We hear all the time that it is important to build our professional network. So, we go around to networking events and collect business cards, only to put them in a box and never look at them again. That is not the type of “networking” I’m talking about here. I’m referring to relationships that have grown organically and unexpectedly have assisted me in my career path.
My legal career path has been a winding, twisting road with many detours. I have practiced law in three different states (yes, I had to take the bar in each one) and in many different areas of law. I have worked at a midsize law firm, a large multinational law firm, and in-house for a corporation. Now I manage a five-attorney staff counsel office. Looking back, I remember that I got my first job out of law school when talking to a classmate who was telling me about her internship that was ending. I said that it sounded interesting, and she introduced me to her boss the next day. That developed into an internship and then an offer after the bar exam. Fast forward years later; I was taking a deposition and preparing for trial, working closely with other co-defense counsel. After that case resolved, I kept in contact with co-defense counsel, and when her multinational law firm was hiring, I was able to get a personal introduction to the hiring partner instead of being just another résumé on the pile. Lastly, when transitioning to staff counsel, a law school colleague introduced me to the hiring partner, though it was more than 15 years since we graduated together. I may have made more changes over my legal career than some, but through all this change, the one consistency of each successful transition was developing and maintaining a strong professional network of contacts and positive relationships.
The benefits of being a solo or small firm practitioner are many, including being your own boss, taking only the cases you choose, making a name for yourself, and creating a legacy. However, the autonomy of being a solo or small firm lawyer can also be isolating and overwhelming without a proper network and relationships. Many of us do not have the luxury of a built-in network of co-workers. As such, we have to look outside the four walls of our office to establish these connections. We can build relationships to collaborate with others to lighten our workload, to learn a new area of law, to build our business and advance our professional goals, or just to talk with someone who understands the stress and toll of practicing law.
In building a good professional relationship, I have found that my best connections have been reciprocal, where we are both getting what we need from the relationship. I try to foster honest and open communication as much as I can without compromising any confidences. I also work to be empathic and try to recognize what others need from me. Most of all, I try to practice mindful listening to understand and comprehend what others are saying. Building a relationship takes time and effort, but looking back, I know that it was due to my relationships that I have continued to succeed. I have truly learned to appreciate those connections.
So, branch out and bond not only with people in your age group but also with those who have more and less experience than you. Create relationships that keep you engaged, that provide an outlet for ideas and frustrations, and that make you happy. Develop a strong professional circle that will organically develop your career, opening up opportunities that you otherwise wouldn’t have pursued. Inspire and motivate; critique and challenge; and come out better because of it.