How Lawyers Can Network Better, Virtually And In Person

By Megan Burke Roudebush
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Law360 (June 1, 2020, 6:11 PM EDT) --
Megan Burke Roudebush
Megan Burke Roudebush
Effective networking has a direct impact on the short- and long-term success of every law firm and legal team.

Whether working to establish or strengthen strong networking relationships with prospective and existing clients (external networking) or looking to establish or strengthen strong networking relationships within his or her own law firm or legal team (internal networking), the bottom line is that networking relationships matter and they must be nurtured, reciprocal, strategic and authentic.

There are four compelling reasons why attorneys at law firms and on legal teams need to network well: succession planning; diversity, equity and inclusion/access to opportunity; talent retention; and (for both law firms and for in-house legal teams) business development.

What complicates matters is the importance of networking effectively during the current COVID-19 crisis, when we must remain physically isolated.

Why Attorneys Struggle to Network Well

When asked whether they are strong networkers, many attorneys will initially answer that they are, because they are well-educated, intellectually talented and they like to talk. What sometimes happens after that initial self-assessment is that the attorney being asked will say, "Well, I am OK at networking, but I am an introvert." Or "I am pretty good at networking, but I do not enjoy the follow-up." Or even still, the dreaded "I do not have time to network."

Attorneys struggle to network well for several reasons:

  • They are taught to advocate in law school, not to collaborate;

  • Litigation is adversarial and transactions are meant to be won;

  • Networking is not a skill that is typically taught in law school, despite expectations that junior associates grow into partners and becoming a partner requires business development and skilled networking;

  • Formal career development processes (i.e., fall recruiting; only considering candidates with top GPAs) are emphasized over networking as an avenue for career development.

There is a silver lining supporting attorneys' networking struggles right now: In this current work-from-home environment, many of us are operating under a more authentic, down-to-earth style of communication. In other words: We are being more human and more real right now and that shines through in our strategic communication, including our networking efforts. This decrease in formality and increase in finding common ground can make it easier to have a networking conversation.

Why Well-Executed Strategic Networking Matters to Law Firms and Legal Teams

Succession Planning

Attorneys at all levels of the organization need to network to support effective succession planning. At a time when law firm partners are retiring in large numbers and law firms are adjusting staffing levels to address business changes resulting from a pandemic crisis, creating a strong culture of strategic networking ensures the development of the next generation of the law firm's or legal team's leaders.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

A culture that supports strategic internal and external networking helps to ensure diverse candidate pipelines and support diversity, equity and inclusion programs at law firms that support attorneys on their path from summer associate to partner. A culture of authentic strategic networking ensures diverse, inclusive and equitable client services teams, which clients expect and demand. It also supports critical business priorities designed to facilitate access to the highest caliber professional opportunities for all attorneys at the firm or on the legal team.

In the current work-from-home environment and as law firms experience layoffs and adjustments to summer associate programs, ensuring a diverse candidate pipeline is more important than ever. Leveraging tactics to strategically network using virtual and digital needs is critical to supporting diversity, equity and inclusion at law firms and on legal teams.

Talent Retention

Retention at firms and on legal teams increases when lawyers see and can navigate a career path through internal and external networking. This is because when attorneys have positive relationships with those within their organizations and those with whom they interact outside of their organizations, they feel a stronger sense of belonging and are more likely to stay.

Given the linkage between networking and wellness (the notion that when you have a strong network that has your back, anxiety is reduced and you realize the benefits of feeling connected to others and your mood is favorably impacted), encouraging attorneys to strategically network well on a continual basis also helps support the American Bar Assication Wellness Pledge, a campaign by the ABA Working Group to Advance Well-Being in the Legal Profession. Now more than ever, physical, mental and emotional wellness are important for every professional and especially for attorneys.

Before the pandemic hit, networking was difficult for lawyers. Now that so many of us are operating in a virtual environment, strategic relationship building is even harder. That is why it is so critical that attorneys and law firm leadership make the time to focus on deliberate strategic (digital and in-person) networking activities.

Business Development

Networking and business development are intrinsically linked, yet strategic relationship building (aka networking) is not taught in most law schools. For associates aspiring to become partner and even for partners at all seniority levels, strategic networking is imperative to successful business development. By empowering attorneys to make the most of their business development time by developing and executing a strategic approach to networking, law firm attorneys from the most junior associates to the most senior partners will engage in business development activities that will be more efficient, waste less time, and be based on actual connectivity through meaningful relationships.

Prioritizing networking as a key component of business development is vital in the current COVID-19 environment. As law firms make changes to staffing and attorney layoffs occur, the ability to sagely build strong client and prospective client relationships is very important.

Networking Tips for Law Firms and Legal Teams to Consider Implementing

Below are some practical solutions to strengthen networking practices at your legal organization. While many may toss their hands up and feel as though networking is not a priority or is simply not happening right now because of the pandemic, each of these strategies can be accomplished virtually or in person.

