Networking. The term is bandied about in almost every conversation or discussion about searching for a legal job, or seeking to attract new clients. Despite its ubiquity, networking is often misunderstood as schmoozing, a chore enjoyed by few. For those transitioning from the military who are used to being assigned to their next job or whose clients find them for help, it can be even more misunderstood or daunting. The discomforts of networking can be mitigated, however, by preparation and planning. Understanding what you are trying to achieve through networking and putting in the time to get past the discomfort is well worth the effort because successful networking provides immense value in potentially getting a job, making the connections you might need, or finding the clients you are seeking.
Networking Gives You the Leg Up
When properly done, networking is vital in helping legal professionals land jobs and retain clients. One of the first questions someone leaving the military and transitioning into the civilian legal profession should ask is where do you want to work? The answer to that question might be a region of the country or it could be a specific work environment. Do you want to work in a law firm, a corporation, an office on your own, or in a non-legal environment that takes advantage of your skills? Bottom line, you need to have some idea of what you are looking for and where, and then target networking opportunities in those areas. You probably had great contacts and a network in the military, but that network may need to be supplemented as you make a cultural change to the civilian legal market.
The value of engaging in networking is compelling, as industry sources note that a job seeker who is referred for a position is, conservatively, three to four times more likely to be hired than someone who applies for a position without a referral. Similarly, clients often feel more comfortable getting help with their legal issues when someone they trust recommends a service provider to them. Networking helps you obtain these advantages. By making connections with people who have the potential to refer you for work in your areas of interest or expertise, you are increasing your chances of gaining the job or clients you want.
Properly Frame What You Want To Obtain From Networking, Then Be Proactive In Reaching That Goal
Networking need not be viewed as the awkward and uncomfortable task of meeting people via ad hoc encounters and stunted conversation. Instead, networking should be viewed as process of forming relationships built on trust. As in any context, forging such relationships takes effort. In the professional realm, it is unlikely those relationships will form by chance. Successful networkers are proactive. They harness their existing network, identify events to attend or activities to participate in, identify the people they want to meet through those interactions, and prepare accordingly. Preparation includes finding out as much as you can about an event and the potential audience attending before you go, staying current on news and reports in the areas of your greatest interest, and being ready to discuss current challenges and opportunities in specific areas with people who may already be familiar with that information.
Harness Your Existing Network
Beginning the process of networking begs what is often times the hardest questions: when and where do I even start?
For those serving in the military, the "when" is a particularly hard question, as you need time to complete the retirement or discharge process. Importantly, as an initial matter, you should recognize that determining when to start networking is a different question from when to actually apply for a job. Networking can start anytime. In fact, the more time you invest in networking, the stronger the relationships you will build, thereby increasing the potential for a referral later. When to start applying for jobs will be determined by the lead time required by your service and anticipated start dates for positions in which you are interested.
Where to start is also difficult, but that challenge can be lessened by looking first to the network you have already amassed. The social media site, LinkedIn, is a great tool to assist you in cataloguing and leveraging the people you already know. You should maintain useful contacts that you already have, and make time to reconnect with people from your past who may be relevant to your future goals. LinkedIn also provides access to networks of like-minded job-seekers and employers. To provide such a forum specifically targeted to veteran legal professionals, the ABA has created the Veteran Legal Professional Network (VLPN) on LinkedIn that can be found here. The ABA's goal for this network is to foster the type of engagement and discussion on this forum that assists veterans in transitioning to civilian employment.
Identify Events to Attend
As noted, the critical component for successful networking is developing relationships. Attaining those relationships requires interaction. Be it online or in person, a successful networker must connect with those they are interested in meeting. The ABA's online network seeks to foster that opportunity, but in-person interactions should not be overlooked. There are a multitude of opportunities to network, be it volunteering, attending CLEs or conferences, or reaching out to former colleagues or contacts. Regardless of the forum or manner selected, a successful networker commits to meeting people. As you begin the process, consider quantifying your commitment to meeting people so that you can track your efforts. For example, consider setting a goal to meet five or more new people at each event you attend and try joining one or two new groups per month.
Prepare For Networking Events
Selecting events to attend is only the first step in formulating an effective networking strategy. Instead of simply showing up at an event, contemplate how you can best place yourself in a position to meet the people you want to meet. Consider arriving early and engaging the hosts or other early arrivals in conversation. Prepare yourself to be able to foster conversation, including preparing a short introduction about you and your interests, and having questions in mind for others. Really evaluate yourself in this preparation process and be ready to say why you are the best person for a position or the best advocate for a client. Remember that in the military, you not only developed substantive and communication skills, you also learned the importance of leadership, strategic planning, and getting the job done. Without being arrogant, think about how to identify some of these skills in your conversations where they might be relevant. Here are some questions and a checklist of items that may be helpful in preparing yourself for networking.
Often overlooked in networking is the importance of following-up with the contacts that you make and cultivating those relationships over time. At minimum, a contemporaneous follow-up e-mail or personal note to a new or reacquainted contact makes it much easier, and less awkward, to reach out to that individual later. Further, work to cultivate that relationship over time. Consider connecting with your network via Twitter and LinkedIn, and use that forum to keep in touch. Interact with your network as to the material they post, and post thoughts on issues that relate to the work you want to pursue. Remember, as you are transitioning to the civilian legal market, you are also rebranding yourself in a new work environment and culture, and you should ensure that the reputation, expertise, and connections you are building are the ones you need and want in that environment.