6 Ways to Activate Your Professional Network

By Paula Edgar, Esq. and Yitzy Nissenbaum, Esq.

The legal marketplace is not the same as it once was, and it is now more important than ever to take the right steps to enhance one’s career and to build and maintain a strong network. No matter what stage a person is in with respect to their career, there are steps that one can take to enhance their professional network. If someone is just starting out, it is important to build a network to get that first job. A person looking to change jobs will need to establish a network to learn and stay informed about opportunities. Someone looking to start a firm, or looking to expand a firm’s business, needs to develop a network to attract clients. Overall, everyone needs a foundational network to foster their professional development and grow their career.

The key to building a successful network is to “activate your network.” Activating your network means utilizing the traditional method of going out and meeting people, as well as utilizing new forms of networking, including social media. The six principal ways to activate your network are: (1) networking, e.g. attending events, which means interacting and engaging people at the events, (2) following up, (3) asking for informational interviews, (4) volunteering, (5) using pre-existing contacts, and (6) social media engagement.

1. Networking
The first step toward building a foundational network is meeting people, however, just meeting people without a plan is insufficient. All too often lawyers “network” by going to events, handing out business cards, and never see or speak again after the event, and this is fruitless. Networking isn’t simply about meeting people, it is about building relationships.

One critical way to meet new people is by attending professional events (ex. NYCLA events). This is not the only method – in fact, sometimes the best way to meet a potential professional contact may not be at a professional event, it may be at a coffee shop or at an industry event for a different profession. The essential point is that you will not develop new contacts unless you interact with new people. Everyone’s time is meaningful, so a good strategy is to target events that you believe best fit your professional goals. Going to an event each night, simply to convince yourself that you are networking is not an efficient use of your time.  Again, networking isn’t a race or a contest, it is about meeting people and developing relationships that may lead to future opportunities.

Meeting the right people means being strategic about picking events, and being prepared for the event. Obviously, if you are going to an event for estates attorneys, it will be helpful to know about the recent developments in that area of the law. Bear in mind, however, that often people socialize by looking for an outlet and want to avoid discussing work topics. Authentic networking entails gauging your crowd and evaluating what is the best way to interact. It also means being engaged and not ignoring people by being distracted or constantly looking at one’s phone. In general, try to target events where there is at least one specific person you hope to meet, with the intent of forming a potential lasting relationship from the event.

2. Following up
After an event, it is critical that you follow up with the people you met. There is sometimes hesitancy to email or contact a person you just met, although nothing will be gained unless you make the effort to connect with your new contact. This does not mean sending your resume to a person you just met, unless of course they have asked for your resume.  The best method is to email new contacts within 48 hours upon meeting them, referring to how you met and incorporating relevant details regarding what you discussed with them at the event.

It is sometimes difficult, and people often procrastinate from contacting a person after an event, but if you don’t reach out in a reasonable timeframe you may lose the opportunity to connect. Follow up is aptly described by the adage “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” The difficult question arises when a new contact is non-responsive to your inquiries. A person should certainly not give up, as the contact may have missed the email, or is very busy, so it is important to keep on trying, in a tactful manner.  If you have reached out once with no response, follow up one week later (forwarding your initial email) and hopefully you will then receive a favorable response.  If not, wait two weeks, try one more time and then if you receive no response, try to meet the person again with the hope that the next interaction will lead to a better connection.

3. Informational interviews
Another important networking tool is the use of informational interviewing. An informational interview is not a job interview, but it can be an excellent way to develop a new contact and may lead to future employment. Just because an informational interview is not a job interview does not mean you should be unprepared.  The first step is to target a person functioning in an area you are interested in. If you are looking to switch practice areas, try to find someone who has previously transitioned to a new practice area.  Once you have identified a person of interest, reach out to that person via email or LinkedIn.  Once an informational interview has been arranged, it is critical to get organized and arrive prepared. This means doing more than cursory research, it means having an understanding of who you are meeting with, and of what you hope to learn from the interview.  Post meeting, it is useful to reflect on the informational interview and use those reflections to follow up with the interviewee. Requesting informational interviews is a strategy you should employ often, using your established contacts, and for approaching new contacts.

4. Volunteering
Volunteering is another strategy to advance your career. It does not necessarily mean taking on pro bono cases, although that is one way to volunteer. Volunteering may mean taking an active role in a bar association or arranging a CLE, as these activities will raise your professional profile.  Additionally, volunteering may entail getting involved in your community’s activities, serving on a local board or leading a parent group at your child’s school.  Volunteering can also provide a path for an attorney to transition to a different practice area, since the attorney can point to volunteer work that they did in that practice area when applying for opportunities. In addition to being a great way to give back to your community, oftentimes volunteer work can count towards your CLE credit requirement.

5. Using pre-existing contacts
Frequently, your best contacts are already part of your network, such as alumni, family, friends, current colleagues, and former colleagues.  Stay involved with your schools’ alumni associations, as alumni generally have a preference for individuals from their former schools. Consider reaching out to former colleagues, as they may be better situated to advocate for you since they can vouch for your skills and capabilities. Family and friends can also serve as great resources for expanding your network. Quite commonly they have useful contacts, and reaching out to your family and friends may lead one of them to identify someone worthwhile for you to meet.

6. Social media engagement
Social media engagement is a relatively new and very effective networking medium.  Before reaching out to contacts, make sure that your profiles on social media platforms, such as LinkedIn, reflect your experience, skills, interests and accomplishments. Having a polished LinkedIn profile can be a tool for attracting a recruiter’s interest, serve as a basis for attracting clients, or attract interest for a position at a different employer.  Social media can also be a forum to blog or link to articles on topics trending in your professional area of interest. By engaging in the use of social media, a person can become regarded as a thought leader in an existing or emerging area of law, thereby marketing their professional brand. This can lead to more business, employment, or as a tool for transitioning to another area of law.

These strategies may seem overwhelming to put into place all at one time, so don’t try to accomplish everything at once.  It is important to make networking a part of your career strategy and to take steps towards constantly increasing and engaging your professional network. To learn more about the art of networking, make sure to attend our upcoming networking strategies workshop on May 20, 2015 at NYCLA. Learn more at NYCLA.org.

Paula Edgar, Esq., is a career coach, speaker and bar association leader.  Sign up for her mailing list at www.paulaedgar.com,  Tweet her @paulaedgar or reach out to her on Linkedin (refer to this article in your connection request) at www.linkedin.com/in/paulaedgar.

Yitzy Nissenbaum, Esq.,  is currently a practicing attorney in NY. He was formerly Of Counsel with Kirkland & Ellis and an Associate with Kenyon & Kenyon. He is an active member in various NYCLA Committees, including the Federal Courts Committee and the Cyberspace Law Committee. He is also currently serving as a Chair of NYCLA’s newly formed Lawyers in Transition Committee.