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Local Networking at Every Stage of Your Legal Career

By Shari Lee Sugarman

During my years serving in various leadership positions in my local bar association and as a longtime member of a business networking group, I have seen how local networking helps people at every stage of their career — from building your reputation as a young lawyer to navigating mid-career job changes to giving back as a senior lawyer.

local networking

Commit to Local Networking

When you are just starting out, local organizations are where you begin to build your reputation and gain recognition in your community. As a young lawyer, I realized how powerful local networking can be for personal and professional growth, especially after I joined the Suffolk County Women’s Bar Association and became active in its leadership. Later, when I started my own firm, the connections I had formed helped me cement my reputation in the legal community, which in turn helped me build my client base.

Now, as I expand certain areas of my practice, and maybe look toward retirement in a few years, I know my network is helping me achieve those goals as well.

Here’s my advice on how to network effectively regardless of where you’re at on your career path.

1. New Professionals: Building Your Reputation and Finding Your Community

After law school, I took the traditional route and worked as an associate for several larger firms for a few years, trying to find my niche. Networking is different when you are a young associate who is not expected to bring in clients. For me, it meant finding other attorneys I could connect with, and a big part of that was joining the local bar associations.

Early on, I realized networking isn’t only about meeting people who can help you. That’s pretty minor in the grand scheme of things. Networking allows you to develop your reputation, which is a crucial asset in any professional’s career.

  • Consider how you want to present yourself and who you believe would share your core goals and values.
  • You may be tempted to join every organization you come across, but there are great advantages to being selective. Join only a few organizations that truly resonate with you.
  • Always make sure you understand the people and the group. You can accomplish this by becoming involved in local committees and getting to know the individuals who run your county.

The Benefits of Local Bar Associations for Networking

In my professional career, bar associations have been one of the most important avenues for networking and referrals. They helped me establish a strong reputation and brand among my peers — and being well-known in your local bar is something people respond well to. In fact, I’ve received a fair number of referrals from other attorneys I’ve met networking in these settings. Most firms will pay your annual bar dues, so it is a win-win situation. Firms know that by their associates being active in the bar association, the firm’s profile will be raised as well.

Beyond the Bar: Local Business Networking Organizations

It is important to build a network beyond the bar and legal community. I have been active with two local chapters of LeTip International for over a decade. This has been a great way for me to connect with people outside the legal industry for referrals. The way this particular networking organization is structured is that each chapter may only have one member from each industry “category.” That means I’m the only one in my chapter who can receive business referrals for real estate attorney services. This exclusivity encourages referrals across industries and builds strong relationships with people in your local community.

As a lawyer, you are often asked for referrals for various services — from accountants to psychologists to electricians. If someone knows they can count on you for a good referral, you will be on their mind when someone asks for a referral for a lawyer in your specialty.

Tips for Getting the Most From Networking as a Young Lawyer

Once you’ve chosen your perfect group, show up and be active. Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to collect a large number of business cards at meet-and-greets to be a successful networker. Instead, set a goal of making three to five strong connections at each event. This will help you focus on who you’re interacting with — what interests you and what connects you on a personal level.

By focusing on this simple work, you will benefit from meeting great individuals, and you will also begin generating recognition and interest in your community. This will make it easier to connect in the future.

Following up after networking is crucial. One reason LeTip works so well for me is that weekly meetings and events make it easy to touch base with my network. Meeting new people is important, of course, but I believe reconnecting with existing contacts is even more important.

Schedule time in your calendar to get in touch with other professionals you encounter to maintain that relationship.

2. Mid-Career: Making the Transition to the Next Phase

When my son was born nearly 18 years ago, I knew I needed to find a way to shift my work-life balance to be able to spend more time with him. So, I quit my law firm job and began the solopreneur chapter of my career. After working from my kitchen table for a while, a mortgage broker in my network suggested I take a desk in her new office. At around the same time, I met someone who asked me to join a new LeTip chapter she was starting on Long Island. At first, I was hesitant. I wasn’t sure if I could commit to the group’s weekly early morning meetings. But, I quickly realized that taking a break from networking wasn’t an option if I wanted to run a successful solo practice.

Trust Your Network

Networking requires consistent practice and participation if you want to remain a trusted resource for clients and colleagues. However, that doesn’t mean it has to be difficult or time-consuming. Mid-career, you already have a reputation and a trusted network. Reach out to them to do the hard parts for you! If a colleague knows someone you want to work with, ask them to make an introduction. Trust that 99% of the time, your network will be happy to help you meet new people.

I was a member of my LeTip chapter for almost nine years, took a break, and then rejoined in 2020. When you see the same group of people every week, you form a strong bond. Meetings gave me a safe space to develop important professional skills, like interpersonal communication, public speaking, and learning to tailor my messaging to my audience. With, of course, the bonus of good “warm” leads for new clients.

Leaning into your network for support can make all the difference at this stage of your career. Inevitably, you will need help navigating a transition — whether dealing with the unique challenges of being a solopreneur or an associate on the partnership path. A solid support network makes things easier.

3. Seasoned Pros: Returning the Favor

At the later stages of your career, networking becomes less about building your reputation and seeking guidance, and more about connecting others with people who can help them reach their goals.

Now that my son is off at college, I have more free time (though it feels busier than ever) and I’m looking for ways to share my knowledge. Mentoring is one way to do this, and it can come in many forms. I often hire law school interns over the summer, for example, but I also meet many younger attorneys outside the office — whether at real estate closings or in court — and end up taking them under my wing. I answer their questions, share my forms, and generally give them advice on what not to do by sharing the lessons of my mistakes.

As you hit the point in your career where you’ve amassed a great body of experience and wisdom, why not help the next generation find their way? At the beginning of your career, others guided you, so return the favor. As an aside, you may be surprised how many clients will come to you because you were there for others.

No matter what stage you’re at in your career, networking can help you build and maintain your reputation, help you navigate transitions, grow your practice, and give you that good feeling you get when you help others.

Image © iStockPhoto.com

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Shari Lee Sugarman Shari Lee Sugarman

Shari Lee Sugarman, founder of Sugarman Law, assists clients with estate planning, real estate transactions, home loan modifications and foreclosure defense, and consumer protection cases. As a former board member and President of the Suffolk County Women’s Bar Association, Shari has mentored numerous women into leadership roles with the association. She is also a member of the LeTip of Patchogue chapter of the business networking organization.

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