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I'm a midlevel associate at a large New York law firm. I like the people at my firm, the work is interesting, and I'm well regarded here. I'm starting to think seriously about my longer-term career options: stay at my firm and gun for partner, or move in-house. Friends tell me that networking will help me both to make a decision and to achieve whichever goal I ultimately choose, but, frankly, I am on the reserved side and the idea of networking makes me feel uncomfortable. I'm also not sure what purpose networking would serve in my case, given that I'm not sure of my path. Can you help?
Uncomfortable in Manhattan
Hooray to you for recognizing what many do not: regardless of your career path, networking is crucial to your success. If you decide you want to become a partner, you'll need to originate, or at least proliferate, business. And if you decide to go in-house, expanding your network can open the door to those elusive in-house jobs that either aren't publicized at all or that are the subject of fierce competition from lots of top law firm associates. The earlier in your career you start, the better.
"Networking" does not mean handing out and collecting business cards willy-nilly at an organized "networking event." Rather, networking simply means connecting with, and ideally helping -- or being helped by -- people you know, or by people who know the people you know. You've already spent much of your life networking...introducing a friend who moves to a new city to another of your friends, getting a recommendation for a realtor from a colleague, etc. Yep, that's all networking.
Most successful professionals have personally benefited from networking and usually want to "pay it forward" to help other (especially younger or less seasoned) professionals. In fact, most jobs are filled via networking rather than help-wanted postings or internet ads, recruiters, or other traditional channels. Moreover, the mental and social muscles you'll flex by networking (i.e., the ability to step outside your comfort zone, to connect with others, and to form and nurture long-term relationships) are among a senior lawyer's most powerful assets, regardless of setting. Think about it: have you ever met a successful rainmaking partner or general counsel who seriously lacked these skills? Probably not. So you may as well start developing and practicing this skill set sooner rather than later. (And, lest you think that this is your cue to abandon law to pursue some other field as your vocation, remember that the need to network transcends almost all arenas.)
The best networkers generally have three things in common: (1) they think carefully about their skills, talents, interests, and goals (i.e., their "professional brand") -- and distill this information into a brief but compelling "elevator pitch," (2) they think expansively about all the people they know, making an effort to connect with new people, and constantly nurturing relationships, and (3) they effectively use these relationships to reach their goals.
Step One: Develop an "Elevator Pitch" (AKA Your Professional Brand)
Tell people succinctly - in a self-promoting yet non-arrogant way - who you are, what you do and what you bring to the table. You need an "elevator pitch"; the phrase (coined by marketing experts) reflects the idea that you should be able to promote a product (in this case, yourself) to a complete stranger during the course of a 30-second elevator ride.
When you meet somebody new, let your personality shine through, and be as specific as possible about your background and goals. Of the many law firm associates I've spoken or met with over the years, the ones I remember most vividly -- and whom I've been able to help most effectively -- are those who have let down their guard and shared their "stories" with me. I leave those conversations with a strong sense of their background (e.g., an unusual family history or college major), specific career interest (e.g., entertainment law, sustainable energy), goals (e.g., desire to move to a certain geographic area), passion (e.g., politics, travel), or skill set (e.g., biotech-focused patent litigation, debtor-side bankruptcy work). I've learned something interesting about each person, and that makes the person memorable. On the other hand, attorneys who reveal only, "I'm a corporate lawyer; please let me know about any interesting in-house jobs" are too easily forgotten when that coveted "interesting in-house opportunity" comes in.
Think about it: would you set two people up on a blind date just because you know they both happen to be single, or would you first want some information about both people to promote a meaningful connection?
Step Two: Create, Expand, and Nurture Your Relationships With Your Contacts
Make a list of all the people you've ever connected with: family, friends, classmates, former and present colleagues, mentors, clients, opposing counsel, recruiters, your doctors, doorman, manicurist, other personal service providers, and people you've met through travel, book clubs, sports, etc. You get the picture: think outside the box! While it's tempting to mentally pigeonhole someone into a "he's my ____, not my friend" category, this is a huge mistake. In fact, the best rainmakers know this, as they often become close friends with their clients. For example, if you're a parent, chances are that you're friendly with other parents; when I became a mom, I met many terrific people with whom I bonded over deep (not!) discussions of diapers and strollers...and sooner or later, the conversations always turned to our respective professional backgrounds and aspirations. Think creatively about the people you know and like, as every one of them is a potential source of jobs and/or business.
A special word about networking with your firm's existing clients: do it! The benefits will inure both to your firm generally and to you personally. Firms love to establish client relationships that are broad as well as deep, so you developing personal connections with the lawyers or businesspeople on the client's deal team is a great thing for everybody. And keep in mind that many of your current and former colleagues are, or will become, employed by the firm's clients. By far, the best route to an in-house job is to be an associate at a firm that represents the clients you'd like to work for, so work with, impress and connect with -- and, when the time is right, get tapped for a job with - one of those clients. Most law firms expect and encourage this.
