Eight Networking Tips for Young Lawyers

Let me start off with the obvious: Networking is important. And you should start now. Maybe now your employer is great, or you’re junior enough that you’re not yet expected to bring in business. But five years down the road, when you’re up for partnership or considering switching jobs, you will not want to find yourself without a professional network. Thus, it is imperative that you start developing one now.

So as a young attorney, how do you do that? With a phrase you probably heard over and over again in law school: “Do what works for you.” Experiment with networking methods, build your confidence, and find out what form of networking best suits your style and personality.

What I can offer you, at the very least, is a checklist of things to try to do and keep in mind as you develop your networking skills and build your professional network.

1. Change Your Mind-Set
Deep down, as attorneys we all know that the purpose of networking is to connect with people so that they will like you and trust you, and ultimately refer business to you. I loathe this mentality. It plagues every handshake and converts every “Nice to meet you” into “What can you offer me and what can I offer you?”

This mentality makes networking especially abhorrent for young lawyers with minimal experience and likely no clients of their own. Young lawyers speaking to senior attorneys are burdened with the insecurity that they have nothing to give but everything to take. This is a miserable situation that likely deters many from attending networking events early in their legal career.

Change your mind-set. What you have to offer, and expect to get, from networking is the same thing you expect from any social experience—a pleasant human interaction. Offer your personality, your story, your insight, or your recommendations on movies or dinner places. And seek and expect the same thing in return.

Plus, you never know—you may try that newly recommended dinner place and the chef at the dinner place may burn your dessert; the owner of the dinner place may come out and apologize for your burnt dessert; during the apology, you may reveal that you’re a lawyer; and the owner may express that he’d been looking for a lawyer—and suddenly, you’ve landed your first client.

Both business and life experiences depend on opportunity, and you can gain opportunities through networking. But to gain real value from networking, you must broaden your mind-set on what those opportunities might be.

2. Go to Networking Receptions, and Go Alone
Yes, I said it: You must sometimes go to networking receptions alone. Don’t worry—I hate it too. The truth is your future is full of events where you will need to socialize with a room full of people you barely know. From conferences to cocktail hours, you will be repeatedly presented with situations where you must approach complete strangers and attempt to initiate conversation. Alone.

Because these situations are guaranteed to arise in your professional career, the best time to start adjusting to them is as a young attorney. Look at it as practice—if you can survive a networking event when you’re at your most nervous and insecure, think of what you’ll be able to accomplish at networking events you feel comfortable in. Going to networking receptions alone will build confidence you can then take and apply to other networking scenarios.

3. Find Your Wingman
Of course, I do not mean that you should attend every networking event alone. Inviting a friend or colleague can make a networking event easier and more fun.

The trick is, however, to find a person who matches your networking style, aka your “wingman.” For an effective experience, you do not want to attend a networking event with someone you will use as an excuse not to talk to anyone else. If this is what you’re doing, then you’re getting as much out of networking as you would if you’d just gone straight home after work. Rather, you want someone whom you can start the night with but who will allow you to split off into separate conversations with other people. View this networking friend as a “base”—someone you can find later on in the night if you need some place to go but who is also willing to break off and socialize on his or her own.

I like attending an event with a companion because I often feel that it makes me more approachable. Groups of two people are often inviting to other small groups or persons attending alone. Moreover, you and your companion can play off each other during conversations (“Well, together at work we sometimes take Starbucks breaks in the afternoon.” Or “Back in law school together, we’d go to this restaurant and celebrate the end of finals together.”). So long as you’re not conversing with each other to exclude other people, the dynamic can be a helpful and effective icebreaker.

4. Take Advantage of Alumni Networks
Good news! If you’ve come this far, you already have networks. Almost all law schools, most colleges, and numerous high schools have and encourage strong alumni networks. Even some elementary schools have reunions and alumni presence.

Alumni events are some of my favorites because you already share an important commonality with everyone present—where you went to school. Our educational background is an important aspect of who we are, and it is much easier to connect with someone who shares that background with you.

