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February 27, 2017 Asked and Answered

How to host a networking event that actually brings in business (podcast with transcript)

By Stephanie Francis Ward

You want to expand your book of business with networking events, and think that planning one yourself might be the most rewarding. But how can you develop an event that lawyers will actually attend, doesn’t go way over budget and brings you some great new connections?

In this month’s episode, the ABA Journal’s Stephanie Francis Ward speaks with Alycia Sutor, managing director at the sales-effectiveness firm GrowthPlay, about hosting successful networking events for lawyers.

Podcast transcript

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Stephanie Francis Ward: You want to expand your book of business with networking events, and think that planning one yourself might be the most rewarding. How can you develop one that lawyers will actually attend; doesn’t go way over budget; and brings you some great new connections?

I’m Stephanie Francis Ward, and on today’s episode of the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered, I’m speaking about hosting successful networking events for lawyers with Alycia Sutor, managing director at the sales effectiveness firm GrowthPlay. Welcome to the show.

Alycia Sutor: Thank you so much.

Stephanie Francis Ward: What is key for having an event that people will go out of their way to attend and will also foster a supportive environment for networking?

Alycia Sutor: It’s a great question, how to get people to actually come out and join you in their busy lives. You know, I think one of the key things is to start our thinking and planning from the outside in rather than from the inside out, which is how we tend to approach these events.

So we start to think about what we have time for, what works into our schedule, what we think would be interesting, and then we invite people and think that if we build it, they will come.

And so, instead, I would say we need to first think about who we’re trying to attract into our ecosystem, and then we need to think about from their perspective what actually would be interesting and valuable to them, recognizing that they have so many other choices for how to spend their time.

So I think it’s really thinking about what creates value for the other people, for the other person, and then working your way backwards. And sometimes it begins with us not knowing the answer. We have to ask questions.

Stephanie Francis Ward: And what sort of questions do you ask, and who would you ask? How do you find out what would get someone to my event?

Alycia Sutor: Exactly. So I always love starting event planning with what I call the whisper campaign. So I select a few of my trusted advisors who are representative of the target market that I’m trying to attract.

And I might say something like, “It’s my goal this year to create an event that really adds value for people who have your job responsibilities, and I’m trying to do it in a way that’s not sort of the formulaic, yawn, tried-and-true. Here are a couple of my ideas.

“However, I recognize that I might not know the exact answer. What do you think?” or, “What would be a value to you? What would get you out of your office at lunch instead of just sitting and working away? So what would be enough to attract you?”

Stephanie Francis Ward: Have you gotten some answers over the years that have surprised you?

Alycia Sutor: You know it’s so funny. People will really tell you what you want when you bother to ask. I’ve had people say, “Well, just take me to more sporting events.” Well, OK, that’s pretty easy to do.

Or I’ve had some people say, “We are really trying to figure out X issue. We would love to hear from so-and-so. If you could get them in a room, we would definitely show up for that.”

Stephanie Francis Ward: I see.

Alycia Sutor: So, yes, absolutely.

Stephanie Francis Ward: And have you found that certain types of networking events tend to work better for certain practice areas? Like, maybe the appellate lawyers love to go to baseball games, or maybe the trial lawyers love casino night. Are there certain things that the groups tend to like or not like?

Alycia Sutor: Maybe not so particular as that, but I do think the spectrum of events that we can plan from is wider than we tend to think about.

So there are the big-box events where you bring everybody into a room and feed them nice cheese and crackers and some wine and hope that they fare well. That typically tends to be the standby that we think about.

Again, if you’re starting from the other person’s perspective, depending on your practice area—for example, private equity and corporate finance—that prospect or that client type tends to feel like they want to be treated like the VIP.

Stephanie Francis Ward: They’re not going to be happy with cheese and crackers and wine.

Alycia Sutor: No, exactly, so you might need to create a more exclusive or VIP-like event for them. For other practice areas where your prospects and your clients might be more analytical, you might need to create events that are more process-driven or have framing around them, so bringing people in to do some kind of think-tank activity or networking event might be more appropriate.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you think it’s a good idea to—perhaps it depends on the event—should a lawyer or his or her firm try to plan the event themselves, or should they hire somebody from outside to put together something, or does it depend?

