By Mary W. (Adelman) Legg
WBA Raising the Bar – January/February 2002
Client Development the Easy Way
The first step in networking is to attend meetings that will attract people who may be in a position to benefit your career. You are very limited in your ability to meet new people if you do not go out, on a regular basis, for the primary purpose of meeting people. To determine which organization meetings you should attend, evaluate their subject matter and likely attendees. Would meetings, or at least particular meetings, of the Chamber of Commerce draw people who may be of value to your career? Many attorneys become involved in charities and political organizations, making significant donations, with the expectation that they will make valuable contacts. They do, but a key strategy to ensure making those valuable contacts is to become involved in the activities of the organizations. Committee work provides a chance to get to know key individuals on a personal level in a non-threatening atmosphere.
Along the same lines, get involved with local bar organizations. Do not dismiss bar functions as not being worthwhile simply because virtually everyone in attendance is an attorney. Attorneys do make client referrals outside their law firms (their firm may not handle a particular type of case or may be conflicted out of a matter) and involvement in bar associations can highlight your abilities to prospective clients.
Once attending a meeting or function of your choice, make sure you meet someone new. Consider attending the function alone to ensure that you are not hanging onto your colleague (and that your colleague is not hanging on to you) for security, thereby limiting your ability to meet new people. You must remember that you are attending this function with the goal of meeting someone new. If you do attend with colleagues or know people at the event, be sure to introduce the people you know to people they don’t know. The “favor’ will be returned, and you could meet a friend of one of your old colleagues, while catching up with your colleagues.
If you are hesitant to start talking with someone whom you have never met, keep in mind that many go to functions to meet new people. It is common for people to strike up a conversation with the person standing next to them at the buffet or in line for drinks. If the event is seated, I recommend you not sit down until you must, and then once you arrive at the table, introduce yourself with your hand outstretched and meet everyone at the table. You will have ample opportunity to speak with several people at the table.
Now that you have met a new person, what do you say? How do you know this is a person you want to meet? Fortunately, people love to talk, and they particularly love to talk about themselves. A few open-ended questions inquiring about the person or their reason for being there will provide you with plenty of information. Having the common bond of being a parent is a great connector – quite possible the best. Parents can talk about their children forever! As enjoyable as talking about children is, I do recommend that you try to diversify the conversation and include some discussion about your professional lives.
Don’t be too quick to judge whether a new acquaintance will be an asset for your network. I don’t think any one factor or even a combination of factors can serve as an acid test for determining whether this person will benefit your career or otherwise contribute to your goals. Even someone who is your level in a firm – or even unemployed – can be a useful person to know. The D.C. legal market is close-knit, and they will know someone you need to meet.
When meeting someone, be careful to ask sincere questions and, above all else, listen to the answer they provide as though they are the only person in the room. Glancing around the room to see whom else you may want to speak with is exceedingly disrespectful. Remember, one in the hand is worth two in the bush. If you enjoy the conversation with this person, if they seem like a person to whom you can relate, at least on a professional level, ask for their card, and give them yours. Offer to follow up to provide information you were not able to provide during this initial meeting, such as the name of a great vacation destination or hotel. But don’t be disingenuous about it; if they are not interested in talking with you or in having you follow up with them, don’t force the issue. If you are in a meet and greet situation, rather than seated at a table, and the conversation is not going well or you otherwise feel (and I do mean “feel” – listen to your intuition), shake their hand, tell them you enjoyed meeting them, and leave them alone. If they do give you their card (you may have to ask for it), when your conversation is over, make a note on the card indicating where you met this person and anything else you learned about this person that you could remember.
Of course, you can meet more than one person per function, but by setting one person as your goal, you are not going to overextend yourself. Meeting one person and following up with that one person is a goal that is achievable. If you meet two or three people, that is great. But if you said you would follow up with them, make sure you honor your word.
Collecting business cards is just the beginning of networking. You must put the business card to use, immediately. If your conversation with someone did strike common ground, such that you need to follow up with her to provide additional information, you must do it by the next day. If you met her at a breakfast function, follow up by the end of that day. If there is no particular reason to follow up, send her a brief letter relating that you enjoyed meeting her, reference something that was said during your conversation, and conclude by noting that you look forward to speaking with her again.
This one contact after your initial meeting is just the first step in following up. In the gardening metaphor, you have now planted the seeds. Now you must water, fertilize, weed, and even spray before you may reap what you have sown. Attempting to reap too soon will only produce nascent seeds that may never sprout.
In their zeal to obtain clients, attorneys often try to immediately reap what they have sown. Unless you are an attorney with particular skills and a national reputation, one encounter, let alone one phone call, will normally be insufficient to sway anyone to turn legal work over to you. Moreover, asking for business too soon after meeting someone can be off-putting and may damage, delay, or even completely spoil the opportunity for business. The prospective client must become comfortable with you and your firm and develop trust and confidence in your abilities before even considering giving you business. Additionally, you may have to give the prospective client a reason to use your services. She may have been using the same attorney or firm for years, and may be very pleased with the work she has been getting.
Keep in mind that many companies have firmly-established procedures that must be followed before they can send legal work to a firm. In an effort to contain costs, many companies require that the firm be placed on an “approved list” of firms to use. Achieving the status of an approved firm can be a laborious task, even if you do have the right contacts. If, however, you do not have the right contacts at the company, your chances of being placed on the approved list are miniscule. All of these obstacles can be overcome if you are willing to put in the time and effort.