“Networking” can have a bad rap. Somehow its true value is overshadowed by an image of self-promotional behaviour and active selling technique. But networking is an essential part of professional life – and is an increasingly important skill to practise as reliance on technology-based interactions grows and the value of each personal interaction increases.
Legal professionals, whose value to their clients (and therefore their career trajectory) depends on being able to communicate both with them and on their behalf, are not exempt from the requirement to develop – and practise – this skill. If we forget how to read the values that move and influence our colleagues, our clients and our peers, we forget how to listen to others, get ourselves heard, make an empathic decision and ultimately make a difference in our workplace.
The networking mindset: sowing seeds to build your personal brand
Ultimately the difference between small talk and a meaningful networking interaction is the intention that the conversation will benefit both parties through establishing a relationship that can be expected to offer mutual reward. My professional story illustrates the benefits of effective networking for lawyers seeking to build their own careers, reputations and long-term workstreams.
Back in 2000 I was a fresh-faced foreign-qualified lawyer looking for an opportunity to get into a legal career in London. I considered different avenues into law, tried out a few options and finally settled into the notary profession, which required knowledge of law as well as languages. The job was challenging and interesting, not least for the pace and the scope of work.
However, one of the obvious drawbacks of my chosen profession was a generally conservative outlook on business development and marketing of our services. The go-to method for attracting more clients was the traditional method of word-of-mouth referrals. And yet that option was not available to newcomers like me who did not have a pre-existing network of contacts built up from school or university, or from time spent training and practising in the UK. Instead, I worked hard on developing my own network of contacts and building my personal brand.
At the age of 33 I made partner (the second female partner in the 240-year history of my firm). Much of my most valuable and high profile business comes from clients who have been personally referred to me through the contacts established by my networking efforts. I can trace many of the opportunities that came my way to an exact conversation that I had with a particular person in a particular networking situation. One of my longest stints of high-profile speaking engagements – which stretched over 4 years – was the result of one conversation at a lawyers’ networking drinks event.
All this is the result of following some basic principles I formulated early on in my career and which continue to stand me in good stead. Some apply more to networking events, some apply to any interaction you might have in a professional environment. None of them are skills that can be taken for granted – but all of them can be learned.
- DO take some time to learn what motivates you. It will be difficult for others to relate to you if they do not know what you stand for. Stay respectful but feel free to speak up about what you believe in – personally and professionally.
- DO learn the basic skills of working the room – e.g. know your closed group from your open group and your primary speaker from a passive listener – and take in the body language and dynamics of the group’s interactions when approaching. These are extremely useful social skills to have, and might save you a few uncomfortable moments when trying to approach a group that is engaged in a private conversation, for example.
- DO your homework. Sometimes it is nice just to turn up to an event to see who is there, but chances are you will end up talking all evening to someone you already know. In the eyes of a networker this is a wasted opportunity – by all means say hello to a friend and perhaps arrange to catch up over a coffee later, but use the bulk of the time to zoom in on meeting the people who would be most important to you at the time. If a delegate list has been made available in advance of the event, highlight the names of the people you would prioritise meeting.
- DO pay attention. A good networker knows that every hello could be a start of a very important relationship, but we can only find this out if we listen carefully to the person standing before us. Listen out for shared interests, listen out for mutual connections, and always stay alert to a future opportunity. By all means, share your purpose, but pay attention to the other person first and foremost.
- DON’T worry about appearing too forceful. It really is okay to come up to anyone at a networking event – even if they significantly “outrank” you. A networking event – be it a conference, a professional gathering or social drinks – is a unique platform to meet influential people where you are all on an equal footing. People are rarely insulted when someone says hello to them – just be ready with a charming elevator pitch and a general desire to listen and to learn rather than to impress your personality upon another.
- DON’T be afraid of rejection. Maybe you have followed all of the above steps, only to be met with a lukewarm reception, or even an outright “no” when you asked to join a group. What do you do then? Move on, and move on quickly. Rejection at a networking event is never about the person who was rejected and has everything to do with the agenda of the one rejecting – perhaps they are under pressure to go and speak to someone important to them at exactly that moment. In any case, your time is precious, so use it wisely for speaking to those who want to speak to you.
- DO aim to be liked and to be trusted. These are the two fundamental components of every relationship, and the person who is capable of continuously building on these in every interaction is the one that will set him or herself apart from many others.
Networking is an exciting journey to expand your career horizons, to meet like-minded people and to build your professional circle. It is never too soon to start, or a good time to stop, and the effort put in pays dividends.