Alycia Sutor: I think it depends on a number of things. One, I think, is how much time does a lawyer have, and how much budget resources do they have at their disposal? Events, though, don’t have to be elaborate and overly time-consuming.

So networking, the opportunity to create avenues for your attendees and your guests to get to know other people and to get to know you better doesn’t require a big budget and five months of planning.

It could be something smaller and intimate where you invite 10 people to join you for drinks before heading home at a convenient place. But you’ve curated who you’re inviting so that it becomes a special kind of intimate event.

Stephanie Francis Ward: You mentioned in terms of who you invite for that curation part of it. Is there a tactful way to share your guest list? Because I know, like, for CLE events, people decide if they’re going to go based on who’s speaking and who might be there.

If you’re just having some sort of get-together event, and it’s more than 10 people on an email chain, is there a tactful way to share who will be there, or should you maybe not? Do you have thoughts on that?

Alycia Sutor: I think it’s about how you set the expectation with your guests and what the purpose of the event is for. I think, frankly, most people go to networking events with the intention that they want to meet people and create relationships that are going to live beyond the event. So, most of the time, I find people really want access and the ability to see who else is going, both before and after.

Stephanie Francis Ward: What’s your advice about setting a budget for an event? I mean, are there ways that you can cut costs that it’s not immediately apparent that you’re cutting costs?

Alycia Sutor: Yeah, so that’s a great question. Again, I don’t think an event has to be expensive in order to be well done. I think it has to be thoughtful though. And so an example of how you might cut costs and create a really optimal event for your guests is to use something like Paperless Post or an Evite instead of sending the traditional paper invitation.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Then you can see the guest list and whether they’re coming.

Alycia Sutor: Exactly, exactly. And, therefore, in the follow-up, too, with Paperless Post or Evite is the ability for people to share stories afterwards, to post pictures—

Stephanie Francis Ward: Is it OK?

Alycia Sutor: —to create community.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Is that OK to use Evite for law firm networking events or—I haven’t seen it, but it sounds like a great idea.

Alycia Sutor: I think it’s again dependent upon the expectation of the people you’re inviting. Would I use Paperless Post for the major CLE two-day marathon that the firm hosts? Probably not. But would I do that if I were a lawyer who is creating again a small, intimate networking event? Absolutely.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Well, I think what you mentioned about for communications after the fact—I think there’d be some really interesting ways you can use social media for that.

Alycia Sutor: Absolutely.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you have thoughts on that?

Alycia Sutor: I think social media is again a great way to continue conversation, to curate how people get to know each other. I think one of the keys to making a great event great is how you invite people in the first place.

So I think when we invite people through a three-step process versus just a one-step process—which is sending them an invitation and hoping that they show up—the social media aspect will reinforce that.

Stephanie Francis Ward: The three-step process is?

Alycia Sutor: So the three-step process would be to send people a heads-up or a save-the-date. “We’re planning or I’m planning this particular event. I’m really hoping you can attend because I’m hoping to introduce you to so-and-so. I’d love for you to meet my colleague, Jane Smith. I’d like to talk to you a little bit about XYZ. I would love to just catch up with you. It’s been a long time.”

After you’re done with the save-the-date, you might want to do then a formal invitation. And then finally you might want to do a two-day-before-the-event confirmation. So this could come in email format. It could come through social media. It could come through Paperless Post.

But it’s a, “We’re really looking forward to seeing you. I’m glad you’re coming because ___” for those who have affirmed that they’re coming, and then for those you haven’t heard back from yet, this is the opportunity to try one more time to catch them.

“So we’re having this event in two days. We haven’t gotten your response. There’s still room, and I’m really hoping that you’ll be able to stop by, again because ___” It’s that personalized reasons that shows that you’re thoughtful in why you’re inviting somebody to come out.

And then again the social media follow-up afterwards gives people a really specific connection to extend that “because.”

