Networking can be a daunting prospect for junior lawyers, at a time in their career when simply getting to grips with the technicalities of the job itself can feel like enough of an effort.
The word ‘networking’ can conjure visions of a room full of important people who know each other and who have no interest in talking to anyone who does not have any influence. At a stage when there is no box on your appraisal form for bringing in business, many junior lawyers park ‘networking’ or ‘business development’ as something that can be left for when they are more senior.
The problem with this approach is that it is very easy to miss the boat. Time flies, and by the time you are a mid-level associate, you are expected to have a strong network of clients and contacts to make out your business case. Meanwhile, the peers that you started out alongside, both within the legal profession and in business, will have climbed the corporate ladder and it is difficult to get back in touch with the decision makers.
Networking is a skill that goes beyond simply socialising, and can often feel like much harder work. I was fortunate enough to have been encouraged by my firm to start networking early and found that like any skill, practise and time make it easier. It is also self-perpetuating – the more people you know, the easier it becomes to expand your network.
Many lawyers also miss the point that networking is not solely about meeting people who could be a source of work, but about opportunities to develop your career. Discussing your practice and your career ambitions with a diverse group of professionals could lead to a job opportunity, a mentoring relationship or simply the chance to see how other lawyers do things differently to you or your organisation.
Below are a few tips for how to take the first steps and get the most benefit out of networking:
1. Join a professional organisation. These not only provide networking opportunities but also the chance to represent the interests of the profession and keep up to speed with developments in your speciality. Many professional organisations now also have junior divisions with events pitched to those under partnership or a certain level of post-qualification experience (PQE). Early involvement can be a first step to sitting on the committee/management of the association, which is a great way to work closely with your peers and superiors at other firms and show them what you are capable of.
I was fortunate enough to get involved in the JLSLA – the junior branch of the London Solicitors Litigation Association – early on in my career, which eventually led to me joining the JLSLA committee. This has been an invaluable opportunity to build a network of inspiring, motivated litigators, be involved in organising innovative and unusual events for junior lawyers and also to participate in discussions about the future of litigation and the legal profession.
2. Don’t assume that because you are junior, people think you do not have anything to contribute. A seniority gap of a few years’ PQE can feel like a big gulf when you are an NQ, but in 20 years’ time in the middle of a long career, that gap will fade away. Good leaders also take time to meet more junior people, and clients often appreciate the fresh perspective of more junior people. If, unfortunately, you do encounter negative attitudes, challenge them – the legal profession is increasingly embracing disruption.
3. Never turn down an opportunity to connect with someone. You do not know what twists your career might throw at you and where opportunities lie. This does not mean being out every night of the week, but just communicating on a regular basis – over email, coffee, or a common interest. If you are not a naturally sociable person, try and find a medium through which you feel comfortable connecting with people. Again, joining a professional organisation is a good way to find events tailored to your interests – whether that be specific to your specialism or a hobby you are passionate about – people who don’t just talk business are far more interesting.
4. Be organised. Keep a record of who you meet, what you discuss and follow up with them afterwards. If you are going to invest time in meeting people, it is important the people you meet feel invested in. Having a record also makes it easier to get recognition for your efforts internally, by showing your attendance at an event or membership of an organisation is paying dividends for the firm.
5. Enjoy it. On paper, the above tips can sound cynical and calculated, but in practice networking should not be a chore if you focus on people who are good company. Inevitably it is worth staying in touch with influential people, but it is impossible to build a longstanding and productive relationship without any rapport.
Elaina Bailes is a senior associate in the commercial litigation department at Stewarts and a member of the Junior LSLA Committee.
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