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Management Networking Misconceptions: Business-Related Networks Provide an Array of Benefits

published October 15, 2007

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By holding these misconceptions to be true, attorneys are really doing themselves a disservice. The truth is that informal networks are at the heart of our lives: they're how we find jobs, find the right business coaches, get our children into the right universities, and even find our spouses.

Similarly, business-related networks provide us with an array of benefits that often overlap with our personal lives: they help us create strategic partnerships and foster professional development, and as an added benefit, many lifelong friendships are formed along the way. Networks increase our value, as we are more able to help others with their needs.

Networking gurus such as Keith Ferrazzi, the author of Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time, will tell you that professional-services marketing is about building relationships and, quite simply, developing these relationships through contact. To borrow a phrase from the real estate industry, networking is really all about contact, contact, and more contact.

According to Webster's New World Dictionary, third edition, "a network is a group, [a] system of interconnected or cooperating circles." The Penguin English Dictionary, third edition, describes networking as a "group of persons, sharing an aim, interest, etc., and frequently communicating with or helping each other."

The problem lies in the fact that attorneys, by nature, are more attuned to viewing networking as a transactional relationship. Networking, though, is rarely transactional; 99% of the time networking is relational. Attorneys have to make that intellectual shift for their networking efforts to be successful. Fortunately, the same skill set required for being an attorney—being organized, focused, and applying yourself—is required for networking.

Mistakenly, many young attorneys look at "star" attorneys at their firms and try to emulate their styles. However, since networking is essentially building relationships with other human beings, it takes longer for inauthentic attorneys to build trust and commitment, as people are able to detect sincerity.

Equally problematic in today's fast-paced technological world is a natural tendency toward desiring immediate gratification, particularly if attorneys are just beginning to network. Having realistic expectations at the outset will reduce frustration and disappointment. Building good networks takes time and patience, very much like gardening. After plants are planted, they must be cultivated and nurtured. Gardeners are forced to take a step back after planting and feeding. Similarly, when networking, it's imperative to take a step back rather than pushing and just allow relationships and opportunities to develop. Quick fixes don't work. Generally, it takes at least six to eight impressions for people to remember and begin to trust a new person.

Many attorneys use the opportunistic or, as it is commonly referred to, hit-and-miss approach to networking. Typically, attorneys attend events, strike up conversations, talk about themselves, and exchange business cards. They usually attend these events with the mindset of collecting business cards, without really paying any attention to having two or three engaging conversations.

This type of random networking will produce clients every so often. However, it is based on the assumption that the person you are speaking to requires legal services. Usually when opportunities do occur, their impact on your practice is marginal. One of the other problems with this type of networking is that while business cards may have been exchanged, if services are not needed, the cards are discarded.

Strategic networking is more focused and tends to position attorneys at seminars, conferences, and trade shows where potential clients are likely to assemble. With this type of networking, it's common for attorneys to join and actively participate in associations or clubs and attend breakfast lectures and luncheons where they will pass out business cards. Depending on its overall marketing plan, giving presentations and sponsoring functions may be parts of a law firm's overall strategy. This type of networking produces better and more consistent results than random acts of networking, although, once again, it is dependent on the needs of the individuals from the organizations you are involved with.

"Leverage networking" is what Ferrazzi calls networking with the connectors and super connectors. These are individuals who are well connected and whose jobs entail considerable contact with people, such as fund-raisers, journalists, public relations professionals, lobbyists, conference organizers, etc.

In leveraged networking, the attorney cultivates continuing relationships with people who are constantly in contact with large numbers of others in the attorney's target group. The relationships are carefully chosen and continually maintained to ensure that the contacts will refer clients if opportunities arise. An example of this type of relationship is a transactional business attorney who has a continuing relationship with an accountant and financial planner. This is a mutually beneficial relationship since the attorney can occasionally refer clients to the accountant and financial planner and vice versa.

On a practical level, there are several ways to get started, depending on your comfort level. Since networking has to be a long-term endeavor, become involved in an area where your interests lie. Serving on a board, for example, will not only help build your network but also build your confidence. Most nonprofit boards and community-based organizations seek volunteer-based general counsel. The boards, in turn, have the opportunity to get to know you and the quality of your work without your peddling your services.

Key to all networking activities is listening and asking open-ended, engaging questions—those that require more than yes or no answers and open up a dialogue. The objective is to find out more about people. What do they do? Why are they attending this particular event? What are their concerns, interests, and hobbies? A good gauge when meeting someone is to listen, at the very minimum, 50%, although some would say 80%, of the time. Body language indicates whether you are actively listening and interested in what the other individual has to say and not looking across the room to see who else has appeared.

Ultimately, all of us want to know that we are cared for. Stephen R. Covey, in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, says we should "[s]eek first to understand and then be understood" when networking.

An area in which almost everybody falls short is the follow-up. It is after the initial meeting that relationships begin to develop. All the listening, well-crafted marketing messages, and best first impressions go down the drain if there is no follow-up. Following up within 24 hours demonstrates enthusiasm, interest, and initiative, and more importantly, the groundwork has been laid for a face-to-face meeting to explore whether it's a relationship worth taking to the next level.

Rather than resisting networking, attorneys need to take stock of the skill sets they already have and apply them. As with most things, there is no magic formula; the truth lies in discovering what the magical formula is for you.

About the Author

Paramjit Mahli of Sun Communications Group is a former journalist who has worked with international news organizations, including CNN Business News, and now helps small to mid-sized law firms get in front of their target markets effectively, efficiently, and expeditiously. Her job is to let lawyers do what they do best-practice law-while she takes care of their communications and marketing programs.

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