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One of a Kind

Building Your Network: You’ll Regret Not Starting Sooner

By Jay Harrington

One of a Kind - A Proven Path to a Profitable Law Practice by Jay Harrington

Here are a few reasons to make building your network a priority early in your legal career. 

I spent the first four years of my legal career at a “just keep your head down and do good work” law firm where billable work rained down on everyone.

It’s all I focused on. There seemed to be little incentive to do otherwise. And it may have been fine if all I wanted was to work at one law firm my entire career.

Twenty years later, after many twists and turns in my career, it’s easy to see the illogic of my thinking. Of course, I should have focused on building my network, not just billable hours, from day one. It’s something every associate, no matter how junior, should prioritize.

After all, there is nothing more powerful than a strong network.

Short-Term Thinking Leads to Delayed Network Building

For a law firm associate, the primary return on investment from high billable hours is fairly obvious: an increase in compensation. At the same time, it’s often fleeting.

The benefits of a powerful network, on the other hand, are lasting — and far more valuable in the long run — because building a practice is nearly impossible without a network of allies.

But here’s the rub: The ROI from a network, like that of a monetary investment, takes time to compound. So you can’t wait until you need a network to build one because a network must be nurtured. If you try to build a network in a hurry, it will come across as transactional — you looking for something but not in a position to give anything in return.

Here are a few of the reasons to make building your network a priority:

  • We are in an era of plentiful work and a hot job market. Sooner or later, that will change. It always does.
  • Time flies when you’re practicing law. If you’re not building your network now, then in the future you’ll almost certainly wish you had started sooner.
  • When you’re just getting started, it’s easy to assume that your career will remain on a linear path. But if you’re like most people, you’ll pivot many times, and most pivots are engineered with the help of a network.
  • If you do plan on staying the course and making partner at your firm, your network will be integral to your ability to build a practice — a prerequisite for most firms these days when making partnership decisions.

Networking Tips for Junior Lawyers

As a junior lawyer, the generic advice “build your network” isn’t all that helpful. You know you need to do it. The problem is you’re not sure how to go about it. Moreover, it’s pretty daunting to think about approaching people outside your firm when you’re just starting your career.

So don’t, at least not exclusively. Instead, start acting like an “intrapreneur” and focus on building your network within your firm.

Being an intrapreneur involves engaging in activities within your firm that allow you to hone the skills and characteristics you will need to meet people and, ultimately, compete for work out in the business world.

Intrapreneurship involves:

  • Participating in associate committees.
  • Creating content for firm newsletters and blogs.
  • Presenting to your practice group on an important development in the law.
  • Proactively introducing yourself to colleagues across practice groups and offices.

These are just a few of the actions you can take to be an intrapreneur and add value within your firm. So get active and involved, which will serve you well when you’re ready to start (sooner rather than later) actively growing your network outside your firm. (Also read “Business Development Starters for Law Firm Associates.”)

In fact, while you may have some understandable hesitancy about casting too wide of a net when meeting new people at the very early stages of your career, there’s no reason you can’t stay in touch with your law school classmates and meet others at similar levels of experience from day one. As you advance in your career, so will they, and you can support one another along the way.

When Building Your Network, Less Is Sometimes More 

When it comes to building a network, it’s easy to assume that bigger is better — but “less is more” may be the more important maxim.

When I was a practicing lawyer, there were only a few people who referred work to me consistently, who I trusted to discuss difficult issues, and who gave me frank feedback.

I appreciate that I get to interact with lots of different people on LinkedIn and in other settings. In some respects, a bigger network is better, but it should not come at the expense of curating a small inner circle of people you intimately know, trust and respect, both within and outside your firm.

Jim Rohn famously said: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” In other words, your inner circle is what allows you to become a better version of yourself.

This doesn’t mean anyone in your network should be taken for granted. Rather, a less-is-more approach simply acknowledges that we are all starved for time and must be discerning in how we spend it. By becoming better versions of ourselves, through the inspiration and accountability that our inner circles provide, we can provide more value to those in our broader networks.

It seems paradoxical, but a big and powerful network is often built on a small foundation. In this digital, scalable age it’s easy to forget that less is often more.

Be Curious. Be Generous. Be Helpful. Build a Network.

There’s no asset more valuable than a powerful network. And unlike billable hours, which start at zero each day, your network will just keep growing and giving — that is, as long as you keep giving it your time and attention.

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

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Jay Harrington

Jay Harrington is the owner of Harrington Communications, a leading thought-leadership PR and marketing agency that specializes in helping law firms and lawyers build awareness, influence and new business. Jay is the author of three books for lawyers on issues related to business and professional development, including “The Productivity Pivot,” “The Essential Associate” and “One of a Kind: A Proven Path to a Profitable Practice.” He podcasts at The Thought Leadership Project. Previously, he practiced law at Skadden Arps and Foley & Lardner. Follow him @harringj75.

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