Stephanie Francis Ward: Right. It’ll be easier to make the connection.

Alycia Sutor: Exactly.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Unless it’s a benefit, does it ever make sense to charge admission for an event?

Alycia Sutor: You know, Stephanie, I think it depends on how you think about admission. So I’m not a big fan of charging people a monetary price of admission, but I am a big fan of thinking creatively about how you might use admission to get people to commit.

So, for example, your price of admission is to bring a friend, or your price of admission is to, if this is for some kind of charitable cause, is to come prepared to think about how you might support this particular organization or charity. Again, it gets people ready for your event and in the spirit of what you’re expecting them to do.

Stephanie Francis Ward: I see. What are your thoughts about finding an event co-sponsor?

Alycia Sutor: I think it can often be a really fantastic idea when you find the right alliance partner who has similar interests in curating, connecting to and growing that same community of people. They often have access to a network that you don’t have access to and vice versa. You can share expenses, but you can also share part of the effort and energy it takes just to pull off something, so absolutely.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Right. I see. We’re going to take a quick break, and when we come back, we are going to discuss what times and days of the week tend to work the best for legal networking events.

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Stephanie Francis Ward: And we’re back. I’m Stephanie Francis Ward, and on today’s episode of the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered, I’m speaking with Alycia Sutor about what makes a legal networking event successful.

What are some days and times of the week that tend to work better than others?

Alycia Sutor: Oh, I think Mondays and Fridays are bad days, particularly coming off and on, heading into a weekend. So days of the week, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday.

Time of day, I think really depends on who your audience or who your intended audience is. Evening events don’t work so well for people who have other responsibilities to get home to. So trying to do long, elaborative events at night maybe aren’t great when you have a bunch of working mothers as part of your target market.

Sometimes breakfast works well because people know that they can quickly get into the office afterwards, and so there is an expected time boxedness to it. And lunch can often be a draw too, because people have to eat. So if it’s short and convenient—I think you have to think about location in that case or in all cases—but there’s no magic silver bullet for time.

Stephanie Francis Ward: OK. And what about seasons? Do you find that summer events are attended better than the winter events, or what do you see?

Alycia Sutor: That’s a great question. I think people tend to take August off, so I see people trying to avoid those dates for planning purposes, but there are a lot of fun things to do in the summer. And I’m based in Chicago, so there are a lot of reasons why we need to get out and be around other people in the wintertime.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Yeah, I’m thinking a rooftop reception might work quite well, yeah.

And you mentioned location. What should you consider with location when you’re planning an event for lawyers? I mean, should it be where most of the offices are and where the courthouses are, or does it depend? Maybe you’re out in the suburbs.

Alycia Sutor: Yeah, again, Stephanie, I think you’ve gotta really plan not from the lawyer’s perspective, but you have to think about your intended audience’s perspective and what’s convenient for them. So I think convenience is one factor to consider.

I think the other factor to consider is what would be valuable, so what creates enough of a reason that’s compelling enough to attend something?

So sometimes the venue’s actually pretty important, particularly if you’re up against lots of competing priorities, so thinking of something that’s unique or a speaker that has a particular draw or a kind of event that allows people to get together and do something that they normally don’t carve out the time to do.

So I’ve seen some really successful events around things like playing hockey for people who really love hockey, creating opportunity, a dads’ night for people who are trying—dads’ poker night that legitimizes getting together again for a bunch of dads or working dads.

I had a woman lawyer who created a clay and cocktails networking event.

Stephanie Francis Ward: What was it?

Alycia Sutor: Clay and cocktails.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Clay?

Alycia Sutor: So it was a shooting event at a shooting range.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Oh, I was thinking Play-Doh clay.

Alycia Sutor: No, clay as in shooting range, with cocktails. Now, that might be a dangerous combination, but it got a huge response because it was such a unique opportunity to do something that people don’t get a chance to do very often.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Yeah, yeah, that does sound—I mean, that would never occur to me, but it sounds interesting.

Alycia Sutor: Exactly.

