I know very few attorneys who are really comfortable networking. I think that’s true of most businesspeople. Even those who are naturally outgoing tend to clam up once an otherwise purely social situation acquires a business networking aspect. Your mind is informing you, perhaps subconsciously, that now money is on the line and you should be nervous.
That all makes sense. But, it’s also common knowledge that one of the triedest and truest ways to acquire business is to be more likable than the next guy or gal. Of course, it’s harder to be likable when you’re nervous.
Fortunately, there are some Jedi mind tricks you can play to psyche yourself into becoming a better marketer.
Prep for the Event
As a lawyer, you like to be prepared. Maybe you’re also somebody who cleans to relieve stress. Apply that same strategy to eliminate nervousness at a networking event. Instead of randomly showing up, scout the event beforehand — and immerse yourself in the work. Then, when you actually arrive, when the nerves would otherwise set in, you’ll be so focused on exercising your plan that you will forget about how nervous you are.
You can do lots of things to prepare for a networking event. First, take a look at the organization that’s sponsoring it. Is there someone you’ve been trying to talk to within that organization? Find out if they’re attending, and if so, make it a point to seek them out and have the conversation you want to have. Nor does it have to be only one person. Make a list, and spend your time at the event talking with everyone on that list.
You can also take some pressure off yourself by establishing one goal for the event that is not referral-based. Maybe you want to do a presentation for the local bar association, and your goal is to try to lock that down the night of the event. Once you do that, you’ll be more relaxed, with a sense of accomplishment having set in, and you can then proceed to the evening’s networking component with a clear conscience.
You might also reduce your stress by setting near-term, tangible goals. Referral arrangements take years to develop. So, start slowly: Decide that you will not leave the event until you have in your hot little hands seven new business cards (no old friends, no cheating).
Be the Predator
At networking events, if you’re not the predator, you’re the prey. When you’re the wallflower, every single person who is more aggressive about their potential business opportunities is ratcheting up their percentages for success, while you are actively downgrading yours. If your intention is to cling to yourself for an entire event, you’re better off staying at home. Of course, you don’t have to be a master networker from the jump. Start small and allow yourself to build capital off of little victories. Setting simple goals, and achieving them, is a proven way to build up to larger successes.
To get something going, try flipping the dynamic. If you aren’t ready to go toe-to-toe with some of those networking dervishes you wish to be like, begin where you usually do: at the wall. You understand, probably better than anyone, the psyche of the reluctant marketer — so get on the prowl and pick off the weaker networkers first. If they’re not talking to anyone, talk to them first, and pick up those referrals that they’re willing to dish out. Move up the food chain from there. That’s the circle of life.
Eliminate the Crutch
If you’re intent on going to networking events without doing anything of substance, you’ve likely developed a crutch to accommodate that behavior. A lot of people (a lot of lawyers) drink (heavily) at networking events to increase their comfort level. Sure, it’s a strategy; but it comes with dangerous potential consequences, as you continually walk the line between drinking enough to be sociable and being drunk enough to ruin your reputation.
Maybe drinking is not your crutch. Maybe you constantly check your phone. Maybe you wander around the space, mostly aimlessly. Maybe you’re in the bathroom … a lot. Whatever it is, it’s nothing more than an excuse. This may require some hard work, but if you can eliminate the excuses you make to not network, you’ll have nothing left to do but network.
Most businesspeople don’t like to admit that they’re salespeople, even if it’s patently obvious. Lawyers disdain language respecting sales as if they’re somehow above it — like, they’re not selling used cars, they’re professionals. But the plain fact of the matter is that every time you convert a client, you’re a salesperson. And if you’re still in business, I’ve got news for you: You’re good at it. So, embrace the salesmanship, because not every salesperson has to be P.T. Barnum.
In terms of networking, here’s a good tactic to get over this very lawyerly psychological hurdle: Try extremely hard not to sell — even though it’s what you do. At networking events, talk about everything else that isn’t your business and see how far you can get. Make it a game. Talk about your interests, your family, what you had for lunch, your stance on cashews — anything that isn’t what you do. This is an important tactic because, if you can become more human, more likable, it will help you to generate conversions and referrals down the road. This is … the friend zone.
Don’t worry, though — it won’t go on this way forever. The other party will break and ask you what you do. That’s your opening, and you’ve made them approach you.
Try Another Angle
Lawyers love to network with other lawyers because, theoretically, it’s easier. Lawyers understand each other, right? Well, what’s to say that you have anything more in common with any particular lawyer than you have in common with any particular chimney sweep? The lawyer-to-lawyer angle also features an increased degree of difficulty. Think about it: No other non-attorney referral source can just take a case, instead of finding a lawyer to hand it over to. If you’re only networking with other lawyers, especially where your niche practices are not clearly defined, the other lawyer can access the nuclear option and just retain the case rather than referring it out to you. Now, you’re playing the percentages again, and once more downgrading your own.
So, consider networking with non-lawyers who you would view as referral sources. You may enjoy networking with CPAs, and they may refer you more business than attorneys. You won’t know until you poke around the broader market. And, while chambers of commerce, rotary clubs and BNI groups are traditional ways lawyers access new referral sources, there are nontraditional groups, for various interests, surfacing all over the internet, like so many majestic orcas. You can search for a bunch of them on Meetup.com. And, if routinely seeking out affiliated business professionals is bringing you down, just join a group based on your personal interests (book club, scrimshaw club) and take advantage of potential business referrals whenever they arise. Just don’t make that the primary purpose for your involvement.
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