Don’t Have a Strong Professional Network? How to Start Building One From Scratch

First BrickYour present circumstances don’t determine where you can go; they merely determine where you start.” Nido Qubein

It is a well-established fact that having a strong professional network is a huge asset to any lawyer, whether you are looking for your next job or volunteer position, new clients or the perfect attorney to refer for a matter you can’t or don’t want to handle.

But if you don’t have an established network already, the notion of having to create one seemingly out of thin air can feel daunting, if not impossible.

You’re Not the Only Lawyer Who Needs to Build Your Network

I am often asked to guide lawyers who have what they consider to be a non-existent or anemic network. Requests typically come from . . .

  • Lawyers who have been out of the practice of law for a period of years, often because they have devoted that time to the care of young children. As one parent lamented, “[m]y contact list is fabulous if you consider stay-at-home moms, babysitters and plumbers to be a worthwhile professional network.” Those lawyers who have stayed in the workplace but shelved their law degrees to pursue another passion can often be in the same boat.
  • Solo and small-firm lawyers, many of whom feel so overwhelmed with the many hats they must wear to keep their practices afloat that they have neglected to build a network.
  • Lawyers looking to transition to another sector, such as in-house, government work, or private practice and don’t know many people in that arena.
  • Private practice attorneys in mid-size and large firms who are discouraged from networking to focus instead on billable work.
  • Newly minted attorneys whose contact list is filled only with friends from school.
  • Self-described “introverts” and “homebodies” and those who believe that they are not “natural” networkers.

The evidence is clear – if your network isn’t what you want it to be, you are not alone.

Foundational Principles of Network-Building

The good news is this: even if your network is non-existent, inactive or filled with the “wrong” kinds of people, starting from scratch or breathing new life into your contact list is totally doable.

Start with the following principles:

You Can Do This. There are many reasons lawyers actively avoid networking. But networking is a skill that can be learned, and if others can do it so can you, regardless of your personality, background or interests. Believe in yourself.

There’s No Time Like the Present. There’s no expiration date on building a network, so just get started. The time is going to go by anyway, so make sure that three months from now, your network is a bigger and stronger than it is today.

The Secret Ingredient for a Robust Network is Generosity. If you lead with the notion that you’re out there to grow your network so you can get something from people, you’re efforts will not be as successful as if you lead with generosity. You may be surprised to find out how much you have to offer others, even it’s just a kind ear. And there’s no doubt that you will get something in return.

First Steps to Building Your Network

Start with Those You Know (or Knew). Practice jump-starting or revitalizing your networking efforts by starting with people you know, even if they are inside your own organization. Just call to say hello, send a personalized LinkedIn invitation or suggest a cup of coffee. You don’t need a “real” reason. It’s enough to say “I was thinking about you, so I thought I’d call and find out how you’re doing and what you’re up to these days.”

Look for Excuses to Connect. Although you certainly don’t need a reason to connect, it’s often easier if you have one. The possibilities are endless and limited only by your creativity. Is it someone’s birthday? Did you just run into a friend you have in common? Are you going to be traveling to a city where an old friend lives? Perhaps you just read an article written by a former colleague. If so, call with congratulations.

Tackle Your Fears by Preparing in Advance. Are you uncomfortable when making phone calls? Create a loose script or “cheat sheet” you can use to build confidence. Not a big fan of networking events? Read books and articles that offer tips and hints about gracefully and professionally handling those situations. Sometimes, “done” is better than “perfect” – don’t give yourself excuses to procrastinate.

Set Quantifiable Goals and Make a Schedule. For example, set a target of reconnecting with three people each week, having lunch with a prospective client or referral source twice a month, or going to a trade industry event at least once each quarter. Put network-building on your calendar on a weekly basis – imagine how quickly your network will grow when you devote even just one hour each week to connecting with others.

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