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Commentary: The key to security as a lawyer: Networking

Throughout law school I was very focused on grades and making certain that I ranked as high as possible in my class. But while it is impossible to deny that grades and rankings are important in law school, I was surprised to find that what matters more than anything as you move into your career is your ability to create connections.

I recently met with the Vice President of Sales for an office design company who provided an interesting insight. He said that in the beginning of his career, someone explained to him that in order to be valuable to his company it was necessary for him to be part of the profit stream instead of pure overhead. Maybe this is obvious, but it strikes me that there are some new lawyers out there who don’t completely comprehend this.

While it is essential that you perform quality work as an associate, when you start making connections and bringing work in you are part of the profit stream and become truly valuable to your firm.

It is very tempting as an associate to sit in your office and focus on your billable hours – you have a target number of hours and you think that as long as you reach that goal, you are creating value for your firm.

Add to that the fact that the atmosphere at a lot of firms is, “don’t worry about getting clients right now, you’re not expected to bring in clients until year 4, 5, 6 etc.” However, if you wait to start networking until the pressure is on to have a book of business, you will almost certainly be behind the eight ball when that expectation strikes.

Getting clients is a long process. It requires getting out in the community and meeting as many people as possible. It also requires getting in front of a core group of people as often as possible so that you are top of mind when an issue arises. This process does not happen overnight, so networking should start on day one (or before) of your legal career.

There’s no question that when you have fifteen deadlines piling up on your desk, the urge to skip lunches out with potential referrals or clients is strong. But you need to make it work.

When you start to make connections, you will be amazed by how quickly your network will grow. Suddenly, you will have a wide range of people who know what your firm does and what you specifically do for the firm.

What is the best way to form this network? I am lucky because my firm has a strong focus on networking, so I’ve learned a lot in my time with The Schroeder Group. Here are some suggestions:

1. Become involved with your local chamber of commerce. Nearly every local chamber has various networking events, from young professionals’ events to events which are intended to be an open opportunity to exchange business leads. Keep in mind that you get out of the chamber only as much as you put in, but it offers excellent resources to start your network.

2. Join a social networking site. I use Linked In and make sure that I search once a day for a connection who I want to make contact with. Once I find that connection, I introduce myself and find out if that person is interested in meeting.

3. Pick an industry you want to develop clients in, and get involved in an industry association. For instance, I am interested in labor and employment issues in the manufacturing industry, so I have recently joined the local manufacturing association.

4. Get on a board. Find an organization you are passionate about and get involved, with the ultimate goal of a leadership position.

5. Join a leadership organization. I recently graduated from Leadership Waukesha, which is a program offering leadership training to professionals in the Waukesha area. Typically, these are people who are either already in successful positions in their careers or are working toward that goal. I formed fantastic bonds with my group members, and was surprised by how many cities have similar programs.

6. Attend networking events and actually meet people during the event. So many people go to networking events and sit with the people who they know and talk to no one else. Make it a point to introduce yourself to at least five new people at these events or sit at a table with people who you don’t know.

7. Present at a seminar. Most of the seminars you attend for CLE accept presenters from a wide range of attorneys. There’s no better way to show your knowledge than by presenting on a topic.

It’s easy for an associate to put off networking, thinking that the clients will just naturally come. But this way of thinking is flawed. It takes regular focus and daily effort to build a book of business. That business is crucial to maintaining value in your firm by becoming part of the profit stream.

The downturn in the economy has had all businesses, including law firms, thinking about how to cut costs and increase profit. If you are not bringing in business for your firm, you are simply another mouth to feed, and if cuts ever have to be made, it likely will be those mouths that go first. Avoid being in this position by building your business.

Cindy L. Fryda who graduated from Marquette Law School in 2003, is a labor and employment attorney at The Schroeder Group S.C., Attorneys at Law. She started out working at a boutique labor and employment law firm, then she handled labor and employment issues for a $3.5 billion publicly traded company. She can be reached via e-mail at clf@tsglaw.com.

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