Making Networking Useful (And Fun!)

Attorneys NetworkingThe terms “networking” and “business development” tend to strike terror in the bravest lawyers’ hearts.  Like doing tax returns, having a tooth drilled, and public speaking, most of us know that we have to do it, but that doesn’t make it any easier. A recent event co-sponsored by the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois,  Sidley Austin, and the Young Lawyers Division of the Chicago Bar Association featured noted career consultant Sheila Nielsen, who shared practical tips that made networking for business development seem, well, almost fun.

Nielsen noted that there are no clear rules that will lead to bringing in additional business, but it is a certainty that a failure to make an effort at networking will not build your book.  Networking isn’t one-size-fits-all, she emphasized, and it’s important to engage in the efforts that play to your personal strengths. Best of all, your networking ability, like so many other skills, can be improved with practice… and a plan of action.

There are three pillars of business development, according to Nielsen:  1) relationships, 2) reputation, and 3) mindset. All three of these matter.

Relationships Matter

We all know that very skilled lawyer who is not political, keeps their head down and does great work, but is not able to move either up or laterally without a book of business.  Nielsen stressed the importance of identifying the “neighborhood”—that is, the people who are likely to turn into clients. Who those likely candidates are depends on your aptitude, interests, clients you like, and the flow of available work. While cautioning not to forget to nurture the relationships you have, she encouraged attendees to make an outreach business plan.  Determine where the neighborhood is you want to serve—where they go mentally and physically, and go there.  Don’t just go there, but be a player in that market.  She then suggested the following practical approaches to making that happen:

  • create positive buzz about yourself
  • interact with everyone you can, and always add value
  • show up in person where—and whenever possible
  • regularly reconnect with current and past clients—they are your best source of business
  • nurture relationships with other lawyers you know—they can be a valuable source of referrals

Reputation Matters

Nielsen noted that we all know someone we respect so much that we would do just about anything they asked. Be that person, she advises.  When you trust someone, they can sell you just about anything.  When you have a great reputation, you create positive assumptions that work to your advantage.  Trust is the primary reason people choose or stay with a lawyer.  She suggested the following as key components of leadership:

  • be calm and reassuring
  • solve problems
  • delegate effectively, meaning:  teach, follow up, trust, and show appreciation (very rare in legal practice)
  • don’t create drama
  • treat everyone with respect

Mindset Matters

When lawyers have mastered the art of networking for business development, they speak differently about it.  When their activities are bearing fruit, it builds power, confidence and enhances all aspects of your life, both personal and professional. Nielsen suggested thinking of your business as you would your baby.  For it to thrive, it needs you to do certain things to nurture it, including:

  • feeding it by acquiring new relationships
  • spend time on it
  • be excited about it
  • don’t just leave it on the corner of your desk
  • have a positive attitude toward it
  • be a giver and a connector—without expecting anything in return

For those who were uncomfortable with the baby analogy, Nielsen suggested another approach, thinking of business development as a quest, or a video game.  Rather than considering it a repugnant chore, think of it as an adventure or challenge–to develop friends (allies), seek out key people in the realm (wizards), and not let the naysayers (ogres and trolls) throw you off your mission.

Let us know in the comments if you have used some of these approaches, and share your own ideas to make networking and business development fun.

Katherine Erwin

Katherine Erwin

As the Commission's Special Projects Director, Katherine managed the statewide attorney mentoring program and other special projects. She practiced law in Chicago for 20 years. Then she founded the Chicago office of a legal placement agency, and placed highly credentialed attorneys in law firms, corporate legal departments and governmental agencies. Most recently, Kathy served in the Career Services Office of the University of Chicago Law School. A graduate of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business and the University of Michigan Law School, she lives in Lincoln Park with her husband and daughter.

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Katherine Erwin

Katherine Erwin

As the Commission's Special Projects Director, Katherine managed the statewide attorney mentoring program and other special projects. She practiced law in Chicago for 20 years. Then she founded the Chicago office of a legal placement agency, and placed highly credentialed attorneys in law firms, corporate legal departments and governmental agencies. Most recently, Kathy served in the Career Services Office of the University of Chicago Law School. A graduate of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business and the University of Michigan Law School, she lives in Lincoln Park with her husband and daughter.

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