This post is part of the MyShingle Solos summer series which will run between June 17 and July 3, 2014.
This post is written by
MyShingle Guest Blogger Dwayne Allen Thomas
True story: I’ve gotten a fair number of dates at professional networking meetings. I’ve told this story a few times, so I know what you’re thinking: “But, wait, aren’t you supposed to be networking at a networking meeting?” The answer, of course, is “yes,” but at the time I didn’t understand what I was supposed to be doing or how it was supposed to help me. There’s always at least one other malcontent in the room, and shared confusion concerning your purpose for being somewhere is an easy topic to bond over. Ironically, that same sense of purpose that many of us lack is an essential part of effective networking.
To “network” is “to cultivate people who can be helpful to one professionally, especially in finding employment or moving to a higher position.” Personally, I prefer a slightly altered definition, especially for solo attorneys: “make friends.” While we can’t be friends with everyone , I like the “make friends” approach because I think it’s easier – especially since people can spot both fake smiles and fake laughter. This was the approach I unknowingly used to get dates at networking meetings, and eventually this was the same approach that helped me to build relationships with people who have been more helpful to the beginning of my career than I could possibly have imagined. Here’s a quick rundown of what I did:
- Be The Person Who Runs the Event: In law school, I took on what was essentially the major events coordinator position in one of the student organizations. My ultimate goal – fill the seats. (If you’d like to know how I accomplished this, feel free to contact me. I’ll be happy to fill you in.) When the events were over, I noticed a curious side effect: the people who were in the best position to help me sought me out, gave me their business cards, and told me to contact them. Among them: two highly placed individuals who advised on where I can meet people who might later become clients, once I told them I was starting my own practice.
What happened here? I hadn’t realized it at the time, but I didn’t just put on event – I showed a room full of people what I was able to do. I showed potential, and that I was able to put in a fair amount of work to get things done. Because of this, my guests let me know that I could contact them for advice in the future – a much better situation than having to go around trying to impress people in 30 seconds instead.
- If There’s an Opportunity to Ask Questions, Raise Your Hand: This one I just figured out in the last few months. If you find yourself at a panel discussion, listen carefully to what people are saying. Stop. Think. When the time comes for questions, raise your hand and ask something intelligent. If you’re not sure what qualifies as “intelligent,” then attend a few panel discussions and just pay attention to the questions. If you do, you’ll begin to notice a pattern in the kinds of questions people typically ask. Don’t ask those questions. What you want to do is ask something well thought out and different from what other people are asking. It helps if the question is something you really want an answer to.
If this seems weird to you, consider the situation: You’re in a room full of people and everyone is listening to you because you have the microphone in your hand. If what you have to say resonates with the room, it makes it that much easier for you because people in the room now know you as “that person who asked the intelligent question.” When the event is over and you start talking to people, they may start with “you know, that was a really good question,” allowing you to explain the basis of your question and create a comfortable conversation about something both of you are interested in, which in turn gives you another opportunity to make a friend.
- Call Your New Contacts, Set Up Meetings With Them, Ask More Questions: The year before I took the event planning position I mentioned earlier, I was at the same event I would later plan. While there, I met a judge who later told me that only two students asked for her card. Even worse, we were the only two who called her out of all the students at the event. Did I mention that she was a judge?
What happened here? It’s simple: when you’re the person looking for help, you have to make the calls. The more senior person generally has no reason to call you, at least not when you first meet. Therefore, you have to be the person to initiate potential relationships. And forget the pitch – just be honest. The reason you asked for a meeting was (to learn something, on someone else’s advice, etc.) and you’re someone who’s interested in achieving (insert your goal here) and you’d like some information regarding (your goal, a different topic, etc.). At the end, you ask if there’s anyone else whom the person you’re talking to might recommend that you speak to. If you’re lucky, they’ll give you names before you even ask. If you’re really lucky, they’ll put you in touch with people in a position to hire you.
You may recognize this as an “informational interview.” But it’s also a great way to get to know people, to get a look inside a company, and to determine if this is the kind of organization you want to work for (or with, for solos). In my own life, one such meeting led to conversations with two judges, the head of a city agency and the head of a major non-profit. So, perhaps I’m biased, but if the judge who said that only two people asked for her card is any guide, this is clearly an underutilized option available to all of us.
No matter what techniques you ultimately use to build your network, always try to keep in mind that your purpose to make friends (or at least build relationships) with people who might be in a position to help you. This means that you have to do the work of keeping in contact with them. You don’t have to call or write every day, but you have to stay in contact, let people know what you’re up to, and keep the relationship alive. Otherwise, your network becomes just a bunch of business cards of people you’ve met at some thing once.
By the way, I don’t pick up women at networking meetings any more. My girlfriend would kill me.
Dwayne Allen Thomas is an attorney admitted to practice in New York and New Jersey operating out of Queens, NY. While at Brooklyn Law School, Dwayne served as the Editor-in-Chief of The BLS Advocate, the Career Development Chair of the Black Law Students Association, and the elected Student Commencement Speaker. Dwayne recently opened his own practice and intends to focus on Small Business, Estate Planning and Administration, and Criminal Law.