Dena Lefkowitz. Dena Lefkowitz.

Networking has been defined as “a supportive system of sharing information and services among individuals and groups having a common interest.” That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Support? Sharing? Interests in common? Why then, do so many professionals shudder at the very mention of the word? And is networking that important? Are there ways to get better at it?

To get answers to these burning questions, I turned to attorney Jennifer Lynn Robinson, CEO and founder of “Purposeful Networking,” a speaker and networking trainer who presented at a recent event hosted by Women Owned Law at Post & Schell in Philadelphia.

During the event, Robinson took us through a few ice breaker exercises where we either turned to the person next to us or divided into groups to answer a question she assigned. In our group of five, we grappled to come up with something we all had in common beyond the obvious that we were all women attending a networking event. We asked each other prompting questions about everything from art to astrology looking for areas of commonality and that is exactly the point. Either you will stumble on something unique about the group or learn about the other individuals. Either way, you are beginning to do what networkers do when they arrive at an event—connecting. One group figured out that they had all experienced romances in Paris, which sparked conversation among the rest of us. While our group wasn’t nearly so glamorous, we had a good time talking about our interests.

I asked Robinson about the name of her business, “Purposeful Networking” and she told me that a lot of people go to networking events, hand out a bunch of cards and think they’ve accomplished something when it’s unlikely that anything will result from that because they used the event to pitch rather than plant seeds for future nurturing. Purposeful networking requires getting strategic about where you network and with whom, and going where your target audience and resources will be.

Robinson spoke about the importance of networking for everyone, including lawyers, saying that “you make your money through the relationships you build.” Young lawyers often put off building a network because they’re busy learning the ropes of practicing law, feel awkward going to events without years of success stories to rely upon and don’t see it as a pressing need. Robinson says that is a big mistake. Like investing money, you will lose years of accruing interest and increasing depth if you don’t develop relationships early in your career. She also mentioned a phenomenon she sees particularly in large firms where attorneys align themselves with the brand of the firm rather than creating their own. If and when it’s time to make a move, you will need your own brand and network of people for inquiries, introductions and information.

She suggests making a list of 20 to 25 people who are top priority and checking in with them every four to six weeks. This can be done by forwarding an article, inviting them to an event, or simply asking how things are going, what they are working on and if you can be helpful.

I asked Robinson to share some of her best tips for getting started and maintaining a robust network:

  • Join a local bar association and one or two committees.
  • Volunteer for a board position in something you really care about, not just because you think it will look good to be associated with the group.
  • Join one or two nonindustry specific organizations.
  • When you attend a networking event:
    • Find out what you can about who is going to be there that you would like to meet and send an email ahead of time expressing your interest in saying hello at the event. This includes the speaker.
    • Think ahead about topics you can talk about when you get there such as a trending news item. Robinson refers to “conversational currency,” defined as “social and textual knowledge likely to be shared by many members of a culture which offers common ground.” You are looking for that common ground, so think about who will be there and what their interests might be. One thing that everyone there has in common is the room. Just like weddings, there is a purpose that brought everyone into that room and that reason for being there can provide fertile topics for conversation.
    • If it’s your first time attending an event with an organization or networking group, let someone know at the registration table and ask for introductions.
    • Don’t talk only to people you already know. That’s a comfort zone that many sink into at networking events.
    • Find other questions to break the ice besides “what do you do?” Instead try something open-ended like “how has your day been?”
    • When you see that groups have already formed, don’t interrupt if it it’s two people because it’s more likely to be personal. More than two, feel free to jump in. But say something immediately so it doesn’t get awkward as you stand on the fringe of a conversation waiting for an opening. Introduce yourself and ask if you may join them. I sometimes say “room for one more?”
    • If you are part of a group, form a semi-circle instead of a closed circle so people will feel more comfortable approaching. Be mindful to pivot out so you appear open rather than closed.
    • Find a spot where there are no groups like the line for food. There you have a captive audience and it’s easy and natural to strike up a conversation.
    • Do more listening than talking. When you allow the other person to speak as much as they’d like, they walk away thinking you’re a great conversationalist and you’ve collected information that will be useful in follow-up conversations.
    • Ask for business cards when a natural trigger occurs. Perhaps they mentioned something of interest and you can say “I’d love to follow up with you on that—do you have a card?”
    • If the other person doesn’t have a card, get their information so you can follow up. Don’t give them your card expecting them to follow up with you.
    • Spend only about five minutes with each person at an event and then excuse yourself by saying something like “It’s been great talking to you and I’d love to talk more, but since we’re both here to network, I’ll follow up with you in the next few days.” If you are having trouble extricating yourself, you may have to invent a reason, such as getting a drink or the restroom. In that event, walk toward the place you just mentioned rather than starting a new conversation with someone else.
    • Follow up within 24 to 72 hours and be as specific as possible, e.g., “I enjoyed talking with you about skydiving. Perhaps we can continue the conversation over coffee?”

Follow-up is the area where a majority of networking fails. We go to an event, have some good conversations, get cards, give cards, go home and get busy with our work and lives. To build a network of resources, prospects, referrers, etc., it takes consistent effort. Robinson likens marketing to exercise. It has to become a habit because otherwise you’ll drop it when you’re busy and will not make significant gains. As entrepreneurs know, you must market during busy times in order to keep having them.

Networking is also a mindset that begins with aiming to be helpful and thinking about what you can offer others. When you think about giving rather than taking, networking becomes a lot more meaningful and satisfying.

Dena Lefkowitz is a certified professional coach who helps clients improve networking and marketing skills, make successful career transitions, and develop the skills necessary to lead. Having practiced law for 25 years in private practice and in-house, she understands the challenges new and seasoned lawyers face. Lefkowitz has successfully coached a best-selling author, lawyers, accountants and chief executives. Firms have also hired Lefkowitz to work directly with lawyers at all phases of their careers to improve performance and increase their contributions to the firm. For more information, visit www.achievementbydesign.com.