Small Law Firms

How Networking Really Works

The news continues to be bad for the impatient “just get me on the internet” types regarding the development of relationships. Regardless of how many times your name appears on the first page of Google, developing meaningful professional relationships still takes time, and it always will. Sorry.

I recently read of a lawyer who closed up shop, a prominent reason being that after dropping from the first page to fourth page of Google, “the phone stopped ringing.” Google doesn’t develop relationships that bring referrals. Some learn that that hard way.

I spoke at a local breakfast last week. It was a kick-off of a new chapter of a monthly “lawyers” group. There were 20 lawyers. One guy was in his 70s and is now of counsel to a firm after a long career, another just graduated law school and drove two hours to meet some Miami lawyers. Not sure why he drove so far to meet lawyers instead of sitting at home and poking around on LinkedIn. Anyway, a few said they were with firms I knew, and there were a bunch of solo practitioners, some just a few years in, and others who have been at it for a while.

I know, you’re thinking, “Sounds like BNI.” Kind of, but BNI is weekly, and not limited to lawyers.

As this was the first meeting of the second local chapter, everyone was there to check it out, to decide whether they would attend a second meeting. After going around the room and introducing themselves to each other, and then ending the meeting by walking around and exchanging business cards and “do you know so and so…” some will apply, while others will see getting up for a 7:30 a.m. breakfast once a month as the most awful thing they could think of and never come back.

The host of the meeting said something that may cause some not to return: “No one in this room is required to refer clients to each other.”

Wait, what? You can’t just sit there, eat eggs, and the cases will come?

No, you can’t. Just like you can’t attend a random lawyer’s happy hour, hand out your next-stop-trash-can business card, tell the person receiving your card to “send me all your clients,” and expect to profit.

During the introductions, a visiting 25-year criminal defense lawyer who is a member in the other chapter spoke about his success in the group. “If you’re going to just come to the breakfast once a month, save your money, you won’t get anything out of it — it will be a waste of time.”

He spoke of the relationships he’s developed, how he reaches out to members for lunch or coffee and gets to know them outside of the two hours a month they meet. When he gets the calls for referrals for other practice areas, he’s not just referring someone to a person he has breakfast with once a month, but to someone he knows personally, and who has a stake in making sure the client is well-served. He’s also at the top of the list for those lawyers who need him.

I sat next to a young divorce lawyer. She told me, “I tried BNI but it didn’t work.” I asked her how long she was a member of BNI. “Couple of months.” Unfortunately I’m not good with facial reactions as you can imagine, which invited her next response of, “Maybe I didn’t give it long enough.”

Eleven years ago, I myself joined a BNI chapter. It too was a new chapter. There were about 20 people, and three other lawyers. For five months, I sat there getting to know the people in the room before someone referred me a case. Five months, 20 breakfasts at 7 a.m., one case. One really good case.

Something else though was happening during that time. I was not only getting to know the people in the room, but the people they knew. With what I call “structured networking,” this is the essence. It’s not who is in the room. Chances are those people will never need you. The goal is to get to know who they know. I once heard that the average person has 250 relationships. With 20 people in a room… well, you can do the math.

Although I became bored and dissatisfied and left for three years after a seven-year stint, I returned to the group which now has 53 members, 13 being lawyers. In addition to a weekly meeting, the lawyers meet once a month for lunch. Why did I go back? I realized that while I was still attending events and developing relationships, I missed the structured networking. I had friends in that room that had done and would continue to do a lot for me, and being around them meant I could continue to expand my network.

I obviously believe in structured networking, and in giving it time. You also have to find the right group. I know, let me guess, you probably tried it and it didn’t work, or you avoid it because you won’t get up that early or have heard it’s worthless. Yes, you’re going to get garbage referrals, but that’s mainly because people don’t understand what you do and hence, it’s your fault. There are only two reasons it won’t work for you: you’re a bozo, or you were in a group with a bunch of cheesy networking types that you would be embarrassed to introduce to anyone.

It does work, as long as you understand that relationships are not business cards and a weekly or monthly meal. The best referral you will ever get is likely to come from a group like this. The results, though, will never be a bunch of people calling you daily to say they ”found you on the internet.” It will be one or two people every so often looking to give you a really nice case.

Brian Tannebaum will never “get on board” at the advice of failed lawyers who were never a part of the past but claim to know “the future of law.” He represents clients, every day, in criminal and lawyer discipline cases without the assistance of an Apple device, and usually gets to work (in an office, not a coffee shop) by 9 a.m. No client has ever asked if he’s on Twitter. He can be reached at

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