1. Encourage a relationship management culture that incorporates both internal and external networking.

This not only makes sense from a people perspective and a business perspective, but it also creates a competitive advantage. While it is the responsibility of all team members at a law firm to support the positive aspects that strengthen a firm's culture, it is particularly important that a firm's executive committee, managing partners, talent leaders and marketing and business development executives establish and support a law firm or legal team's culture of relationship management. This is critical for maintaining the strength of the firm's talent pipeline, business development pipeline, and sense of collaboration and innovation at the firm.

Because lawyers as a population often find it difficult to network, by encouraging and supporting a relationship management culture that incorporates internal and external networking, your law firm or legal team will create a competitive advantage over peer firms and teams. Consider a two-part approach that involves promoting strategic digital networking efforts and programming while your teams are working from home, while also developing a long-term networking culture strategy that includes in-person and virtual components.

2. Support strong networking acumen across all seniority levels.

One is never too junior or too senior to need to network strategically and we all need to prioritize our most important relationships, regardless of our work-from-home status.

Attorney development and business development leaders within law firms and legal teams can ensure that they provide high-quality training on how to network to attorneys of all seniority levels. As a complement, firms need to offer associates and partners meaningful opportunities to attend formal and informal networking events (including both in-person and virtual events). In environments in which billable hours are an area of focus, firms should encourage associates and partners to attend those meaningful networking events (and not feel guilty for doing so).

3. Adopt approaches to relationship management and business development that are efficient, deliberate and effective.

Infuse strategy into relationship management and business development practices. Many law firms require their attorneys to accomplish a certain number of business development hours per year, without necessarily providing the proper guidance and support attorneys need to make the most of that time. Similarly, law firms and legal teams often sponsor tables at in-person networking events, but do not provide attorneys with the education needed on how to make the most of those networking experiences.

Consider implementing training and education designed to help attorneys improve how they build and maintain strategic relationships. Provide resources such as strategic networking training modules, practical networking simulations, and opportunities for meaningful peer mentorship designed to help attorneys make the most out of their business development time. This training can be delivered in person or virtually.

4. Consider a strengths-based, customized approach to encouraging networking among staff, associates and partners that takes into account the introvert/extrovert distinction and individuals' comfort levels with and styles for networking effectively.

Some attorneys might network best at formal networking events, such as bar association or other industry events, while others might be better off networking one-on-one with prospective clients. Others might be more introverted and serving on a panel may be the best networking approach for those individuals.

By acknowledging that networking is relationship building and that attorneys all have different approaches to relationship building, having a strengths-based culture of relationship building that takes into account individuals' approaches and preferences will support and strengthen a law firm or legal team's overall approach to networking well.

Moreover, in the current work-from-home environment, everyone must become more comfortable with networking digitally and the good news is that regardless of introvert/extrovert distinctions and individual networking preferences, any networking approach can be executed virtually.

5. No individual at a law firm or on a legal team is too busy, too smart, already too well-networked, or too anything else to carve out the time needed to build strong relationships.

Build in a recurring chunk of time into your calendar weekly (whether it is 20 minutes, 30 minutes, 60 minutes or 90 minutes — whatever bit of time works for you) for deliberate networking activities. Then be sure to attend that activity at the scheduled time for accountability.

6. Think ahead to already-scheduled virtual and in-person events, and be strategic about which to attend.

For example, look to the fourth quarter and all of the holiday parties (charitable organizations, civic organizations, corporations, bar associations; almost every organization hosts a holiday party) and chart out in advance the most important holiday parties for you to attend. Be judicious with your time and because there are so many, select those that make the most sense to attend.

Plan ahead and make the most out of a time of year when lots of pointed, strategic networking takes place. It is unclear at this time what holiday parties will look like in 2020. However, whether in-person or virtual, these events and this time of year is a great time to engage in substantial meaningful networking activities.

7. Acknowledge the connection between networking and wellness, and foster your firm's commitment to attorney and staff wellness by building and encouraging a healthy and strong networking culture.

There are lots of ways for attorneys to make the connections between networking and wellness in this work from home environment. Alumni associations, bar associations and fitness businesses are all creating virtual events and ways for people to connect virtually, while prioritizing a common focus on wellness.

Conclusion

Networking can be difficult for anyone under normal circumstances. Add a global health crisis into the mix and required physical isolation and, well, networking can become much harder.

Given the responsibilities that attorneys tackle every day (whether as law firm attorneys, in-house attorneys, governmental attorneys, or attorneys practicing in any context) and the fact that attorneys are taught in law school to fiercely advocate on their clients' behalf, networking is particularly tough for lawyers.

Regardless of your role and seniority level within your law firm, legal team or organization, encourage a relationship management culture that incorporates both internal and external networking (executed both virtually and in-person, when permitted). When this is prioritized, strong, authentic and meaningful networking relationships are formed and substantial benefits are realized.



Megan Burke Roudebush is the founder and CEO of Keepwith.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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