One of the hotter trends in networking these days is joining a local BNI-type group in an effort to expand referral sources. Many circles view joining a membership networking group as the quickest and most effective way to get your name out there to drum up business. “Networking,” after all, is billed as the one indispensable practice for all professionals anywhere ever. The question is: is this a valuable networking practice for attorneys?

Most networking groups have a good core of professionals that would seem to be excellent referral sources for potential clients. Many groups have a CPA, an insurance salesman, a realtor, multiple financial folks doing multiple financial things and a smattering of people from other sectors. For an estate planning attorney for instance, these are all important folks to know and they could be great referral sources. The logic being that the clients of an insurance salesman, for example, would be good potential clients for an estate planning attorney since they are in the market for somewhat related services. However, despite the potential for growing some valuable marketing opportunities in these groups, they can potentially lead to a significant waste of money and time for attorneys.

Many of these groups charge between $300-450 per year in order to join. That’s the equivalent of buying an iPad every year and giving it to your dog as a chew toy. Add to that the multiple happy hours (vodka gimlets ain’t free) and charity events that your group will likely host, and you’ve got a notable marketing fee on your books every year.

So that is the money part. Now comes the time part. Networking groups usually try to meet once a week so that they can hand off “warm referrals” on a consistent basis. Now this could be a hassle, or it could be valuable; it all depends on what you get out of it. But for attorneys, there are several reasons why we might see significantly less business from these groups than the rest of the members will:

1. We play by different rules

Generally, when professionals in these groups give each other referrals it goes a little something like this:

Insurance Lady: Hey, I’m working with a couple that may be in the market for a new house, here is their contact info…

Realtor Guy: Awesome. I’ll call them. Thanks.

Insurance Lady and Realtor Guy: FISTBUMP!

We attorneys, however, have pain-in-the-butt rules on solicitation of clients that make that last little interaction impossible. And that puts us at a significant disadvantage in these networking groups because it makes the referral process quite a bit more complicated. The above interaction is pretty representative of the amount of effort that a fellow networker is willing to put into getting you a future client: “here’s a name, here’s their number, off you go.” So when you tell the insurance lady that you can’t call her contact directly, and that—in my state, at least—only they can call you, you get a look from the insurance lady that is a mixture of confusion and annoyance. Oh, and add in to the mix the disappointment that she can’t give you a fistbump.

2. We suck at reciprocating

Try to count the number of financial advisors and insurance people that you know only using one hand. You probably can’t. Now if you asked financial salespeople how many bankruptcy lawyers they know, their answer might be one. Maybe.

Point is, there are a lot of them, and not as many of you. That ratio is not very conducive to building a balanced referral relationship with other professions.

3. Other members of the networking group don’t sell your services very well

If you are going to succeed in your solo practice, one of the first skills you need to acquire is the ability to explain what you do to non-lawyers. Being able to sell the value of the services that you provide is vital to locking down clients and getting referrals in your door. Other people, however, aren’t as good at explaining what it is that you do to the hoi polloi.

Much in the same way that you wouldn’t be able to fully explain why someone might need life insurance, an insurance salesman isn’t going to be able to explain why someone needs your will drafting services. And when the entire premise of these networking groups is that all of the other members of the group act as your sales team, this seems to be a pretty significant problem. That’s like going to a department store and having the vacuum salesman try to explain to you which water heater you need in your house. It’s hard to sell what you can’t properly explain.

So should I join a networking group?

I hate to say “it depends,” but it really does. It depends on what area of practice you are in. It depends on whether you can spare the time it takes to go to the meetings and drum up referrals for other group members. And it depends on who is in the networking group with you. Lawyers do have the potential to be successful in these groups. The amount of business you receive—if any—is largely dependent on the size of the group and the commitment levels of its members. These are a lot of variables to have in your marketing strategy, and when you consider the amount of money and time at risk, many attorneys may not be comfortable with that commitment.

Networking is important, and it is something that you should learn how to do well no matter what stage of your career you are in. But there are some effective ways to do it, and there are some methods that don’t work as well. If you have the right area of practice and you are willing to take the time, a networking group may be beneficial. But for many attorneys, they would be far better off spending their money on an iPad for their office and a chew toy for their dog. That way, everybody wins.


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