When I was still a very green lawyer, a partner approached me and asked if I would like to travel to an organization’s annual meeting and CLE program with him. He suggested that this would be a good opportunity to learn about the organization, network with lawyers outside the firm, and meet potential clients. I happily accepted the opportunity to not have to bill eight hours the following Friday and asked my assistant to sign me up.
The event was held at a very nice venue on the Gulf Coast of Florida. From looking at the program, you could tell someone spent a lot of time planning the weekend’s events. There were beach-themed CLEs like “Mediation so Easy you Could do it in Shorts” and “When your Witness is a Beach Bum,” and the CLEs were interspersed with social opportunities like a golf tournament, spa day, early morning yoga classes on the beach, and a zip line adventure for attendees’ children. After these meetings was a gala-style dinner where the organization’s yearly award winners were announced. The firm was obviously spending a lot of money to give me the opportunity to attend, so I decided I had better make the best of it.
After I signed up, I was emailed an attendee list. I scanned through it briefly, and I recognized several of our firm’s competitors were on the list. They too were sponsors, so if my firm wanted me to meet people, I knew I needed to be intentional about it. To that end, I noticed many in-house attorneys were speaking on panels. After those panels were invite-only lunches to meet the panelists. Unfortunately, these lunches were already full by the time I signed up. So, the first lesson I learned: Book early so you can plan how you will spend your time at the conference.
I also saw on the list the names of friends from law school and acquaintances from my relatively short time trying tort cases in southern Alabama. You could meet many referral sources throughout a career, so, even if I missed out on the one-on-one client meetings, I figured, “what the heck, go have fun and make the best of hanging out with lawyers I can learn from.”
When I got to the venue early that next Friday morning, the first thing I noticed was I was very much over-dressed—one of the many things I should have asked about before leaving. Though it is indeed better to be over-dressed than under, that sentiment must be balanced with seemingly socially awkward or worse, pretentious. This does not mean you can show up to a beach-themed CLE meeting in a Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops (unless the conference is in Hawaii, of course). Lesson two: Learn the culture of the organization, which includes dressing accordingly.
After tucking my tie away, I found the partner who invited me to attend. He introduced me to three or four people at the continental breakfast station. After about 10 minutes of this, he reached over and whispered in my ear: “Spread out, go meet some folks. Don’t hang around me. You see me every day. Your job is to meet new people today.”
I took slight offense to this at first, but I knew what he meant. It wasn’t that he wanted me to get away from him, but he had spent a lot of time making acquaintances over the years, and he was busy working his “room.” What he wanted was for me to find my own “room,” wherever and with whomever that might be. So, lesson three: Get away from the familiar, and make your own “room.”
Because I knew no one else, I looked for a friend I had reached out to before the meeting. When I found him, he waved me over to join a group of his friends. He had been there before, and he knew more people than I did. Tagging along with his friends was a small amalgam of others like me who were equally naïve to the goings-on around them. We hit it off quickly, and with wide and eager eyes, we agreed to go into the meetings together.
Our new small group of know-nothings made our way to the back tables of the room where we could observe from afar. It was evident after only a few minutes that the space inside the large meeting hall was merely an extension of social gatherings happening outside at the breakfast area. Plus, everyone had different colored name badges, some adorned like a war general with ribbons that proclaimed their status. There were the speakers, sponsors, and host firms as well as officers, board members, and former presidents. There were small groups of lawyers who looked as if they had not seen each other in years back-slapping, hugging, telling inside jokes, and carrying on about nonsense (even in hushed tones during the presentations).
Lesson four: Know your place. There is no way that a young first-time attendee can walk away with work from an organization by simply attending. You will not become an officer just by being cordial at the breakfast bar. These people earned their right to elevated status, due in large part to their dedication to the organization. So, there is no room for thinking you are going in to “win” the conference by being a gunner. This is beyond unrealistic.
Lesson five: If you want to get something out of anything, you have to work at it. After the end of the first day, it was clear who the organization’s leaders were. It was also clear who was there to work and who was simply there to play. I am not going to say that I did not sneak out the back door during a particularly boring presentation or that I did not spend some time visiting the poolside bar during breaks. But if I wanted to get anything meaningful out of the trip, I had to spend the time to get to know people. I also had to ask questions about how I could get more involved.
The next morning session was noticeably less well-attended. The crowd was thinner due to what I later found out was a particularly wild night at one of the resort bars. While I certainly had a fine time with some of my new acquaintances the evening before, I was not going to miss my first meeting of the second day for fear of what my partners would say. This was fortuitous because, during one of the breakout sessions, I was asked if I would like to join the young lawyer committee lunch and I agreed.
When I arrived, there were only ten people there (some looking in considerably worse shape than others). As someone from a regionally recognized firm, they asked if I would like to get involved in their committee, specifically as the new membership chair. And I said, “of course!” It was then and there that I had officially become a member of the club. Lesson six: An easy way to get involved is to join the young lawyer division or committee.
That afternoon the sessions ended, and people went their separate ways to enjoy family events, golf, or lounge around the resort pool. The night ended with that grand gala where the crowd again gathered, hugging, laughing, and sharing stories about what to expect the next time they came together. I had a few new business cards in my pocket and a new “professional experience” to put on my resume. It was clear to me that if I wanted to make this work for me and my career, I would have to come back to the same event next year. Lesson seven: It takes more than one meeting to show you are going to commit.
After getting back to my office that next Monday, my partner came to talk about the event. I told him about a few of the people I had a chance to meet and people I wanted to reach back out to. I showed him the business cards I collected (which coincided with the ones I handed out myself), and he told me to follow up, not by email, but by personal note to each of the people I anticipated meeting the next year. My handwriting is sloppy but he said, “make the effort to tell them why you enjoyed meeting them. They’ll notice it.” Lesson eight: To build a meaningful relationship, take the extra time to show others you are willing to treat them like you would want to be treated.
So, after work that evening, I picked up some note cards and wrote personal messages to several people I had met that weekend. I penned one note congratulating the guy who made the hard birdie putt on 16, I wrote to another that I appreciated her not complaining about my grunting too loudly during the beach yoga session, and I thanked another for the good bourbon recommendation. And I thanked another for a particularly funny CLE presentation. I made it a point not to make it about me. I thought, perhaps, just perhaps, in the next few years, we’d all be back together and, this time we’d be one of those folks festooned with silly ribbons and cracking inside jokes about those days when we were young lawyers like those wide-eyed greenhorns in the back of the room.