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Management Networking Misconceptions: Business-Related Networks Provide An Array Of Benefits

by Paramjit Mahli

For many attorneys, the word "networking" conjures up trepidation and concern about their own inadequacies about not being able to "schmooze," coupled with misconceptions ranging from not having enough time and not having "star" power, to networking being a waste of time that robs them of valuable billable hours. So it's no surprise that networking often ranks on the lower rungs of business development activities. 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: it's how we find jobs, find the right business coach, get our children into the right universities, and even find our spouses.

Similarly, business-related networks provide us with an array of benefits, often overlapping into our personal lives: they help us create strategic partnerships, 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, will tell you that professional services marketing is about building relationships and, quite simply, that these relationships develop through contact. To borrow a phrase from the real estate industry, networking is really all about contact, contact and more contact.

According to Webster'sNew World Dictionary, third edition, "a network is a group, 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 percent 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 style. 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 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, the hit-and-miss approach to networking. Typically, attorneys attend an event , strike up a conversation , talk about themselves , and exchange business cards. They usually attend these events wit h the mind - set 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 fact 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 attorney s to join and actively participate in associations or clubs and attend breakfast lectures and luncheons where they will pass out business cards. Depending on the overall marketing plan, giving presentations and sponsoring a function may be part of the law firm's overall strategy . This type of networking produces better and consistent results than the random acts of networking, although once again it is dependent on the needs of the individuals from the organizations you are involved in.

"Leverage networking" is what Keith Ferrazzi calls networking with the connectors and super connectors. Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time 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 l everaged n etworking, the attorney cultivates continuing relationships with people who are constantly in contact with large numbers of people in the attorney ' s target group. The relationships are carefully chosen and continually maintained to assure that the contact will refer a client if the opportunity arises. 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 levels to get started, depending on your comfort level. Since networking has to be long-term endeavor, becoming involved in an area where your interests lie. Serving on a board, for example, will not only help build your network but will also build your confidence. Most nonprofit boards and community-based organizations are seeking volunteer-based general counsels. 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 these 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 percent, although some would say 80 percent 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 says, when networking, "Seek first to understand and then be understood." Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey

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 resist networking, attorneys need to take stock of the skill set they already have and apply it. Like most things there is no magic formula; the truth lies in discovering what that magical formula is for you.

This article is reprinted with permission from the September 3, 2007 issue of New Jersey Law Journal. 2007 ALM Properties Inc. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.

About The Author

Paramjit Mahli is with Sun Communications Group of New York, N.Y., a marketing and public relations company that works primarily with small law firms.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.