Associate Advice, Job Searches, Small Law Firms

Small Firms, Big Lawyers: The Best Advice for Networking Events

Stop me if this sounds familiar to you:

The managing partner of your firm tells you and your colleagues that you all need to “do more marketing.” What that vague phrase means is unclear, but the partner feels it’s imperative. It’s the only way to bring in more business. Someone — maybe even you — ventures to ask for ideas on what kind of marketing you all should be doing.

Your fearless leader looks nonplussed for a moment, then shakes his head quickly like a dog drying himself and sputters, “Network. Get out there and network.” Meeting over.

Now you and your colleagues are left trying to divine just how to go about “marketing” and “networking.” There were no courses on these arcane arts in your non-T14 law school. (Fear not: The T14 law schools didn’t have those courses either.)

Finally, one of the group members — maybe even you — recalls getting an email blast about an upcoming networking event that you can all go to at the local chamber of commerce. “Great,” you chorus. But what are you supposed to do when you get there?

Don’t worry. Here are the six best tips for attending networking events:

Tip 1. Don’t.

The other five tips are more or less redundant.

No, seriously, there’s nothing more useless than going to a so-called “networking event” put on by your local chamber of commerce. It is an utter and complete waste of time. I know this because I’ve been to dozens of them, each time swearing to myself afterward that I would never do it again.

If you’ve never been to one, let me draw you a picture. Imagine if you will the seediest commuter hotel in your local metropolitan area. You show up, usually with your wingmen (of either sex), typically dressed like lawyers (dark suit, white shirt, red or blue tie). You check in at a table in the hallway outside “Function Room B” or “Valley Forge Room” or whatever. A nice middle-aged woman in a loud blazer with a nametag that has her photo and the name of a local real-estate brokerage greets you and asks if you’ve preregistered. If you have, she hands you a name badge with your name spelled wrong. If you haven’t, you must suffer the indignity of having your name written in Sharpie on one of those “Hi! My Name Is …” stickers. You know, the kind that don’t actually stick to wool or other natural fibers. The kind that causes you to be constantly pressing your right palm against your left breast to keep the sticker attached, as if you’re either trying to restart your own heart or trying to cop a feel on yourself. (Anything to keep you awake at these things.)

[True-story sidebar: Once, at a Biglaw black-tie event, I had to wear a name tag in the form of one of these poor-adhering stickers. Despite smacking my own chest every few minutes, the sticker departed. Soon after, I found it … sticking to the heel of partner’s wife’s shoe. (Now it sticks!) I tried a couple times to catch the edge of it with my own shoe without being seen by the wife or the partner. Then I finally gave up and went stickerless. Now, I bring my own: a generic name tag with my name and firm name, slipped into a clear plastic carrier that has a magnet that goes inside my breast pocket. People inevitably ask me why I have a nonconforming name tag. When I explain, I can see their dual reactions on their faces: they think I’m a geek, and they kind of wish they had one too.]

Stickers aside, you and your colleagues sidle up to the bar, get a glass of boxed Chardonnay (vintage: last month) or maybe a very weak V&T, which is actually for the better because when you see the bottle of house vodka, it has a name like “Tsar Victor,” which bothers you more than a little because you studied Russian history in college and you know that there was never a Tsar Victor. Maybe you get a cheese cube or two or a piece of celery. Then, with those activities taking all of five minutes, you now have to actually do something for the next 55 minutes before you can legitimately go home.

So you stand around with your wingmen (of either sex) looking like a gaggle (pride? parliament?) of dorky lawyers (and I’m not criticizing you here because, as I’ve said, I’ve been there dozens of times), making small talk with the people you spent all day with. Then you realize how ridiculous this is, so you split up and go looking for targets. You pat your suitcoat pocket to confirm that you have your 50 business cards. And so you head slowly over to someone who’s standing alone by the cheese cubes.

Guess what? The person (a) works for an offset-printing shop, (b) is a real-estate broker, (c) owns a massage parlor (the legit kind), or (d) is another lawyer looking to network, whatever that means. You make desultory small talk: “Do you come to these things a lot?” You maybe ask a little about how things are going in the offset-printing world. And then you race to hand over your business card, and take his. “OK, well … nice meeting you.” Rinse, lather, repeat. You do this twice more. Then you meet up with your posse and see who collected the most business cards (which will go in your desk drawer, never to be seen again). You’ve now been there almost an hour, the place is pretty beat, and you’re all tired. But you’ve networked, so there’s that. Off you go.

Trust me when I tell you that it’s metaphysically impossible to get clients this way. People want to work with people they like and trust. It’s unlikely that in this kind of ridiculous setting people would be able to figure out if they liked you, and there’s no chance that they’ll be able to decide that they trust you. Which means that there’s no chance that they’re going to start throwing business at you.

My advice, crystallized in Tip No. 1 above, is to not waste your time attending these things. Instead, go to things that matter. Go to talks and seminars and presentations that are actually about something (besides “networking”). Better yet, give talks and seminars and presentations, and establish yourself as someone who is likable and trustable and knowledgeable about things. Go to events where you have something in common with other attendees (besides a need to “network” and collect useless business cards). Bar-association meetings for specific practice groups are a useful alternative. So are trade-association meetings in an industry where you have clients — in fact, try to get a client to let you tag along with her to one of these; it’s always easier when you know someone who already knows people there.

Don’t spend your money on boxed Chardonnay and stickers that don’t stick. Do real marketing to bring in business. Going to networking events is just going through the motions in the Valley Forge Room.

Jay runs Prefix, LLC, a firm that helps lawyers learn how to value and price legal services. Jay Shepherd also spent 13 years running the Boston management-side employment-law boutique Shepherd Law Group. He writes the ABA Blawg 100 honoree The Client Revolution, which focuses on reinventing the business of law, and Gruntled Employees, a workplace blog. Follow Jay on Twitter at @jayshep, or email him at

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