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Is In-Person Networking the Right Approach for Every Person?

by Carolyn Elefant on May 22, 2013 · 10 comments

in Marketing & Making Money, Work Life Balance, Work/Life Balance & Women

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shutterstock_46189045I read with interest, a pair of posts by Philadelphia law blogger Jordan Rushie  and Scott Greenfield about the importance of in-person networking.  I don’t disagree with them. For better or for worse, Scott’s and Jordan’s way is how business still gets done in most of the legal profession. By starting at the low end of the totem pole in an organization, cheerfully taking on meaningless grunt work.  By sitting through boring meetings where people spend more time deciding whether a motion is required to pursue a particular action than to discuss the action itself.  By accepting as gospel the response to every suggestion, “but that’s how it’s always been done…”

Still, even though the world as described by Scott and Jordan and their adoring commenters is how things are today, I’m troubled.  Partly because I’m impatient and opinionated and don’t play well with others – and partly because as a parent, specifically a mom my time is limited. The former issue is curable (must be if Scott and Jordan and Brian Tannebaum have succeeded through personal networking – no offense, guys!) but the latter, not so much – especially for moms.

When I joined committees as a young lawyer, I found that because I’m a hard worker, I could circumvent the wall of conformity or leapfrog over several layers of bureaucracy by just taking charge of a project and completing it (since most folks never followed through – must be how it’s always been done). That worked fine, and I found myself advancing up the ranks. 

The greater problem came when my first daughter was born (after I wasn’t sure if I’d ever get pregnant.) Maybe it was hormones, but somehow, the thought of paying a nanny so that I could spend non-billable time locked in a room with a bunch of lawyers meandering through a meeting agenda was more than I could bear.  Turned out that one of the ways that motherhood changed me  is that it transformed me into an efficiency machine that could work on demand during naps or at 2 am to get the job done – and that ruthlessly and impersonally, without regret, could cut out any extraneous activity (not just committee meetings but house cleaning too!) so that I could spend time with my daughters.

The commenters at Jordan’s post (coincidentally or not, all men) commend him (deservedly so) for being a go-getter and doing it at the opening of his career when he has more time. Some of the commenters write that it won’t be as easy to free up time once he has a family.  But while I don’t doubt that these commenters are committed to their families, that’s not all there is to it. Maybe these commenters now rush to be home by 7 before their kids are in bed instead of 9, or forego golf on the weekend to take their kids to the pool. Sure, those cutbacks interfere with networking – but without someone holding down the fort at home, these cutbacks wouldn’t be nearly sufficient to get all the necessary work done.

Moreover, while any lawyer worth his or her salt recognizes that that there are times that you need to work round the clock to serve a client, the same isn’t true of networking. For that reason, it’s networking and non-billable activities often suffer after children are born – both because they’re discretionary but also because they may require an out of pocket expense for childcare or babysitting that are harder to justify for a non-billable activity.  And when two non-billable activities butt up against each other, it’s usually the mom (but not always!) who’s responsible for arranging for the sitter – and as a result, she may decide to forego her event rather than pay for childcare.  Again – and it’s just my own observation – but it often seems that the significance accorded to in-person networking more adversely impacts moms rather than dads (and if I’m wrong on that, please let me know).

My point is this: given some of the problems with in-person networking – bias against free-wheelers and (possibly, narrowly) against women – should we keep endorsing, lauding and recommending it over and over because that’s how it’s always been done? Or are there equally sound ways to build a successful law practice even by limiting the role of in person networking? I think so – but I’d like to hear your views.

 

Lone Businesswoman photo courtesy of Shutterstock

  • http://www.rainmakervt.com Mike O’Horo

    You can absolutely build a business of any type without in-person networking. You just have to learn how to use the phone effectively, earn some editorial coverage (PR) and apply some calendar discipline to get yourself to the hygiene level, i.e., make sure that you do at least some of it every day. One of our simulations is called “Expanding Your Network From Your Desk,” which summarizes the idea succinctly.

  • shg

    Oh cool, a “virtual rainmaker consultant” responds. And he’s available to show you how for a reasonable fee!!!

  • http://www.rainmakervt.com Mike O’Horo

    shg: If I’d been trying to sell you something, I would have included a link, etc. The point I was making is that, not only can you do it, but that the process is sufficiently straightforward and simplified that it’s been automated. In the 20 years before going virtual, I trained thousands of lawyers 1:1, during which time I learned firsthand how discomfiting networking events can be for lawyers. My co-founder, a former practicing attorney, told me that he used to get physically ill at the prospect of doing this stuff. At first, I thought he was exaggerating for effect, to make his point, but he clarified that he meant it literally. Since then, whenever I’ve shared that anecdote with other lawyers, they’ve not reacted at all, considering it common knowledge, if not common experience. I can empathize with someone feeling like they have to do something that causes such anxiety, so I thought I’d reinforce Carolyn’s position that you can build a practice without face-to-face networking. I’m sorry if you interpreted my comment as self-serving. I assure you it wasn’t intended as such. I’m also well aware of, and respect, Carolyn’s absolute policy against endorsing any product or service, even by implication.

