Small Law Firms

Thoughts on How to Network as a Lawyer at a Small Firm

Okay, so you’re not socially inept. I’d offer my congratulations, but being socially adept and willing to mingle is only part of the battle for a small firm attorney. It’s a necessary but not sufficient component of long-term success. (Remember all that necessary/sufficient crap from the LSAT? Yeah, me neither. It doesn’t matter.)

What does matter is that you find a way to deploy whatever level of social skill that you have. Even Bobby Boucher figured that out. You have to find something to fill in this blank:

  • Step One: Be a reasonably competent lawyer who’s not socially inept.
  • Step Two: ??
  • Step Three: Profit.

So what’s the meat in the Step Sandwich here? I’ll share some of my own experiences, along with some insightful comments from the readers….

From a reader email:

I’d like to bring some business into the firm so as to justify my keep and any increases in salary I will request in the future. But the question I have is HOW do you network?

LinkedIn only does so much. Joining local area bar organizations helps, but when you get to those events, what do you do? Do you randomly go up to individuals and go “Hi, my name is _____? Who do you work for?” It may sound a little remedial, but I’m not really to sure how to do this and any help would be appreciated.

We’re talking about networking, and it’s not remedial. It’s an important skill if you’re ever going to get to Step Three, and one that’s difficult for most lawyers (including me) to get started.

First, realize that you’re not in law school anymore, where we all joined clubs purely for the benefit of having them on our résumés. Simply slapping your memberships on your website and not-so-secretly fiddling with your Blackberry during the meetings won’t work. You have to engage people, and that starts with a simple conversation.

Now if we were normal people, this would be easy. But we’re not; we’re lawyers, and therefore prone to finding the pitfalls in even a simple conversation. From another reader:

[W]hat I see as the big challenge here isn’t necessarily that many people might not be social creatures, but that the Rules of Professional Conduct of each state might get in the way of meeting potential clients face to face since this brings up potential solicitation issues… [discussion of Model Rule 7.3]… The only way around this is to advertise according to the guidelines set out under [Rule 7.2], which can get pretty expensive!

Leave it to a lawyer to interpret a rule in a way that blocks normal human interaction. For the record, I’m not suggesting that you “solicit professional employment” at your Rotary meetings. I’m suggesting that you have a conversation. Try not to see these people as merely walking dollar bills. Ask them about themselves. Then, when the “what do you do for work” question comes up, don’t just say you’re an attorney. Tell them what you actually do — “I help people solve problems related to….,” or “I help people squat in their homes even though they’re not paying their mortgages.” (Ahem.) Yeah, something like that.

For many of you new and new-to-small-firm lawyers, business generation isn’t in your wheelhouse, so you’re going to have to get outside your comfort zone. If you really want new business, you’re going to have to approach people you don’t know, stick your hand out, and take the initiative to introduce yourself. You’d do it for your love life, now you’ve got to do it for your professional mojo.

When I was struggling in this aspect of my young practice, my boss started making me take at least one business contact to lunch every week and report back to him. My point is, you can’t be afraid to start small — which leads me to this email, from yet another reader:

The real trouble here is the “ethical” dilemma of how you drum up business for your firm without making unsolicited pitches at clients. As a patent practitioner, I would love to go door to door here in silicon valley [sic] and offer the services of my firm. I’m within walking distance of the headquarters of [a bunch of tech giants]. However, I can’t just show up and make marketing pitches without violating advertising rules.

You’re not going to land Google with an off-the-street pitch, so be creative if you want them as a client. For example, maybe you put on a mini-seminar for local software engineers. I would think that each of those companies has plenty of employees working on their own personal projects for which they need or will need help. Where do these people hang out? Put up some flyers, and make the effort to gain a contact at one of those companies (see conversation advice, supra). Again, start small — which leads me to my final point.

Business generation doesn’t happen overnight. Dion Algeri makes this point very well in a recent post over at The Great Jakes Blog. He discusses how many (particularly older) lawyers are skeptical about engaging in social media as a business generation tool because it doesn’t provide a “silver bullet.” In other words, clients don’t start running in the door the minute you start blogging. Algeri’s fine point is that this idea doesn’t mean blogging is valueless. It’s just one tool, and you have to be patient. The same goes for networking.

So what does that mean for you? Well, as Harvard-trained rainmaker and career coach Betsy Munnell advises, you should START NOW.

For the moment, you can continue sending your thoughts and questions to Little Richard dot JD at gmail dot com and @LittleRichardJD. I say “for the moment,” because next week will be my probably very boring grand “coming out” party. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen: you can’t network out of a pseudonymous closet.

Earlier: Prior ATL coverage of small law firms

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