What lawyers can gain from reaching out
The opportunity to connect and build relationships with others can deliver real value and personal support, advises Helen Hamilton-Shaw
Networking … a great way to forge beneficial relationships and build business or a necessary evil, dragging you away from your real work? Whatever side of the coin you fall on, most people would agree that networking is a fact of business life. Harvard Business Review cites a mountain of research showing that successful networks lead to more “business opportunities, broader and deeper knowledge, improved capacity to innovate, faster advancement and greater status and authority”. All compelling reasons to take it seriously.
But for a time-poor law firm leader, grappling with the competing pressures of finance, clients and employees, it’s vital you’re getting value from the networks you join. And true value derives from a two-way engagement. You need a network that delivers the infrastructure to match your aspirations, but you must bring the investment of time and commitment to build trust with other members.
Where to network?
It’s my job to deliver on networking infrastructure for our members, and as part of that we regularly canvass opinion to see how we’re meeting needs and where we need to innovate. In some informal research conducted recently with managing partners across our network, we asked what networks people were involved with, both inside and outside the legal sector.
Within the legal sector, these included national legal networks, European and international legal networks and discipline-specific or business support organisations. Some also mentioned legal sector specific user groups – these are often IT based but also organised by suppliers of a variety of services to law firms.
Outside the sector, most networking tended to be geographically based, tapping into local business groups, including local Institute of Directors and Chambers of Commerce.
People also spoke about the networking opportunities they get from attending various conferences and events, both in and out of the sector.
Alongside face-to-face networking, the rise of social networks has created a raft of new opportunities. The managing partners we spoke to were using these to varying degrees; mostly to support their offline networking efforts. LinkedIn and Twitter can be a good way to try and connect with someone new or reconnect with previous contacts. Following someone or their business can give you an insight into what they are focused on and things that are important to them, all of which create those opportunities to get in touch.
Benefits of networking
When we asked the managing partners what they value most about the networking activities they participate in, certain benefits kept coming up.
Firstly, as a great source of information. Depending on the network, this might be about the profession as a whole, a specific sector, or local market. For Steven Treharne of Mogers Drewett in Bath, it’s one of the main benefits:
“I see networking as one of the most important parts of my role. It helps me keep my finger on the pulse of trends and changes in our market. By knowing more about what other firms are doing both locally and nationally I can better understand our position in the market place. Local networks give me a great insight into what’s happening on our patch and help us build relationships with the local movers and shakers.”
Some networks are set up specifically to facilitate referral of work between members. For others, it can be more incidental. But in either case, it’s important to understand that it takes time for any cross-referral activity to deliver results. Simon Gittings of Stamp Jackson and Procter in Hull, who are active members of Eurojuris, the European-wide network of law firms, agrees:
“If you are going to see real benefits from being involved in Eurojuris, you need to stick at it. It’s not realistic to expect you will achieve anything worthwhile by turning up to one or two events. I have seen so many lawyers over the past 12 years who came once or twice, and never again, but you need to build up personal relationships over a period of years to create the necessary degree of mutual trust and confidence.”
Another benefit many derive is to see things through a new prism. As Mark Twain once said: “There is no such thing as a new idea … We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations.”
It's this kaleidoscopic effect that delivers one of the biggest benefits of regular networking : idea generation. Attending networking events exposes you to things that other people have done, which in turn can spark great ideas for your firm after you’ve given them a twirl in your own mental kaleidoscope. So be curious about what other people are doing, or how they are approaching a particular problem, and you may find a catalyst for creative solutions of your own. As Derek Rodgers, managing partner at Gardner Leader based in Newbury explains: “Many of the things which have contributed to our growth in recent years have started from a conversation with someone at a networking event”.
This is a view echoed by Gittings, who asserts: “The more we talk and the more we listen, the more we learn and the more ideas we generate.”
Rewarding legal networks
Accepting the benefits, it can be hard to decide where to invest time and energy when it comes to legal sector networking, when there are so many opportunities.