  • Jordan Rushie

    “should we keep endorsing, lauding and recommending it over and over because that’s how it’s always been done? Or are there equally sound ways to build a successful law practice even by limiting the role of in person networking?”

    In my view, it comes down to what your goals are. Did you start a practice to have more time and flexibility, or to build something that is thriving and very profitable? There is no “right” answer to that question.

    I’ve found that good clients are almost always found in person, or via a referral from someone you know in person. Is this convenient? Not really. Is it reality? Yep.

    I suppose you could, in theory, build a book of business through Craigslist or Twitter. Maybe via a blog or a snazzy website. And all that “marketing” can be done from home while you watch the kids. But I don’t think the high end clients with good cases are looking for lawyers in those places – they want someone they have met and know in person. “That lawyer who I know from the Zoning Committee” sure comes off a lot better than “As seen on the free section Craigslist!”

    In a profession that involves helping people fix their problems, there will never be a substitute for interacting with people face to face. It’s a people profession. It just is.

    And yes, you are right, that does create an unfair advantage for people who go out and network all the time in person and serve on committees, compared to parents who want to watch their children grow up. You’re right.

    But I have yet to meet one attorney with a legitimate practice say “I built this thing entirely on internet marketing, Craigslist, Twitter, and Facebook!” Not one.

    Running a successful law practice takes significant personal sacrifice, and it’s not right for everyone. Dropping the confines of a traditional 9-5 job is great, but it also comes with downsides – including that now you have to find your own business. How much business you generate is entirely up to how much time you devote to it.

    I put more hours into my work now than I did when I worked for a law firm full time.

  • carolynelefant

    Well – in person networking creates an advantage – but I didn’t say it’s unfair. It is what it is. In any event, most people’s kids eventually grow up and need less time or leave. I have so much time on my hands compared to what I used to that I almost don’t know what to do with myself.

  • shg

    Of course. It’s pure chance that your promoting exactly what you sell. Who would think otherwise?

  • http://constructionlawva.com constructionlaw

    In person networking is not for everyone. Particularly the type you discuss (namely working up through an organization). However, with my clientele (contractors), this has been the best approach.

    I don’t go for volume in my associations due to limited time with my practice and family duties (3 kids). Quality as opposed to quantity is the buzzword for my in person efforts.

    That said, I have embraced at least some of the “virtual” or “Web 2.0″ aspects of client development and marketing. These have lead to growth of my solo practice. Usually, the initial contact due to my blog or other social media leads to a personal meeting.

    In short, it depends very much on your target market.

  • Sandy

    I’m just not sold on the idea that networking with other attorneys is efficient in-person networking for building a client base. Think about it – If your attorney friends are in the same practice area, they are going to keep the good cases for themselves, If they are in a firm, they only give out what their firm can’t handle. What’s really left? I just don’t see a lot of cross referral between attorneys. (That being said, I do have a group of attorneys that I go to lunch and happy hour with – the info we exchange on judges and cases is invaluable – we just don’t exchange all that many referrals.)

    But if we are talking referrals, I have gotten a lot more business by meeting insurance agents, CPAs and financial planners than from other attorneys. I hate to say it, but I think BNI and other networking groups work if you put the time in.

  • Jordan Rushie

    It’s the same difference between people who get their degree online and people who go to a brick and mortar college. Yeah, brick and mortar isn’t realistic for everyone, especially people who have kids or a full time job. And you can probably get a very good education online and at the library.

    But there is tremendous value in going to a brick and mortar college. Not just for the education, but the people you meet and contacts you make. You don’t just leave college with a degree, but a ton of great friends, crazy stories, and professors you can bug for letters of recommendation. I met most of my closest friends in a brick and mortar school.

    Same with law in my opinion. The relationships you build online will never compare to the ones you make in person. That is why, by and large, attorneys are not building their law practices online, and I doubt they ever will.

    Like Greenfield said last week – life is a networking event.

  • Christian Denmon

    I wish we (my Wife doubles as my law partner) could “network” in person more. We have a daughter and a second on the way, and family time takes priority.

    Referrals that come from in person relationships often become our highest dollar clients. There is the ultimate trust factor the comes built-in with these clients.

    With that said, the networking I am thinking about it is social circles, not the local bar meetings. I am talking about after school events for the kids, play dates, and alumni clubs. These are still the best sources of cases, in my opinion.

    Are online options viable? Absolutely. We have built the “bulk” of our client base from permission marketing on the ‘net. Or, getting the clients, and then doing great work for them, and asking them to refer their friends and family, and come back again.

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