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Market-Proof Your Practice: a Re-definition of Networking

by Juan Sosa |

What does the term “networking” mean to you?  I don’t ask the question rhetorically.  You should seriously contemplate your understanding of the topic.  Search the internet.  Talk to friends and colleagues about it.  How you define the term will ultimately define your career path.  If you shudder at the thought of it, take solace in the fact that you’re not alone, but don’t use that as an excuse not to master the skill.  The benefits far outweigh the difficulty of the task.  Many legal professionals are not networking properly.  And, in today’s legal market, the only people that aren’t expendable are the small percentage that have networked their way into a position of power. 

I know this is not news, but the legal job market is currently imploding in slow-motion.  The market is unsustainably over-supplied.  The big firm business model is built on attrition, which regularly leaves senior level associates out in the cold.  Less than fifty percent of law school graduates are able to secure jobs that require a law degree.  There are more solo practitioners than ever before.  The elevated competition has only increased the failure rate of those who go that route.  The competition is so fierce that anyone can be replaced, regardless of experience level.  The sad reality of the current legal market is that people with years of sophisticated work experience who were on Harvard Law Review are currently unemployed.  No lawyer is irreplaceable simply because of his substantive expertise.

Most of us have the misconception that the job market is based on a merit system.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  A sparkling resume is necessary, but not sufficient.  Even the phrase “job market” is misleading.  It makes it sound like jobs are just sitting on shelves.  It implies that a person can take a stroll down the “six figure” aisle, put a job in their push-cart, and pay the cashier with their hard-earned resume on the way out.  A more accurate description would be a “black market” where only people with connections are told about the job supply.  A recent business publication cites an informal study showing that seventy percent of all professional level jobs are filled after a personal recommendation from a decision maker, but only five percent of people credit their personal network for their career gains.  Again, a sparkling resume is necessary, but not sufficient.

Landing a legal job and building a book of business share an essential and foundational skill: the ability to network.  This typically conjures up visions of luncheons, glad-handing, and name tags.  This is categorically NOT networking.  Sure, it presents an opportunity for you to meet new people, and you should go to these events. But don’t confuse your luncheon attending efforts for activity that will net you real “connections” that will help land a job or new client.  Converting those acquaintances to real connections is where the networking comes in.

Networking is the act of establishing rapport, favor and an enthusiasm for your plight within another individual who is in the position to assist with your endeavor.  Establishing rapport with someone requires that you show a sincere appreciation for their skills and values in such a way that the appreciation will be reciprocated.  Currying favor typically requires you to identify and focus on shared experiences in order to trigger a naturally occurring empathetic reaction in the other individual.  Infusing enthusiasm for your plight requires the ability to articulate your personal narrative and the very specific goal that you are trying to achieve in a way that is inspiring and motivating to others.  The ultimate goal is for you to be in the top of mind position when your new found connection is in a position to make an employment or business referral recommendation.  The synergy between your story and the recommendation should create an undeniable impulse to say your name.  This is not an easy task, and it is not scientific in nature.  It will require the ability to go from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.  However, it is not a “numbers game” and shouldn’t be treated like one. 

The first step is to sell yourself on selling yourself.  This feels awkward and unnatural at first.  You may need a physical mirror and you will certainly need the metaphorical mirror of introspection.  The key to this is finding the inner-goals that you sincerely believe in and turning those goals into your unique selling proposition (USP).  For a law student, this could be something as simple as finding a job in a difficult economy because you really have a passion for a particular practice area.  For a family law attorney, this could be a desire to give marriage counselors a truly empathetic referral outlet due to a tumultuous past personal experience.  The list could go on and your new USP doesn’t require some “big idea,” just a little honest self-examination.  The process is: 1) identifying inner-goals that you’re comfortable sharing your passion about; 2) finding where those goals intersect with your career goals; and 3) developing your narrative into a sincere sales pitch so that you’re ready to fire it off at any time.

The second step is to identify individuals that hold a high enough position to make executive decisions.  The most common networking mistake is aiming too low.  Aim for the managing partner.  Aim for the CEO.  Aim for the board members.  Don’t be dissuaded just because you don’t see an obvious connection or because there’s an age or social gap.  The fact that the CEO is just a helpful person and that you’re the first younger person to reach out may be enough of a spark to start a meaningful relationship.  It may be a good idea to start low just to build your confidence.  But don’t stay there for long.  The truth is that very few people are able to overcome the social stigmas of income, age, and status inequality long enough to carry on a meaningful conversation with powerful people.  If you can do it, you’ll stand out in a big way.  This means you’ll have to develop each of the following: your professionalism; your intestinal fortitude; your ability to coax an unobvious common trait out of someone who is of a different social status than you; your ability to tolerate awkward silence in a conversation; and your ability to generally socialize.  These are traits that any attorney worth a salary should have.  They cultivate rapport and likeability, which are just important as your legal skills.

The final step is to learn how to ask for the business.  Fellow attorneys are the number one source of referral business.  Style is not so much as important as actually asking for what you want.  Whether you blurt it out, ask politely, or require the comfort of a power point slide to pop the question, it doesn’t really matter.  All that really matters is that you make your connection aware of your need once you’ve established rapport with them.  Attorneys derive great gratification out of helping fellow attorneys.  Take advantage of that.

While the market may be grim, there are plenty of jobs and business out there for people with the right networking skills.  You just have to find the right connections, make the right connections, and ask for the business.  The current legal economy requires attorneys to not only be lawyers but to also be entrepreneurs, which makes the cultivation of your interpersonal skills absolutely essential.  I wish you the best of luck and if you’d like a little help, just ask me (or anyone else) to lunch.

Juan Sosa is a small business owner in addition to being a rising 2L at North Carolina Central University School of Law.  He joined Lawyers Mutual as a Summer Associate for the summer of 2013 in conjunction with the North Carolina Bar Association’s Minorities in the Profession program.  As a current student of the law, business owner, and singer-songwriter, Juan brings a fresh perspective on the challenges facing law firms and new attorneys in today’s shifting legal climate.  Connect with Juan on LinkedIn.

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