The Secrets of Mingling at Legal Events

Friends Sitting Together

Our firm hosted an open house last week. At the party, I had a chance to catch up with old friends, chat with acquaintances, and even meet some new people. The party flew by, and it was fun. I left completely energized by the event. I did not, however, always feel this way about  networking events. Only a few years ago, my party plan involved attending legal events while clutching a trusty friend and rarely leaving his or her side. What changed?

Realizing it’s not about me

In college, I had a love/hate relationship with social and networking events. I’m an extrovert, and I generally love seeing people, but I’m also anxious. I would worry about acting cool enough, my goofy dancing, and how smart I seemed in conversations. While returning home from a family vacation, however, my step-mother rocked my navel-gazing universe. We ran into a business colleague of hers on the airport shuttle. My step-mother (the ultimate mingler) spoke with her colleague for an hour on the topic of the colleague’s cat. I couldn’t believe it. “How could you talk about a cat for an hour?” I demanded. My step-mother shrugged—“it’s always fun to talk about someone else’s passion,” she explained.

While I still don’t think I could discuss a cat for an hour, my step-mother’s advice resonated. She wasn’t worried about herself in the discussion, she was focused on the other person—being in the moment and having an authentic exchange with someone else. When I stop worrying about myself, I can really have fun being with other people, even at legal networking events. And, maybe age helps—I’m not sure I was even capable of ignoring social anxiety in my early and mid twenties. (It’s also nice that most legal events do not involve dancing). 

A comfortable, open state

My father is an artist. He has strong feelings about the best way to view a museum—and the Guggenheim is designed with his theories in mind. First, you dine. You want to be sated, and you may even want to have a glass of wine. At the Guggenheim, you then start at the top of the museum and slowly wind your way down (if you start at the top, the entire route is downhill), comfortably taking in the artwork. Only when you are relaxed, he maintains, can you be open to new experiences. If you are worried about work or your kids, you won’t be able to enjoy the trip. If you’re distracted, a challenging piece of modern art may leave you thinking, “I could do that,” instead of musing about the colors or the sensations it creates. I enjoy mingling most when I am in a similar relaxed and comfortable state. As in the art museum, a glass of wine can help.

Our profession, however, can make it particularly difficult to turn off our work persona and enjoy social moments. If I have had a particularly intense interaction with an opposing counsel or a deposition, I find that my social persona takes a bit of time to warm up. New research shows, however, that just faking an emotion will intensify it. In other words, the best way to shake off a tough day at work is to act happy, and it’s pretty easy to force yourself to act happy at a party. While you might start out faking it, heading to a legal event could actually improve your mood more quickly than heading home for a bath and relaxation.

But I can’t remember names!

Among my friends, “I can’t remember names!” is a common complaint when it comes to networking events. While there are a bajillion websites that offer advice on remembering names, I have decided to embrace the fact that I simply am not the best with names. That said, I do remember stories—I remember that someone has a golden doodle and that another woman just moved and loved her new apartment. When I can’t remember someone’s name, I offer my memory of his or her story as proof that I have not forgotten them or our interaction. “I am so sorry—I am completely blanking on your name, but how is your new apartment?” I ask. I have no idea if my method reaps any of the social capital associated with remembering names, but my method does have one advantage—if I had simply remembered the name, we wouldn’t have a starting point for our new conversation.

(image: Friends Sitting Together from Shutterstock)

  • http://kerwynhodge.WordPress.com Kerwyn

    Great advice, Sybil! Learning to be in-the-moment and focusing on others is good advice for ANY social occasion, regardless of the industry. Thanks for sharing!

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/sybildunlop/ Sybil Dunlop

      Thanks Kerwyn – unfortunately it is so much easier to know what the right thing to do is than to always follow through and do it. I think it was Alice in Wonderland who said “I give myself very good advice, but I very seldom follow it.”

  • Cate

    Best thing I have read all week. GREAT advice, thanks for sharing!

  • http://paradigmreporting.com/ Angie Ballman

    I love this, Sybil! And I couldn’t agree more…thank God most legal events don’t involve dancing! :)

    • Sybil Dunlop

      Or sports!

  • http://www.uww-adr.com/ Sandy Upchurch

    I love this!! This is great advice. I have learned that
    all I have to do at a law firm networking events is ask
    one question of one person and then put on my listening ears. I have
    learned to really enjoy learning about someone else and giving someone
    my undivided attention. And of course, they love that too! This works
    in my mediation practice and has spilled over into my social life in a very positive way.

  • darren

    You don’t have to worry about how smart you seem in conversation, because you sound like a complete idiot with no culture.