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Natural Networking: Business Development On Your Terms

I’ve long been a proponent of the idea that if you don’t have a book of business – you’re dispensable. It’s doubly true in the current legal employment crash.

Let’s take a recent hypothetical law grad, Adam. Adam was in the top of his class and on law review. Upon graduation, Adam was hired by Billem & How, a mid-size (70 lawyers) firm. At the same time, Billem & How also hires Britney. Brittney was middle of the pack in her class, but she made a lot of good connections with the hiring partners of Billem & How at during social events and they decided to give her a shot.

Five years pass. During this time, Adam has kept his nose to the grindstone, and has met or exceeded his billable requirements every year – lots of early mornings and late nights at the office. Adam doesn’t enjoying networking or getting out to meet people. But since he works hard he feels rather secure in his job.

Britney’s billables haven’t been as good. Not bad, but generally a bit under what the firm expects of her. Yet over the past five years, Britney has been very proactive with networking and business development. Attending conferences, speaking at events, and supporting local organizations over the past five years, Britney has been able to get enough of her own clients that she is bringing in roughly half a million dollars of business to the firm every year.

The economic downturn in the legal industry is forcing Billem & How to tighten its belt a bit. They are going to have to lay off some associates. Not too many, but they are going to have to clear out some people. The partners get together to review the associates. Looking over everyone there is some debate on who to keep and who to let go. All the partners agree immediately that Britney is off the table – she’s a rising star, bringing money in for the firm, acquiring new clients, etc. Adam comes up, and while he’s a hard worker, he hasn’t done anything to bring in new business to the firm. One partner stands up for him, pointing to his billables. Another partner replies, “So what? There’s ten dozen workhorse kids like him that graduate from the local law school every year. We can just hire one of them for half of Adam’s current salary.” Adam is let go.

This scenarios plays out in firms across the country on a regular basis. If you aren’t generating business, then your position is nebulous at best. I can already hear whiners saying to themselves right now: “There’s no way that a new law graduate could generate half a million dollars in business in five years. That’s just not realistic!”

True, half a million dollars in five years seems pretty daunting. It would be more accurate to say that you can do it in under four years. Bricken is only three years out of law school, is head of a sub-practice group, and commands $400 an hour. Oh, and she’s not even 30. Think she is going to have problems staying employed?

How Do I Network?

The problem most new lawyers have is that they have absolutely zero idea of how to network or engage in business development. When they think of networking, they think of networking-focused, schmoozing events. Many people don’t enjoy those types of events, so they write off networking as not being for them. But networking-focused events are only one small part of networking. If you’re the type of person who enjoys them, by all means go! But if you don’t, you’re probably wasting your time being there. There are other avenues available to you to work on business development.

hate networking

The best thing to do is to engage in what I call “natural networking.” That is, engage with people at places, events, and functions you are already interested in or passionate about. If you’re a devoted sci-fi geek, find the local sci-fi club. Join up, become an active member. Everyone will naturally ask what you do. Tell them you’re a lawyer, but don’t pitch them on services. Just be helpful. Offer to talk about licensing issues for merchandise or copyright issues with fan fiction. Over time you’ll become a natural part of the community. When you’re a member of a community, you will almost always be the first person that community turns to when they have legal or business issues. Beyond that, be active in your friends’ communities. Offer support and help to people.

A personal example: Earlier this year, a friend was having a panel on book publishing. She was having a number of authors come out and speak about their experiences on the process. I went because I knew the organizer of the panel and I like to support my friends. I sit on the front row because I’m that type of guy. Towards the end of the panel, the panelists shifted to Q&A from the audience. During this time legal topics started to come up. The panelists were unsure of how to answer. My friend, the organizer, comes up to the mic, says “Keith is a lawyer, I think he has experience on those issues.”

So I stand up and address the question. I end up answering 2-3 more questions as the Q&A goes on. After it was done, dozens of people from the audience came up to me asking questions, wanting my card. Not anticipating the need for cards, I ran out after the first few people. Everyone ended up just writing my information down on notebooks or putting it into their mobile. Some of them have gone on to become clients. Natural networking at its best. I went to be supportive of someone else, and it in turn, benefited me.

Have Fun With It

Many people don’t feel as though they are naturally outgoing enough to engage with people at networking events. But it’s far easier to discuss and engage with people if you are at an event or within a community you are already interested in. When you’re having fun, it doesn’t feel like networking. So find those places and communities. It could be anything! Wine, classic cars, comics, music, technology, dancing, there is no end to the groups and activities to you if you live in a large enough urban environment. Actively seek out things you are already interested in and focus your energy on helping those organizations and communities, without expecting anything in return. Even if you never get a client out of it, at least you’re getting out and doing something you enjoy. But I think you’ll be surprised at the results.

If you want even more strategies, tactics, and scripts to help with networking and business development, grab my book.

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About Keith Lee

I'm the founder and editor of Associate's Mind. I like to write, talk, and think about law, professional development, technology, and whatever else floats my boat. I practice law in Birmingham, AL.

2 comments

  1. This reminded me of a book written by a business development coach I worked with for a couple of years, Bob Kohn, of Kohn Communications. It’s entitled “Selling In Your Comfort Zone” and really helpful in making networking more user-friendly for those of us who greet the prospect of professional networking with anxiety.

  2. Another great book on the topic, including a workbook component, is Susan Sneider’s book published by the ABA, A Lawyer’s Guide to Networking. Still invaluable as ever.

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