For Ed O’Rourke at Ashtons Legal it largely comes down to who the other members are: “In my view the best networks are those that bring similar businesses and challenges together. Whilst we can learn from businesses that are both much larger and much smaller than us, the reality is that their businesses are often vastly different to ours and the means by which they overcome their challenges are remote to us.”
Whilst for Steven Treharne, a legal network needs to focus on the value it’s ultimately providing for members: “A mutually beneficial two-way exchange of information, ideas, knowledge and help is the foundation of a good micro-network, but that same principle applies when the network becomes larger. If it is not beneficial to both parties, even allowing that the benefit may not be simultaneous, then ultimately it will fail.”
How that “mutually beneficial exchange” may play out in practice is likely to depend on the nature of the network and whether it’s an open or competing environment. So, whilst the group buying, CPD and professional indemnity are most often cited as the primary reason to join LawNet, it’s the opportunity for informal peer-to-peer knowledge sharing and learning in a non-competing environment that is consistently rated as one of the most valuable components of membership, once firms get involved.
As Derek Rodgers of Gardner Leader says, “The biggest benefit for me is the opportunity to meet and exchange views with managing partners and others from the firms in our network. At every event there is always open and constructive discussion and people who are willing to share ideas and views on things that have worked or not worked. This provides a great source of thought leadership.”
For others, it’s more about the support they get from being able to talk to their peers in a safe environment. As Paul Bury, The Endeavour Partnership says: “It’s really good to share our experiences with other people and realise that the experiences that we have are not unique.”
That reassurance is echoed by Cat Maclean of Edinburgh-based MBM Commercial, who says: “Within LawNet members, there’s a real openness and we share greatly, much more so than other firms do with each other. There’s massive value to that. I attend many partner discussion suppers and the topics are always things that we are grappling with.”
Taken together, the benefits and opportunities add up to make a compelling case for strategic networking, particularly that sense of strength in numbers.
When faced with the barrage of changes and competing pressures, being managing partner can be a lonely role to hold. The opportunity to connect and build relationships with others in a similar position can deliver real value and personal support.
Making the most of your networks
Choose your networks carefully – if you’re going to invest your time in a network you want to make sure it’s the right one for you. Don’t spread yourself too thinly. Look carefully at the type of activities they’re involved in and the benefits on offer. Is it aligned to your focus or strategy?
Schedule it in – Plan your networking time. Make it something concrete that you will commit to and get it in the diary.
Build trust – Essentially networking is about building trust between you and others in the network. It means you have to give the time to get to know people, understand how the network works and build relationships in order to get value.
Get involved – the main principle of networking is that you get out what you put in. A great way to get value out of your networks faster is to put yourself out there and really get involved. Most networks will rely on input from their members for some elements – whether that be ideas for events, collaborative projects or something else. Volunteer to join committees or sub-groups – you’ll meet more people and deepen your relationships faster. Being on the inside of a network can also generate more opportunities for you and your firm.
Make it personal
Lots of the managing partners we spoke to had created their own individual networks of trusted partners in other firms, sector consultants and others. These are people they have met through more organised networking groups and have formed closed relationships, going on to meet them regularly outside of the original group.
Expand your outlook
Some of the most valuable learning can come from interactions you have with people out of your immediate sector so don’t restrict yourself to legal networks. There is much to be learned from other professions and businesses if you are open to thinking about things differently.
Give don’t take
Some of the most successful networkers have a mind-set that is focused on what they can offer the group, rather than what they get out of it. These “super networkers” often become the go-to person, with the raised profile and standing that comes along with that.
So, if you’re not a natural networker, it may feel more authentic and less uncomfortable if you look for ways to support and encourage others, rather than how to make a direct pitch.
Why not start your own networking events? This can give you more control over the agenda, attendees and focus of the event. It’s also a great way to give back to your community and build a great reputation for yourself and your business.
Don’t expect immediate results – this is an investment of your time. But if you’re prepared to put in the effort to build relationships and give back to your network you will reap the rewards down the line.
This article was originally published in Solicitors Journal on the 10th January 2017 and can be viewed here.