To me, a really successful lawyer has it all by:
- doing great, impeccable client work
- having a loyal client base despite often paying above market fees
- attracting new clients and clearly being a rain maker partner in the firm
- having great working relation ships and friendships with others in the firm
- enjoying an interesting personal life with time to pursue his/her passions and interests
- finding time to find ways to give back to the community
- developing and pursuing a broad range of interests
- having a solid family life with all members thriving
I know many, many good attorneys who can check off some of these boxes. I know very few who can check them all off.
Almost all law schools turn out graduates more than capable of being good lawyers. So, if the class room isn't where the super, really successful lawyers separate themselves from the herd, when and where does the separation happen?
I maintain the factor that generates the top, mind-boggling successful lawyers from the rest is their ability to network and develop important long-term relationships. And the shift from good to really successful starts when the nouveaux attorney recognizes that networking is a key factor for long-term professional and personal success and starts developing these skills sooner rather than later.
Networking should be taught at least starting in high school. We bought our son his first business cards when he was 12! For sure it should be taught in college but seldom is. And I think law schools should find time and ways to help their students hone these abilities. Law schools can be rich networking opportunities. Instead, in most universities and law schools the students are simply told "you should be networking" which is not terribly useful or helpful. They need to be shown how.
What Is Networking?
Networking basically involves constantly talking with people, looking for good connection points, deciding whether or not this is potentially a viable long-term important relationships. If it is, then over time take important steps to grow the relationship.
Networking can be done serendipitously, which means talking to people everywhere all the time—sitting next to someone on a bus, train or airplane, standing in the check-out line at the food store, at one of the kids' team games or school event. This is typically a low-yield way to get major benefits from networking, but occasionally you hit a nugget. For example, initiating a two- or three-minute conversation in a checkout line, with it turned out to be the dean of a major MBA program, created an opportunity for me to teach in the MBA program at that major university for 10 years.
Serendipitous or random networking is a great way to practice your basic networking skills of talking with strangers, learning to ask good questions—the kind that lead to more substantial relationships, breaking the ice and making quick decisions about this being a relationship worth pursuing longer term.
Targeted networking is the kind that law students and practicing attorneys should be doing. It involves:
- setting some goals, i.e., developing a stronger relationship with the dean or a law professor, finding a summer internship with a top 5 law firm in the anticipated practice area, creating a mentorship while still in law school, creating opportunities to shadow successful lawyers, landing a major new Fortune 500 client
- looking into my network of "clusters" of contacts to see who can connect me with people I need to connect with to achieve my goal(s)1
- getting connected with and beginning to develop the relationships with the people capable of helping you achieve your goal(s).
Networking While in Law School
Most law schools are fertile networking grounds. That's where law students may have the opportunity to "network" with: other law students; the alumni; adjunct professors, full time faculty members and the administrative staff, guest lecturers, suppliers to the school, parents of other students and even possibly paying and pro bono clients of the faculty practicing law.
Often law students at one law school in an area have opportunities to network with contacts available at other law programs.
And law students can certainly dig into their past and network with former college connections, previous employers, family, friends and within the community.
Hurdles to Networking
I hear reasons (excuses) all the time why otherwise smart people don't network. Some of the more frequent ones are: Don't have time; not learning to be a lawyer in order to sell; don't like being with strangers in groups or at events; don't know what to say or talk about, don't see the benefits.
To me none of these are legitimate. They are just excuses for not doing something that we all should realize is a smart way to spend time.
Keys to Being a Successful Networker
Being great at networking doesn't mean being a rocket scientist. We are all capable of excelling at doing it.
Maybe the most important factor in determining how good of a networker you are is simply having a strong, sincere interest in learning about and adding value to other people's lives. You have to get comfortable talking with everybody, everywhere, all the time. Practice pays off when it comes to developing strong networking abilities.
Successful networking is all about really caring for other people and finding ways to add value to them both personally and professionally. The focus has to be on them and not on you. There are four types of networkers: askers, takers, traders and givers. Being a consistent giver is how you will eventually get the biggest pay off from your efforts.
The ability to ask great questions is critical. That's how you learn about people, including listening 90 percent of the time and talking 10 percent. I visualize networking as being similar to rock climbing when you are trying top develop finger holds that can propel you to the next spot on the rock wall. Asking terrific questions is how you find the "finger holds" in new relationships, the common touch points where you know you can add value.
Think long term, not short term. Important things in life seldom happen quickly. I think it takes a year (or longer) for most new relationships to be nurtured and eventually bear important fruit.
Concentrate much of your networking efforts in the areas of your greatest interests and passions, whether it be motorcycling or bird watching or bridge or tennis or coaching one of your kids' teams. Adapt your networking efforts to your existing lifestyle and fit it into your normal schedule. You will find good people with whom you can build win-win relationships in almost all walks of life. You are as likely to find a new client while skiing as you are having lunch with an accountant or banker.
Manage your new contacts well, which means deciding early on if a new contact warrants real relationship development effort. Focus on harvesting the low hanging fruit first. Develop and maintain a solid data base that you can access easily. I use Outlook Express and Constant Contact, but there are other data base management systems available.
Always follow up quickly with new people you meet. I aim to follow up within 12-24 hours at the most. If you wait 48 hours the other person has already forgotten much about your conversation. Waiting longer is almost a total waste of time. It's a great way to show the other person you really don't care very much about the new relationship.
By far one of the best ways to demonstrate your commitment and interest in being a value add contributor to those in your network is to consistently be connecting people in your network with each other. I try to spend the first 10 to 15 minutes each day connecting people whom I believe should know each other and should find ways to work together.
I do this by email and it works. It makes me feel good starting off the day helping people I know and it helps those I connect by introducing them to resources they might not otherwise be able to access.
Obviously always have your business cards with you. Your networking efforts will cut through both your professional life and your personal one. How often have you met really special people at graduations, weddings, alumni events, charity fund raisers, college or pro games, at a bar or restaurant, at a B&B and even at funerals.
Finally, make certain your LinkedIn profile is top notch. That's one of the first places people and organizations will go to check you out initially.
Why Network? Why Bother?
Too many professionals and corporate types think networking is all about achieving short-term transactions in a business setting, i.e., getting another assignment from a current client, attracting a new client or landing a better spot with another firm. All true. But the real payoff from being an exceptional networker and developer of sustainable relationships will impact every aspect of your life including your career, your personal life and your family's lives.
If you do a weak job of developing as a skilled networker, you definitely will limit your professional growth but maybe even more important you will be short changing those you care most about.
The more robust your network, the more access you have to other special people and their unique contacts, experiences, knowledge. You leverage your life through your clusters of connections.
Don't Hit the 'Skills Ceiling'
From a professional and career perspective you will be competing with other equally well educated or even more talented attorneys. If all you bring to the table are your strong lawyering skills, eventually you will hit the "skills ceiling" that will limit your future professional growth and jeopardize your professional security.
Assume any capable lawyer can always be replaced by an equally or more qualified lawyer willing to work for just a little bit less.
Your security and upside potential will be tied directly to your ability to be a difference maker, to impact your firm in a major way by attracting new work, new clients, new associates, new partners, new strategic alliances and to motivate and coach the others in your organization to have the same abilities and aspirations.
1Most people generally underestimate the number of in-person connections we have and that we can call on to help achieve our personal and professional goals. We all have our own unique "clusters" of connections in our network, which may include our family and friends, high school alums, college alums and their parents, college faculty members, sororities and fraternities, previous employers, members of clubs and associations we join, neighbors and many more. Instead of having hundreds of contacts we actually all have thousands.
Originaly published in the New York law Journal August 18, 2014