Networking doesn’t come easily to many lawyers, and often the biggest obstacle is concern over how we’ll be perceived – as slick, insincere, annoying, aggressive, or awkward. It doesn’t have to be that way. Here are a few pointers.
1. Be authentic.
This should be step one and part of every step. Review and practice your elevator pitch describing yourself and your career aspirations. It should sound like you. Look for ways, through your delivery or the content, to let your personality come through. If you’re not sure about your best personal qualities, ask friends for three words they’d use to describe you, and build your outreach around them.
2. Leverage your existing network.
People you already know are the low-hanging fruit for networking. They’re easy to approach and already interested in helping you, but you may be reluctant to seem needy or pushy by continually contacting them. Two pieces of advice: Set limits on how frequently you circle back based on your relationship. For someone you’d count as a friend, a check-in once every month or two should be fine; for someone you’ve met only once, a hello and update right after meeting and then in two or three months is reasonable. Also, reframe your thinking about pushiness.
You’ll need to be self-confident and proactive in talking about yourself throughout your legal career to be effective as a leader. In your updates and outreach, you’re not being a pest; you’re deepening your relationships and allowing others to feel like they’re being helpful.
Tip: Letting everyone in your network know when you passed the bar is a great way to remind them about you while sharing positive news.
3. Set realistic networking goals for yourself.
Don’t just drag yourself to networking events because other people told you that you should. Be strategic, and figure out how to work with your shyness, inexperience, or discomfort at being in large groups of people. For example, commit to goingto a networking event for an hour and see what happens.
Tip: Go for the first hour of the event before guests start clustering with people they already know. Or bring a networking buddy (but commit that the two of you won’t just talk to each other). Give yourself challenging but achievable networking goals, like meeting two new people per week, and stick to them. A little networking, done consistently, yields better results than mounting a major campaign and then flaming out.
4. Make it personal.
Networking is most effective when it doesn’t seem like networking. Take a broad view of networking to include activities you may have thought of as just social. Your family and friends and casual acquaintances are all part of your network. Do they all know your background and what kind of opportunities you’re looking for? If you don’t come from a family of lawyers, you may need to work at articulating the types of contacts they may know who’d be most useful for you. But don’t turn away any potential connection they’re willing to make—that person may be the link to another connection who’s in your networking sweet spot.
When you meet people in professional settings, try to see and engage with the people there, not the potential networking contacts. What do they like to do? How do they feel about being at this networking event or wherever you’re meeting them? What’s been the best part of their day? Make a point of meeting with people in person whenever possible rather than by phone or email, where it’s harder to feel a personal connection.
Tip: Texting is easy and increasingly popular but not (at least not yet) widely accepted for business communication. Only text with professional contacts who have invited that form of communication by texting you or telling you they prefer text messages to email or phone calls. Just as you’d choose how to dress for an informational interview, it’s better to err on the side of being too formal rather than appearing unprofessional.
5. Use social media wisely.
Create a LinkedIn profile, including a professional photo, and keep it up to date, always. Facebook, Instagram, and other social media sites aren’t as well-suited for connecting professionally, but you can look through your Facebook friends and selectively send LinkedIn invites to people you want to have a professional relationship with.
Take time to do individual outreach rather than blasting emails or LinkedIn invites to everyone in your address book. Use your law school’s online alumni networking groups and databases to locate and connect with former classmates. The great thing about social media is that it allows you to craft whatever image you want to project, so do it deliberately, posting thoughtful comments and information relevant to your career interests.
Networking is more comfortable, and more effective in the short and long term, when you let yourself be yourself rather than assuming a persona that doesn’t fit you.