My partner and I faced a number of decisions when we were thinking of forming our own firm. Most of them related to the chicken-egg problem of clients-money. We knew we needed clients to make money, and we needed to spend money to get clients. Age old problem, faced by every small business person, and not covered in law school.
What we did have, in spades, were lists of personal contacts and former clients. Next to our business cards, networking is the cheapest form of advertising available. There are plenty of books and web articles which can overload you with the “proper” way to network, and by no means do I feel that I am an expert. In fact, I gladly am not like most of the experts I have met. Too often “expert” networkers seem dangerously close to a sleazy salesman. That is not the model of networking I find to be personally successful.
I prefer to think of networking as a long term project, which should be accomplished with a soft sell. Make no mistake, networking, like advertising, is a form of selling who you are. I take every opportunity to network, and everything is an opportunity to network. But you must be cognizant of the sales message you are sending. My sales message has always been simple: I am a person you know and can trust.
I belong to a local organization designed to integrate young professionals into the community, and for networking. I also have been a Freemason for over 10 years, have become active in an alumni group at my undergrad university, and participate in local bar organizations. I participate in these organizations because they give me an opportunity to work in the community where I live and to give back to my alma mater. I do not participate in these organizations to troll for clients. Rather, I am there to meet people, and to demonstrate my sales message. I do not want to convert everyone I meet into an immediate client; I want to convince everyone I meet that the next time they have a potential legal issue they can call me for assistance.
This is the most vital element to me. I do not network to develop clients. I network to develop myself, and my personal network. The distinction comes down to a simple fact—advertising is one-sided, networking is two-sided. When you advertise you broadcast your sales message to a large group of people without listening for a response. To effectively network, you must not only broadcast your sales message; you must also listen and learn. Your network, as it develops, is a living thing. The people in your network will change, and their needs will change. Everyone you know is a potential source of clients and opportunities, but why would they ever choose you over the thousands of other attorneys if they don’t know you or trust you. Demonstrating your character, and proving yourself a solid resource will lead to those people in your network thinking of you when they have a need, or recommending you to someone else.
This approach may not be the best fit for your practice, and it does take a considerable amount of time. It is hard to work the pavement for months with no obvious results. The best endorsement I can give for this approach is the success that I have had with it. Since my last post this summer, my firm and personal practice has grown by leaps and bounds. This past June I took the time to contact an attorney who I worked with while in law school – he served on a committee to which I served as law fellow and researcher. He agreed to a quick lunch and conversation about my practice. Less than two months later, he called to ask if I could come speak to a committee studying energy policy. Less than one month later he joined my firm in an of Counsel position, leading to successfully landing a major client. The client has more than doubled our work load. All of which is directly attributable to working for free on a project I cared about three years ago, and a willingness to maintain contact with my network.
In addition to that one major success, my personal network has led to four other clients, and another potential client who would double our work load again, making it a necessity for our firm to add an associate.
Go look for ways to develop your network—volunteer, join the local bar or other organizations. But always be conscious of your sales message, and mindful to listen. Success can come from a box full of business cards and a willingness to put the time and effort to get to know people, and more importantly to get them to know you.
(Photo credit: http://flic.kr/p/8Uv42a)
Todd M. Williams is one of the founder of the law firm of Williams & Moser, L.L.C.