You might also want to take advantage of more formal networking resources. Online social networking sites (e.g., Linkedin - www.linkedin.com) can connect you with former classmates, colleagues, and others relevant to your desired industry. (For a great article about social networking sites, check out http://www.careerjournal.com/jobhunting/usingnet/20040121-gunn.html.) School alumni networks are another excellent resource, so keep in touch with classmates, attend reunions, contact your school's career services office, and register for your school's online network. Remember the obscene debt you took with you when you graduated? Well, you paid a lot of money for that alumni network, so you may as well use it!
Other great options (often ignored by busy law firm associates which, while understandable, is a big mistake) include bar and trade/industry associations. Besides imparting valuable information about developments in your field or industry, they're fantastic forums for networking. So if you're a trademark lawyer, join the International Trademark Association (INTA); if you're a state tax law lawyer, join the ABA's state tax committee so you and other state tax lawyers from across the country can refer each other business. And the earlier you do this, the better, because contacts - and leadership opportunities -- grow exponentially over time. Attend meetings regularly and become involved; it's much better -- both for personal satisfaction and for effective networking -- to join only one such committee/association and to make a meaningful contribution (e.g., chairing a subcommittee, planning an event) than to register as a mere member of many committees. And the organization doesn't have to pertain to your substantive field of legal expertise; other groups (e.g., bar association committees to further the advancement of women or minorities in the profession) can be both tremendously rewarding and professionally valuable because members of such committees typically join them because they want to help others within their community. And avoid the trap of limiting yourself only to organizations populated by lawyers; for example, if you're an employment lawyer, you might join the local chapter of the Society for Human Resources (SHRM), if your area of practice concerns venture capital funds or start-up companies, check out VC seminars or conferences. If you're a health care lawyer, consider joining Greater New York Health Association (GYNHA). At worst, you'll learn about issues of importance to your clients (which you can then share with your colleagues and your clients); at best, you might meet your future employer or future best client there.
Don't be a "One Hit Wonder." Rather than meet somebody once and wait to contact them again until you need something (and hope they might remember you), call or email your contacts periodically. Think of ways you can help them (e.g., if you read an interesting article, forward it; if your firm holds a CLE or has an extra seat at a table at a charity dinner, extend an invitation; if you meet someone else who might be helpful -- either professionally or personally -- to your contact, offer to make an introduction). Your thoughtfulness will be appreciated and, often, reciprocated. At an absolute minimum, send an annual holiday card to people with whom you want to stay in touch.
By now, you're surely asking how on earth you'll find the time to network, given your billable hour requirements. Good question...with three answers. First, take solace in the fact that networking is, in many ways, more of a mindset than an activity; it's really just being aware of every opportunity to connect with and help other people you meet. When I first started practicing law many years ago, one of my partner mentors told me that he joined the firm because he met the head of our department while waiting in line at a store during the holidays. (I have another friend who met her husband in line at the deli, but that's a story for another column&).
Second, your firm - and the top rainmakers there, will probably support your efforts (the partners at your firm can also help you get involved in bar or trade/industry associations, especially if they hold leadership positions). In fact, some of the most prestigious law firms now give all associates a marketing budget with the expectation that associates - even the most junior - will initiate a certain number of business lunches, dinners, or other social interactions each year with existing clients or their own contacts. Firms recognize that time passes quickly...your goofy law school buddy who's an associate at the big firm across the street might well, in a few short years, be the GC of a potential client.
Third (and work with me here, this is Tough Love...), Just Do It. Most highly successful people set regular, realistic networking goals for themselves (e.g., to attend two organized networking events each quarter, to make a certain number of "just keeping in touch and saying hello" phone calls or emails per week). Stick with those goals so that the crisis du jour at your firm doesn't derail your efforts. It's far more effective to spend fifteen minutes every day cultivating your network than to try to devote a big chunk of time to reaching out to people with whom you haven't spoken in years. And, if you find yourself with free time between deals or cases, don't just surf online or hide in your office; invite a client to lunch, make some calls, or send out (or, better yet, write&) a helpful article.
Step Three: Put Steps One and Two Together: Let People Know How they Can Help You
Whether looking for a new job or new business, the best approach is to ask people for advice or information. Most people respond much better to an approach such as, "I'm hoping to work for a real estate developer, and I'd love to buy you a cup of coffee and pick your brain," than to, "Do you have a job for me?" Believe me, if you're impressive and the person wants to make you a job offer, he or she will. On the business development front, it's far better to ask questions to learn about the person's business and needs, and to respond by adding value and offering helpful advice, than to say, "Hi, I'm an M&A lawyer, I'd love your M&A business." Also, at the end of every conversation, ask whether the person can put you in touch with anyone else who might help you reach your goals.
At the risk of stating the (hopefully!) obvious, after anybody takes the time to meet or speak with you, follow up with a personalized, sincere thank you note (e-mail is fine). Keep the person updated of any follow-up and progress. Remember: you want to forge a relationship, and it's impossible to do that after just one interaction. And, of course, as networking is a two-way street, keep your eyes open for ways to reciprocate their helpfulness.
I hope by now the networking process seems less daunting and (dare I say it...) maybe even fun. I wish you the best of luck, and please keep in touch.
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