Stephanie Francis Ward: What about for continuing legal education, to tie that in with your event? Are those usually still successful, or is it not as easy as it once was to get attorneys to CLEs because they’re offered at so many places—

Alycia Sutor: Indeed.

Stephanie Francis Ward: —and they’re offered in so many ways?

Alycia Sutor: That’s right. OK, I know I sound like a broken record, but I think it goes back to really understanding your intended audience and what they’ll find valuable. So CLEs absolutely still provide value.

You have to make sure you’re delivering on a topic that makes sense to who you want to be in the room, that you think about how you deliver the content or the information in a way that’s interesting and not just again the boring PowerPoint presentation that puts people to sleep. And I think it’s really important how you figure out, again, the topic as it relates to your audience before you start planning.

Stephanie Francis Ward: And since you also think it seems like a lot of law firms, if they were going to do that, they would of course want to put their own attorneys on the panel—

Alycia Sutor: That’s right.

Stephanie Francis Ward: —which, you know, if they have something interesting to say, that could be wonderful. If not, somebody might be a better choice. So is that something to perhaps be mindful and reflective about while you’re planning?

Alycia Sutor: Absolutely, and you get the benefit of somebody else’s network. So you get exposure to a broader group of people when you think about diversifying who’s on the faculty or the speaker guys, absolutely.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you have any tips on finding a speaker who will be good, or is it just something you know or you don’t, based on what he or she has done in a specific field?

Alycia Sutor: Well, strangely, I think part of finding great speakers is getting out there and networking, so paying attention to who you’re meeting. Oftentimes, great speakers come in all forms and shapes and aren’t the usual suspects.

I think asking our clients who they want to hear from—I think sometimes clients can be some of the best speakers, because people want to hear directly from someone else’s perspective who’s gone through exactly the same thing that we’re talking about. So I think oftentimes the folks who we’re working most closely with are some of the best speaker options.

Stephanie Francis Ward: OK. And are there some things that you hear from attorneys that they think it would be just a great event, but it bombs and hardly anybody goes?

Alycia Sutor: I think the thing that typically fails to meet expectations is when we put together some kind of training event, thinking that the topic that we want to train on and the esoteric approach that we take to talking about it can often fail to meet expectations, and then lawyers are left wondering, “Why didn’t that go so well?”

And again, if you start with your intended audience’s perspective, figure out what would really bring them out of their office, they would find valuable and interesting and in what format they want to hear from people, that’s the surefire way to make a successful event.

Stephanie Francis Ward: And do you find that sometimes the attorneys can be kind of rigid about what they think they need to do, and you need to be more open about what others might want to do and what would appeal to them, even if it’s not what you’ve always done? Maybe it would be fun to do something different.

Alycia Sutor: I don’t think that they’re so rigid, so much as they get overwhelmed by what they think is the level of planning and coordination. And again, I want to pro-offer that a great networking event isn’t something that has to be big and elaborate and expensive. It can be small and intimate and more informal.

The key is to get people who want to be together, who would benefit from knowing each other, thinking about how you operate as host, thinking about the unique venue or spot that you host something, and then carefully curating how you invite people to participate.

Stephanie Francis Ward: I see. And I think that’s everything I wanted to ask you today. Would you like to add anything else?

Alycia Sutor: I would just say networking doesn’t have to be left to the domain of only the extroverts. This is something that we can all conquer, and frankly I think it’s necessary, and frankly relationships enrich life, and networking is a big part of that.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Well, thank you so much for joining me today. I really appreciate it.

Alycia Sutor: You’re so welcome. Thank you.

Stephanie Francis Ward: And, listeners, thank you for joining us as well. I’m Stephanie Francis Ward, and you’ve been listening to the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered.

End of transcript.

Updated on March 2 to add the transcript.

In This Podcast:

Stephanie Francis Ward
Alycia Sutor, managing director of the sales effectiveness firm GrowthPlay, has worked with lawyers for almost 20 years. She focuses on business development, culture development and leadership approaches. Previously, she served as a marketing manager and director at two Chicago law firms. She’s also worked with Chicago-Kent College of Law’s student marketing-education program.