Douglas McPherson shares his knowledge and expertise on how to network in the right way
When it comes to marketing and business development in the legal profession there is a default that what we’re talking about is networking. And, by extension, if we’re talking about networking that has to mean formal networking events. The only problem is many of us (and that includes me) don’t like formal networking events so what are we supposed to do?
Well, the first thing to do is address that particular misconception.
Networking isn’t about ticking a box and going to the same old events. It’s about building a professional and personal network around you that will create opportunities that will deliver work for you long into the future (and with the minimum of effort). This means that if the time you invest is going to deliver results, you have to be happy with what you do, how you do it, when you do it and who you do it with.
To help you get to that end result, here are 10½ tips you can put into practice immediately to ensure you get the best possible return from your networking.
1. Follow up, follow up, follow up
I’m really hoping your first reaction to our first tip is “how can I follow up when I haven’t even been to an event?” Chronologically at least, you are absolutely right.
The only thing is this is the most important part. You can dedicate as much time to marketing and BD as you want, you can go to as many networking events or coffees or lunches or drinks as you want but absolutely nothing will happen unless you follow up.
When you meet someone of any interest make sure you leave a foot in the door, do what you say you were going to do and put the next meeting in the diary. And once you’ve followed up, no reply doesn’t mean there’s no interest; you may well need to follow up again. And again. And again.
2. Go with the end in mind
I have lost count how many times solicitors and barristers have given me a variation on “I tried it once, I didn’t get any work so I’m not going again” so let me break another myth; networking really isn’t about getting the next instruction there and then.
Networking is about starting conversations. It’s about setting the wheels in motion. It’s not about pitching.
Your only objective should be to meet people, get on with them and leave a foot in the door so you can follow up. Keep the conversation going and make sure that if your contact, their family or someone in their personal or professional network needs the particular legal advice you provide, you are at the head of the queue.
3. Choose wisely
There is absolutely no point going to networking events that are filled with other lawyers. Instead you need to choose events that will bring you closer to the prospective clients you want to attract.
If you are a corporate solicitor, try and find groups that cater to corporate finance specialists from accountancy practices and banks. If you are an employment solicitor, gravitate towards events for senior HR personnel. And private client solicitors aren’t precluded as many still believe. They can easily find events that are attended by an affluent group of a certain age and/or by IFAs, wealth managers and personal tax advisors.
Better still, hunt by sector.
If you have a number of IT clients, find out which IT events are run locally. Not only will this give you access to a brand new set of potential clients (all of whom you can talk knowledgeably to as you already understand their world), it’s also likely you’ll bump in to a few clients too. This means you can catch up (and maybe learn about new work opportunities) and also get them to introduce you to their fellow attendees which makes the whole networking thing easier.
4. Choose what suits you
As well as the audience, consider the format, time and frequency of the events you’re looking at.
Does breakfast, lunch or after work suit you best? Do you prefer an open room you can circulate around or a meal-based event where you’ll sit down at a table with your fellow attendees? Do you want an activity-based event so that there’s some common ground to chat about?
The fact of the matter is if an event is at an awkward time of day or is based around a format you don’t feel totally comfortable with, you’ll end up dipping in and out or finding reasons not to go at all which means you will never achieve the results you want to.
5. There are no lines to blur
Recently I was asked where the line between ‘doing BD’ and ‘doing something you enjoy’ lies. My belief is there isn’t a line. If you do something that you like doing with people you like, you will be much more likely to do it and do it well … the fact you actually enjoy yourself whilst doing your business development is just a bonus!
6. Consistency is key
I always suggest to clients that picking two events (based upon audience, format, timing and activity) and going to almost every meeting is always better than trying to spread yourself too thin across a long list of events.
Successful networking is about familiarity and you will only achieve familiarity if you go consistently; if you dip in and out your conversations will never get to the point where they lead to new work or referrals.
The good news is the more you go, the easier it gets. If you imagine you will speak to three or four people at your first event, at the second you can speak to them and they will introduce you to the people they’re speaking to and that will double your contacts and so on. And every time you see the same faces, resuming your conversation will become that little bit easier too.
7. Remember, everyone’s there for the same thing
There is often an uncomfortability around the sales side of networking. Clients tell us they “don’t like delivering my pitch” or that they “find it difficult to tell people what I do” because “it’s just selling isn’t it?”
Yes it is. But don’t worry everyone is there for the same purpose – to meet people in the hope that, over time, those relationships will grow to a point where they deliver work. No one will think ill of you if you tell them what you do and a little bit about who you do it for. They are about to tell you after all.
They will however think ill of you if you try too hard to sell yourself. Remember your objective is just to start new conversations then get on with the people you’re speaking to. Tell people what you do and who for (preferably with a smile) then get on to the important stuff (skip straight to tip 8) …
… everyone you speak to will react positively to at least one strand of what we call FFH (football, family, holiday). If you are struggling for conversation topics just ask nice open questions about their sporting or leisure interests, their family or upcoming/preferred/recent holidays.
Not only will that more personal approach mark you out from the traditional networking vultures, it is also hugely useful for following up and staying in touch. If someone tells you they are a big fan of a particular football team, be confident enough to email them a link to a relevant story about a signing or a significant result with a ‘saw this and thought of you’ cover note. If they say they particularly like the north coast of Mallorca and you or a colleague has a guide book hanging around, send it over to them.
There is an old marketing adage that the smallest gestures have the biggest impact and these types of personal follow up are one of the truest testaments to that thinking.
9. Back page, front page
Good networkers know a little about a lot. They’re able to make small talk and flex to the interests and conversations of the people they meet and to do that you need to know what’s going on in the world.
My tip is always to look at the front page and back page of the newspapers that lie around your reception as you pass through on your way to an event. That’ll give you a quick refresher as to what’s going on in the news and what’s going on in sport which is more than usually enough to get you by.
10. If it doesn’t exist, start it
If you have had a good look for an event or group that suits you in terms of audience, format, timing and activity and there’s nothing out there have the confidence to start your own group. Between you and your closest colleagues you will have enough clients and professional contacts to make it fly and you might just find that your preferences match theirs.
Over the last couple of years we’ve helped clients set up sherry tastings, cycling clubs, 5-a-side leagues, mixed netball, Come Dine with Me, gin clubs, quiz leagues, food & drink round tables, pool nights, table tennis competitions, crazy golf outings, cocktails & darts … literally nothing is out of bounds.
And remember, the more leftfield your idea, the more likely it is that it will stand out and succeed.
10½. Follow up, follow up, follow up
Yes, you’re right, this is exactly where we started but I wanted to make sure the message has been received. Attending an event won’t win work; follow up wins work. The simple fact is that if you are not prepared to follow up with the people you meet while you’re out there networking, you shouldn’t go!