You are never too young (or too old) to build a lawyer network. Here are three types of places to start that won’t feel fake or like a chore.
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The very word “networking” can create a visceral negative reaction in many lawyers. Some equate it with being fake or salesy, especially when you are in a profession like ours that may require business development. But networking doesn’t have to be that way. In my experience, if done well, networking is not fake at all and actually leads to authentic connections, with varying degrees of closeness. The best connections are built on positive experiences over time, and if developed and sustained can lead to relationships of trust.
Be Strategic About Where You Build Your Network
One strategy for growing your network is to be intentional about diversification — that is, you must be strategic about where you spend your time. Here are three types of places to consider.
1. Personal Places
There is certainly truth to the stereotype that deals are made on the golf course. But have you considered why? Golf is an activity that involves individuals who are genuinely interested in the sport, who can play singly or with others, and it takes a considerable amount of time (and skill). All that time allows for repeated interactions, both small and large, and creates opportunities for access and further connection.
As a young lawyer, I thought that to develop any business, I would need to learn golf because it was “the” way to network. Before I invested the time and money, however, I stopped to consider that feigning interest or learning to play golf for the sake of networking was counterintuitive to creating authentic connections. I had to consider the possibility that it was not productive to force myself to do something in which I didn’t have an interest. At best, I could fake it and end up feeling drained or miserable, with golfing becoming a dreaded time-suck. At worst, I would be perceived as “trying too hard” — fake instead of genuine.
Wouldn’t I rather spend my precious nonbillable time on something I like to do with other people who also like the same thing?
That is why my first networking tip is always start with your interests.
It is no secret that spending time on activities that genuinely interest you will likely bring you more fulfillment and joy. You will be more engaged and enthusiastic — and possibly more fun to be around. So, before you decide where to start growing your network, invest some time in doing things you enjoy and share that time with others. For example:
- If you like running or endurance sports like triathlons, consider joining a training group or biking club.
- If you are more introverted and enjoy reading, maybe it’s a book club for you.
- It could be anything from hip-hop dancing, dinner clubs or parent groups.
- If you want to be even more strategic, consider starting your own group.
Having interests outside of work is important for your well-being, and it makes you a more interesting person. It gives you something to talk about and a reason to spend time doing activities with others. Over time, you will develop authentic connections with people simply because you have a shared passion or interest.
2. Professional Places
For young lawyers especially, a bar association is an easy choice. It could be a local, state or national bar association or one related to an affinity group. It is easy because there are many activities to choose from, and more often than not there is an opportunity to get involved and lead and to build your reputation.
As a young lawyer, I distinctly remember getting the advice that bar associations were a waste of time because clients weren’t there — just the competition. I think that is shortsighted, especially if you are in a specialized legal area. Other lawyers can be great referral sources either because they are in a different practice area or have been conflicted out, or practice in a different jurisdiction.
But bar associations are not the only option. Consider the professional organizations that your clients and prospective clients are a part of — whether they are chambers of commerce or civic organizations like the Lions Club or industry-specific groups focused on commercial real estate, energy or utilities.
Remember, though, that paying your dues and showing up occasionally is not enough. You want to become a familiar face and to be seen as engaging and helpful.
3. Community Places
Another place to build your lawyer network is through volunteering in the community or through a philanthropic organization. Working side-by-side with someone is a way to develop trust — whether as a “worker bee” in a food bank, in a leadership capacity, or by organizing an event or joining a board. Just be sure to choose a cause you genuinely care about.
Notably, a lot of nonprofit boards would love to have a lawyer, and the more prestigious philanthropic organizations have influential people on their boards. Being involved in these groups can give you access and opportunities to demonstrate your capabilities in a low-stakes environment.
It’s Never Too Soon or Too Late to Build Your Network
It bears noting that I do not encourage you to try building your network in all three places at once. You have to work, after all. I do suggest looking at your “plate” over the course of a few years and being strategic about where you land next. And, of course, look for opportunities that will help you bloom where you’re planted.
As for timing, it is never too early for young lawyers in private practice to start building a network. For more seasoned lawyers, it is never too late.
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