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The network effect

When building a professional network, remember that deep bonds are better than shallow ties.

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Learning to network well is one of the most important things a new lawyer can do. It helps build long-term relationships, open doors and jumpstart a law career. 

The best networkers are given more business opportunities and advance more quickly. So, even in law school, students are encouraged to attend legal events, cocktail parties, and use online networking sites. Unfortunately, many find it awkward, uncomfortable and even self-serving. But it doesn’t have to be that way. 

Everyone has their style, preferences and approach to networking. The important thing is to make an effort and discover what works and what’s most comfortable. It’s not something that comes naturally for many, but “people need to do it whether they enjoy it or not,” says Gary Kalaci, CEO of Alexa Translations in Toronto. 

One of the best ways to become a great networker is to be genuine. Many people think networking merely means going to events, handing out business cards and talking about themselves. But that approach can make them seem obnoxious, says Kalaci.  

“The first thing you’re telling me is all your achievements. You haven’t built that trust with me. Let me like you as a person first, show me you’re interesting, show me that I can have a chat with you and not be bored in the first 30 seconds.”

Kalaci advises lawyers to focus less on talking about themselves and more on showing a genuine interest in others. “Care about people, ask them about them versus what they can do for you,” he says. 

The end goal when meeting someone new is to build a relationship. No one is going to give work to someone they just met—it takes time to build relationships. A referral may come down the road, but it’s important to create a friendship first, says Kalaci. “People like to deal with people that they like and people that they trust.”

Kalaci is a big believer in helping others network and often hosts events for a variety of people he thinks will benefit from meeting each other. “Often, the people you help along the way become contacts that eventually will land you in places that may be able to help you in the future.” 

Establish a deeper connection 

One of the best ways to network is to join an association and work on a project with others in support of a common purpose, says Julia Shin Doi, General Counsel and Secretary of the Board of Governors and University Privacy Officer of Ryerson University in Toronto. “Shared experiences are important to establish a deeper connection.” 

During her six years as a Canadian Corporate Counsel Association section executive, Shin Doi befriended many people who eventually became friends and colleagues. “We still help each other in our careers; we’re sounding boards to each other. Once you establish that connection, you don’t have to see each other as much, but you’re still connected because of those experiences.”

Shin Doi advises lawyers to be completely present when speaking to others and focus on common interests. “Take a genuine interest in the person, be curious and be kind, compliment, encourage, support, tell stories, make sure you smile, keep eye contact and acknowledge the other person.” 

Cold calling or getting an introduction to someone who might become a future mentor can be challenging. But Shin Doi advises reaching out for a meeting or even a quick phone call. One-on-one lunches can be exhausting, especially for an introvert, so inviting a third or fourth person will allow more options for conversation. Another idea is to send someone a note ahead of time that you’ll be attending an upcoming event the person is speaking at, which makes an introduction easier. 

It’s challenging at the start of a law career to know whom to connect with, says Fernando Garcia, Vice-President, Legal and General Counsel at Cargojet in Mississauga, Ont. Find people to talk to about important issues, and who can help with advice. “Even if you don’t have a big network, you have people you met in law school, in your industry, in your community.” 

Interact with people at a variety of events, including volunteer causes, community organizations, school reunions and educational seminars. Go to these events regularly and focus on meeting even one or two new people at each.

Garcia joined the Canadian Hispanic Bar Association and met like-minded people from the same background who shared similar obstacles. “It’s incredible once you open up how close, how small-knit the whole community is and how willing people are to help.”

Create a bond

Law firms, which are notorious for holding regular events, are a great place to meet people. But it’s not necessary to talk to everybody in the room, says Garcia. “Get to know two, three, four people. Get their card, connect with them on LinkedIn, meet up with them, talk to them, pick up the phone and say how are you doing?” If you see an article about someone’s industry, share it with them. “Little things like that create a bond between the networks that are so critical in terms of what we do on a day-to-day basis.” 

Since networking involves more than making face-to-face connections, writing for a magazine or newspaper is an excellent way to connect to others and start a conversation, says Garcia. He has had people approach him at events to say they read an article he wrote. “They’re breaking the ice for you.”

Online networking is also essential. LinkedIn is critical for creating an online business profile, but Twitter can also be a good option. Use it to share an article online and give insights to reach and interact with a community of people. 

Kalaci recommends networking consistently to see results over time. “I see a couple of mistakes lawyers make all the time, which is they go to one, two, three events and they say no one called, I don’t think the events thing is worth it.” But, as he puts it, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You do this over years before you start seeing results.”