We ran a networking event recently in a regional centre far, far away from the capital city…we thought lawyers would be pleased to have an opportunity to meet friends and contacts and not have to travel into London to do so.

Four lawyers showed up, not so much networking, more like a blind date without the romantic subtext!

This is really interesting because we know that all lawyers value the opportunity to share ideas, to take soundings, to sense check their thinking. We also know that networking is one of the best ways to informally benchmark one’s breadth of role, responsibilities, risk management and best practices ….. even one’s salary!

And if you are a law firm associate, how else are you going to build a practice if you are not out there networking like fury.

Anyway, after the event we spoke to a few people who had said they would be attending but who had failed to make it on the night…The feedback was illuminating. Two people said they had been called into meetings; one said that he Didn’t think he would get much from it and there was a decent football match on the TV; three people thought the idea of networking, on reflection, was a bit old hat; another three said that they had forgotten it was on!

Hey ho.

Although, to an extent, I can see where they are coming from…it’s a long day, you’ve worked hard, handled the stress, delivered a half decent service, the drive home beckons – why would you want to go and stand in a hotel meeting space, suck on a piece of bread-crumbed chicken and drink a glass of cheap wine? (Not that our events are like this obviously!)

Why would you, especially when you think you might not get much from it? After all, the people who do want to suck on warm chicken and drink cheap wine, probably aren’t the people you would want to meet anyway…Right?

But this of course is to misunderstand the point of a networking event, even one as undersold as the one in question. If we approach networking as an exercise in what we will get from it, it is almost certainly doomed to fail. The skill of networking is not what one takes, it’s what one gives.

Dale Carnegie said:

“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years trying to get other people to be interested in you…”

I suspect this may all sound far too evangelical for most…so let me break this down more prosaically because networking is an essential piece of activity and we all need to be good at it. These are my observations and I’ll be very happy to talk about them with you next time we meet at a networking event!

  1. Don’t feel you have to go to every opening of an envelope, but if you have said you will go, make sure that you do. We all know that stuff happens and sometimes the unforeseen gets in the way; this is always understood and should never be an issue. However, getting a reputation for accepting invitations and serially failing to turn up is disrespectful to one’s host and likely to reflect poorly.
  2. If the whole thing feels a bit daunting, go with a colleague or friend so that when you are at the event you work as a team. Arriving alone at an unfamiliar venue and walking into a room full of unfamiliar faces is a challenging prospect to say the least…but go as a pair and it can be great fun. There is always a “safe haven” to return to and if you work the room together it is quite possible to move from one contact to another in a very elegant way.
  3. Ask questions and listen to the answers; easy really, but we don’t do this very well…Questions should be open, eye contact should be made and try hard to listen to the answer. A supplementary question that builds on the initial answer shows you are engaged and interested and encourages conversation.
  4. Ask the best question in the world ever! …This is a big claim, but it has never failed for me. Most people, consciously or subconsciously like to talk about what they do in the context of positive affirmation. The question should be phrased something like this: “That sounds really interesting – tell me, how did you do that?”, then relax…the next few minutes should go swimmingly!
  5. Don’t try to seek help or support. Whatever you do don’t turn up to an event expecting to ask for help…If it happens naturally in the context of your conversation that is fine, but it jars with most people. I once met someone who started taking notes while I was talking and asking me to repeat the names of people he thought might be able to help him…In a way he was just making sure he got accurate detail: I felt however a bit like I had been pick-pocketed.
  6. Follow up with a thank you to the host and other “pleased to have met you” messages to those you spoke to. Courtesy counts for a lot, it will cement the recollection of your conversation with those you spoke to and it is also a good way to pass on your contact detail without being explicit about it.
  7. If/when the next invitation comes round, contact the people you met before to renew their acquaintance even if you or they cannot make the next event. These gentle contact situations create a tone of voice around the way you work; be undemanding, interested and thoughtful…It costs virtually nothing but helps to create a climate in which you and your contacts fit comfortably. One day you will need them and that day will be the time to benefit from your careful networking.

So the next networking event you are invited to, please accept and go, and whether four people or four hundred turn up with you, practice the ideas and let me know how you got on. I’d like to know.