourselves, it’s important to remember that we typically network with different constituencies and we should vary our introductions based on the given constituencies at the event. For example, you would introduce yourself differently if you were meeting a new person in your firm versus if you were meeting another lawyer outside your firm versus if you were meeting a prospective client and so on.
Of course, you should always clearly state your name, say where you work and briefly explain what you do. The key to successful introductions, though, is to say what you do in a way that’s both understandable and memorable to the particular listener. For example, saying that you practice complex civil litigation is straightforward enough to another lawyer, but it’s not necessarily understandable or memorable to a “civilian” who might very well be a potential client.
So how do you make it memorable? When you tell people what you do, you should also tell them how you saved the day, solved the problem or served the client so that they have examples they can relate to and understand. For example, if you’re a civil litigator being introduced to a nonlawyer, you might introduce yourself this way:
“I’m a civil litigator who helps companies get what they deserve in legal disputes. For example, I just helped a small manufacturing company in Des Moines collect $250,000 from one of the big three automakers for a contract dispute.”
This introduction describes the practice area in basic terms and provides a concrete example that enables a real understanding of how you might be helpful to the person you are meeting.
Similarly, when being introduced to another lawyer, you want to give that lawyer a good sense of what makes you different and why he or she might refer a client to you. You need to be succinct but specific—for example:
“I’m a civil litigator and I specialize in defending insurance companies in property and casualty matters.”
Of course, there are those who believe it’s best to introduce themselves as generalists because it doesn’t exclude any opportunities. However, here is a caution to heed: That strategy might impress the most naïve of potential clients, but most people would no more engage a lawyer who says she is the best “at everything” than they would ask a generalist doctor to perform knee surgery.
What if you work in a firm that truly can provide a wide range of specialized legal services? In this case, you want to introduce the firm as broadly as possible to potentially originate cases outside your specialty for other departments, while at the same time highlighting your own expertise. For example, you might say this:
“I’m a lawyer with Smith and Jones. I specialize in trust and estates law, but my firm has specialized capability in all areas of the law, from patents to matrimonial law and everything in between. As a trust and estates lawyer, I just helped an Internet entrepreneur set up a trust structure so that he can pass his estate to his children tax free, regardless of what they end up doing in Washington.”
Moment Number Three: Go Deep, Not Wide When Making Small Talk
I like to think of the act of making conversation as more than simply talking. Rather, it is, or should be, an act of teaching and learning. When we’re networking, we want to teach other people about us, what we’re competent at and what our personal character is like, and we want to learn these same things about the people we meet. Remember, ultimately you are looking to build a network of allies with whom you can share opportunities, so you are looking for a network of people who are both competent and have character so you can trust them—and these are the very same characteristics other people are looking for in you.
To accomplish this, you need to “go deep,” not “wide,” when making conversation at networking events. In other words, spend the time needed to really learn about people and to teach people about you. Show them that you are as good of a listener (learning) as you are a talker (teaching), that you are not dominating the conversation, and that you are well mannered and professional to a T. They will quickly see you want to build meaningful relationships, not simply a network of nodding acquaintances.
You will certainly meet people who are “takers,” but you will also meet those willing to be “investors” in relationships—people who understand that every referral given is a reflection of the person giving the referral and that referrals should never be given casually. The individuals referring you must trust the good job you will do for their contacts, and gaining that trust requires that you invest time and effort in building the relationship—an investment that only starts at the networking event.
That’s why you will need to follow up with the people you believe may be valuable to you within a reasonable time after the event. Send them a personal note with a copy of an interesting article that might tie to the conversation you had. Invite them to lunch, coffee or another event. Keep working to build a meaningful, trusting relationship with them.
etworking events can be a great way to meet referral sources as well as prospective clients, but it’s rarely as simple as just showing up and pressing a business card into someone’s hand. Mastering some simple relationship-building skills, however, will serve you well at events and make your business development efforts far more productive.
Steven J. Shaer is a principal of Shaer Associates, a management consulting and training firm that specializes in teaching clients how to build referral business.