The first action many lawyers consider when they start thinking about networking is attending networking events sponsored by local business groups. That’s a terrible idea: skip it.
Networking events are usually pretty awful. At least, that's the way I feel about them. I've attended quite a few events designed to build connections, and I still have painful memories I’m trying to block out.
My experience is one of being approached by swarms of sales reps for various services. At one event, I was captured by a stockbroker I couldn't escape from for 90 minutes. I keep trying to get away and couldn't do it. By the end of the event, we had talked through all of the issues he was having with his wife. It felt like an initial consultation. Of course, he never became a client.
I'd suggest you skip most events promoted as “networking” events. By and large, networking events are a shotgun approach to building relationships. You’ll meet the wrong people. You need a targeted approach to meeting people who are ready, willing, and able to refer business to you right now.
The First Step in Effective Networking
If you aren't going to gatherings sponsored by business groups, then how are you going to meet people you need to meet? Where are you going to find those who can refer business to you?
The first step to effective networking is to identify appropriate targets for your networking activities. Who should you get to know? Who should you spend time with to build your business?
In many practice areas, and family law in particular, you don't need to meet clients directly. You need to meet prospective referral sources. These people are the target of our networking. We want to get to know people who can send us a steady stream of new clients.
The initial step is to develop a list of people who have the need to make referrals to someone like you. This is the beginning of your referral source network.
Here's the system for building your initial list of individuals who will make up your referral source network.
1. Identify the types of people you'd like to meet.
In family law, there are a range of professionals who make excellent referral sources. They include non-family law attorneys, marriage counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, ministers, rabbis, priests, and accountants. Of course, there are other professionals who might become reliable referral sources.
2. Create a list of everyone you have met or know who falls into one of your target groups.
Creating a list will be easy for some and hard for others depending on where you are in your career and how well you've kept up with people. Think through everyone you have any connection with.
- You may find yourself going back through high school and college yearbooks and directories.
- You may need to call the alumni office to get lists to stimulate your thinking.
- You should review your list of law school classmates.
- You should also pore over the directories of any clubs you've joined.
- You might also think back through groups you've addressed and activities you've done.
Pull together the names of anyone you can recall and see whether anyone falls into the groups you'd like to meet.
Push yourself on this part of the process.
- Go back through childhood memories. Who were your neighbors? What happened to those kids? Look them up on Facebook. Might they be in one of your target groups?
- How about the professionals you use?
- What about the professionals your spouse uses?
- People you’ve met through volunteering?
- The other parents at the kids' events?
- Church people?
Now push yourself even harder.
- What about the homeowners' association for your neighborhood?
- How about the seminar you attended last month and the people you chatted with over lunch?
- What about the committee you served on last year?
- Anyone from the gym or your running club?
For most of us, the lowest-hanging fruit is the law school classmates list. There are probably a dozen lawyers you haven't talked to in a while. These folks should go on the top of the list. Be sure to go through your old e-mails. Check the cc fields and look for anything that triggers a memory. You'll likely find that you know more people than you think.
Of course, the ideal referral source is in a position to refer—frequently. Don’t reject anyone too early in the list-building process, but start thinking about the likelihood of those on your list being able to send you business.
You’ll find that different professional roles provide very different opportunities to make referrals. Different personalities also affect the volume of referrals. For instance, an attorney seeing a high volume of professionals will be positioned to make many more referrals than an attorney working with a very limited number of long-term clients. An introvert might have fewer opportunities to refer than an extrovert. An in-house attorney at a large company may be able to make many referrals when an attorney in a much smaller business can make only a few. These distinctions only become significant if you identify more prospective referral sources than you can manage. For now, most of us need to add everyone we can find to our list.
3. Increase the size of your list by selecting members of the local community you haven’t met yet.
These are the people you aspire to meet. Look at lists of lawyers, mental health professionals, etc. Don’t hesitate to add local leaders who you assume won’t be interested in meeting you. Shoot for the stars. You’ve got nothing to lose with these folks. Go ahead and add them to the list, especially if the list of people you’re already connected with is pretty short.
Ideally, you’ll create a networking list of about 50 names. This list is a starting point. We’re going to add to it later, but this is the list we’re going to use to move forward immediately.
4. Research the people on your list.
Search the Web and see what you can find. Search Google, LinkedIn, your local newspaper, and local business publications. See what you can learn about what they do, how they do it, and how successful they are at whatever they’re doing. You’ll find amazing things on the Internet, in government records, and on social networks. Add your notes to your list and use your research to expand and refine your list.
Now, we’ve got a great list of prospects for you networking, and we didn’t have to attend a single networking event. Tomorrow, we’ll spend some time getting ready for your first meeting.