Whatever your feelings are about your alma mater, I strongly encourage you to attend alumni events if they’re offered in your area. Most young lawyers are encumbered with student loans, and some take the attitude of “They got my money, I got my degree, and then we parted ways.” Alumni events are a great opportunity to reminisce about your educational experience, but they may also be a time to discuss with other alumni your dislike of the school’s policies. These kinds of conversations are great because they afford you an opportunity to move beyond small talk and begin connecting with others over similar positive or negative experiences.

Further, involvement with alumni activities presents another great opportunity. If you participated on a team in law school, try coaching. Some schools offer adjunct teaching opportunities. There are also many alumni committees, junior boards, etc., all of which present you with an opportunity to meet and connect with other people and, of course, pay it forward.

5. Look Behind and Pay It Forward
Which brings me to my next point: Network with law students. It is amazing how, once we transition into working attorneys, we quickly forget that we were once law students terrified of our future and desperate for some guarantee that we’ll find success. Remember how thankful you were when an attorney responded to your email, met you for coffee, and shared his or her wisdom? It’s time for you to be that attorney.

Moreover, keep in mind that these law students will be in the legal workforce in less than three years. As young attorneys, these law students will be part of your broader experience bracket throughout the rest of your legal career. Five, 10, 20 years down the line, they may be your co-counsel, your opposing counsel, or maybe your referral point. They’ll be friendly faces at those cocktail hours I told you to go to alone. Establishing relationships with law students now can benefit you as much as networking with other current professionals.

6. Join Groups, Committees, Boards—and Show Off Your Work Ethic
Joining legal societies and serving on boards and committees provide other great networking opportunities. These kinds of activities present another way to get to know people on a deeper level beyond the small talk of cocktail hours. There are countless legal groups out there, and many of these societies are based on practice area, gender, nationality, etc., which again provides you with a commonality with other members. If you’re tired of lawyers, join junior boards for various nonprofit organizations. And get creative: Regularly volunteer at your favorite charity, take a drawing class, join a basketball league, etc. Once again, your ultimate goal is experience and opportunity, and you should do whatever it takes to find those things and enjoy yourself in the process.

To truly benefit from these activities, however, you must put in some work. The only people who see the extent of the work we do as young lawyers are our partners and bosses. With activities like these, however, you can finally show off your work ethic to outsiders. By organizing events or participating in board meetings, you can demonstrate your creativity, ability to lead a team, or your work ethic. On the flip side, your lack of participation can work against you—no one wants to connect with (or refer business to) the person who doesn’t respond to emails or show up for committee meetings. Join organizations that you can and want to participate in, and use them to demonstrate to others what kind of work you’re capable of.

7. Communicate That You’re a Lawyer
Professional networks are important, but don’t forget about your personal network. Be sure that your friends and family know that you’re a lawyer and know what kind of law you practice. (“Sorry, Uncle Jerry, I can’t bail you out of jail, but I can file your trademark application!”).

To be clear, this is not a recommendation that you aggressively solicit your friends and family for business. What you want is for your people to readily think of you when they come across someone who needs legal services that you can provide. My first significant client was a referral from a family friend. This family friend met someone who needed a lawyer in my field of law; without this family friend’s awareness that I am a lawyer, this referral could not have been possible.

8. Take the Time for One-on-One
My favorite type of networking is interacting with people one-on-one. It may be the least efficient and most time consuming, but I personally find it the most effective way to connect with someone. Coffee, lunch, dinner, drinks—whatever you want—one-on-one conversations allow you to really get to know someone, and they to know you. And these situations can happen with a variety of people—coffee with a senior attorney mentor, lunch with someone you kinda-sorta-knew in law school, or drinks with an old friend visiting from out of town.

Remember, what you’re looking for is human experience, which leads to opportunity—which, maybe down the road, could lead to business. At the forefront of your networking goals should be experience and opportunity; along the way, you might even get a chance to have a little fun.

Keywords: litigation, solo practitioners, small firms, networking, business development  

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Kristine A. Bergman is an associate of Pattishall, McAuliffe, Newbury, Hilliard & Geraldson in Chicago, Illinois.


Copyright © 2017, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).

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