Do trainee and junior lawyers need networking skills? Surely at the very earliest stages of a career, there is no expectation that a junior lawyer will bring in lucrative work or attract major new clients. It is true that a junior lawyer’s ability to attract new clients will not be under scrutiny at this early stage. However, within five to eight years, it may be.
Many senior associates tell us that they hit an obstacle when they begin the partnership selection process in their firms. They have very few demonstrable skills in attracting and retaining new clients. Similarly, those partners who wish to move firms, and whose whole body of work has come automatically through the firm’s business development (BD) infrastructure (firm reputation, beauty parades, advisory panels, etc) do not have the following (or the skills to create one) to justify another firm taking them on as a partner.
At the senior stage of a lawyer’s career, technical expertise is a given. Without networking and the consequent BD skills, even those senior associates who do become partners, are wholly reliant on their firm’s BD infrastructure for their work. The difference between a technically excellent senior associate with no BD skills and a technically excellent partner with no BD skills is that the latter may cost the firm more (though not always!).This can be a precarious position.
Beginning the process of building your networking skills at the start of your career will ensure that you will have many options at the senior stage of your career when you may need them most. This article provides an introduction to developing those skills.
Every six months, set yourself realistic goals with tangible outcomes. Write them down and refer to them often. Tick them off when you have achieved them. If you achieve them early, give yourself a break until you begin working on your goals for the next six months. These skills take time, practice, energy and motivation to develop. By setting realistic goals and giving yourself mental breaks, you will begin to build your skills incrementally to support you throughout your career.
An appropriate set of goals for a first year trainee, in the first six months of working, could include:
- developing a professional LinkedIn profile and make five meaningful connections;
- attending at least one networking event and handing out at least three business cards to people you have never met before that you have personally spoken to at the event; and
- publishing at least one article on a relevant legal topic and using the publication to touch base with your network.
LinkedIn can be a powerful networking tool if used appropriately. We have spoken to many successful LinkedIn users and have drawn out some common themes.
When creating your profile, keep to objective facts. A LinkedIn profile that includes objective facts is much more professional and credible than one that includes a huge amount of text that is a subjective assessment or description of your own skills.
At this early stage in your career, connect with people that you genuinely know. If you want to develop a meaningful set of connections that are genuinely useful to you in the future, then do not connect with people that you do not know. The goal is that, by the time you are a senior associate, you have a set of connections on your LinkedIn profile who know you and think well of you.
In short, you want your connections to be a genuinely useful professional tool. Having 500+ connections, most of whom you have never met, may be a hinderance to you at the point when you want to start using your connections to advance your career. If you do not wish to connect with a person because you do not know them, rather than ignoring the connection request, write them a quick note explaining that you are using LinkedIn for only those people you know. Your taking the time to explain will be appreciated.
Do not use personal social media accounts for professional contacts, no matter how much you like them.
Networking in Person
In the future, you will need to be able to initiate conversations in a networking environment with a view to getting new business. To get to this stage, you have to start small. There are many networking events that are available. You should aim to attend at least one networking event during your first six months.
Keep in mind that in your early days, you are building contacts for the future rather than expecting lucrative work now. Similarly, the vast majority of your contacts will never give you any work. It will take at least 18 months of continuous contact (e.g. relatively regular personal and relevant email contact, phone calls, etc) before a contact may enquire about the type of work you could provide.
- Fake it till you make it
Despite what many would have you believe, confidence is a learned skill. The best way to learn this skill is to pretend to be confident. Ask yourself, “If I were a confident person, what would I do in this situation”, then do it. To make sure your confidence is continually developing, you need to put yourself in situations that are slightly challenging to you. For a junior lawyer, new to networking skills, a challenge may be to introduce yourself to somebody at an event.
By constantly pushing yourself in small increments, you will develop your confidence so that it remains appropriate for your seniority level and the professional challenges you will face at that level.
- Role models
Always have networking/public speaking role models that you admire and whose skills you aspire to. Study what makes them such effective communicators. Does your role model use power point? If not, why not? Watch videos of their speaking engagements and interactions. Particularly good examples include Barack Obama and the Clintons. These people were not born excellent communicators, they developed their skills through experience, preparation and intensive practice.
- Always be polite
The ability to remain polite in the face of rudeness is one of the hallmarks of a professional.
Rudeness is a weakness and a mistake. Treat patronising and rude behaviour toward you as a valuable learning experience. It will help you understand how to treat new talent when you are in a more senior position; to your own advantage and to theirs. Polite controlled reactions to rudeness may also gain you the admiration of any bystanders.
That said, do not put up with abuse or bullying; excuse yourself politely, take yourself away from the situation or speak to a superior or trusted colleague.
- Be yourself
When you are networking, always be yourself. Each person has their own networking style; whether they are witty, charming, funny, well informed, intelligent, well read, geeky, etc. Play to your strengths. Your own style is powerful. The contacts you make because people have responded to your style will be far more meaningful than any you make by pretending to be someone you are not.
- Don’t fight a losing battle
Not everyone will warm to your particular style. Do not take it personally. You can generally get a sense of whether someone warms to you or not. If it is clear that a person is not warming to you, do not waste your time trying to convert them. It is a much more productive use of your time to move on to talk to people who do warm to your style.
- Have a hobby
Many experienced and successful networkers tell us that a connection with another person is rarely made on the basis of work related conversations. Rather, they tell us that their most successful connections are made because they have bonded with somebody through a common interest or admiration over an achievement or passion outside of work.
When networking in person, you will make embarrassing mistakes. Even the most experienced networker does. Mistakes are the most effective way of learning. Channel your feeling of embarrassment into asking yourself what you could or should have done or said. Your mistakes will teach you better than any article how to handle similar situations in the future.
By consistently taking small, modest steps to build your networking skills from the very beginning of your career, you will put yourself in the best position to tackle any career challenges that may lie in your future.