April 01, 2018

Building a Practice: Starting and Building a Professional Network

Cedric Ashley

To succeed in this fiercely competitive legal marketplace, you need to build a tribe, a bond, a social capital network. As great, talented, and high-achieving as you are, you cannot accomplish much without the help of someone else. Life is about relationships, and those relationships need to be nurtured. You should treat your network like a bank account—if you make deposits into your account, you can make withdrawals from your account.

To be clear, building a professional network is not a marketing strategy, nor is it a business-development strategy. And it is much more than a component of an overall business plan. The careful development of a professional network is essential to the overall success of your career and life.

The development of a professional network serves as the strong anchor of your business. Try not to limit your thinking of a professional network as just a referral source. It is far more than that. Rather, think of your professional network along grander terms: a professional success board, a mastermind group, a business advisory board. But if you truly develop your network, referrals will flow to you without effort.

Your professional network should consist of a number of people who can serve in specific roles. This can include subject matter experts (SMEs) such as accountants, social media professionals, lawyers practicing in affiliated fields, human resource professionals, bankers, and technology professionals, to name a few. You don’t need to cover every potential SME, but having these resources in your network will go a long way.

Your network should also be diverse to avoid “groupthink.” If everyone in your network were retired Army master sergeants, would that create groupthink? Most likely. Similarly, a group homogenous along other lines will limit thought and limit access to the broader populations. Make sure you look to diversify your group by giving thought to gender, generation, race, religion, and sexual orientation when you are building your network.

A quick note: Without doubt, there are plenty of organizations that exist as business development networks. However, these types of networks are not the focus of this article. These structured, formatted entities often have a particular methodology or process to assist you in developing business (many focus on mutual referrals as a method of growing your business). You should consider whether membership in such an organization is beneficial to you professionally, and whether such an organization fits into your overall business development plan. Part of this assessment should include conducting your own due diligence as to whether the rules of professional conduct of your state permit or prohibit membership in a referral-type networking group.

As you build and develop your network, here are three tips to keep in mind.


Think Depth, Not Breadth

This network is one of depth. You are looking to build few relationships, but by contrast they are meaningful and deep—the type where you can pick up the phone or get a response to a text very quickly. Depth also means you will have access to the other person’s network because you will be top of mind when he or she needs to call on a subject matter expert in your field.


Think Reciprocity, Not Reward

Building a strong network is really about giving and taking. And you should always strive to deposit more into the relationship bank than you withdraw. If you approach your network development with a view that these are just minions who are one-way sources of business, you quickly find that you have a network of one. Being willing to give, to be of service, to be available, and to be selfless are some of the hallmarks of a strong relationship. You will find that your actions will be reciprocated by other members of your network, and you will all share in the reward. Be slow and careful about who you select as members of your network. Should you err in a selection, and find that you have a one-way taker, correct the problem and stay focused on the overall purpose you are trying to achieve.


Think Nurture, Not Nature

Unlike nature, where trees go from bare to yielding fruit simply with the passing of the seasons, relationships must be nurtured. They don’t bear fruit without effort. However, relationships do mimic nature in their own life cycle. Just as a pear tree goes from seed to young sapling to mature tree, true professional relationships can be nurtured from the initial development stage (seed), where persons are getting to know one another; to a growth stage (sapling), where trust is formed; and finally to a fully developed stage (mature tree), where the “fruit” of the relationship is bountiful.

And as in nature, often we need to prune and clip branches and vines to let the dead go, to ensure that the infected does not seep into the healthy, and to maintain the overall growth of the tree. So, as you are building your network, invest the time to care for your network development process to ensure a perennial harvest.


Cedric Ashley cedric@ashleylawfirm.com is a sole practitioner in Princeton, New Jersey, concentrating in business litigation and employment litigation. He serves on the editorial board of GPSolo magazine and is the current Diversity Director of the GPSolo Division and serves as a member of the General Council. Cedric has more than 25 years of experience in the investigation, mediation, and litigation of disputes. Additionally, Cedric is a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) Certified Practitioner and is certified as a Coach in Social and Emotional Intelligence from the Institute for Social & Emotional Intelligence (ISEI).