By Laura Cullison • February 09, 2010•Writers in Residence
With a fresh shiny new year spread out in front of us, I have decided to make a personal "networking resolution" for each month of the year, and see what happens when I try to follow it through. As a disclaimer, my concept of networking is largely theoretical, since I have not consciously attempted to network as an attorney. Until now. Since this is a journey for all of us, feel free to send in suggested resolutions for me to try - I may need some prodding! And, if anything I blog about raises a question, or reminds you of your experiences, I would love to hear about it.First, I should let you know a little about me, and my conception of networking. I work as a litigator at an international law firm in a major city, but my office is not the "home" office for the firm, so our litigation group is not huge - if you asked me the size of my practice group I would say over 30. I have been with my firm five years.
I think of networking as getting to know, and becoming known, to other attorneys and legal professionals in a way that forges a professional connection. For me, it is helpful to think of that professional connection as finding ways for me to meet a need for the people that I get to know - in other words, giving something to someone else. I do NOT think of networking as "getting," that is, trying to get to know people with power, prestige, or influence to advance my career.
To be honest, I think that at least a few of my colleagues would find my perspective hopelessly naive. They think networking is pointless unless you are connecting with people who have more than you do - whether the "more" is seniority in a law firm, prestige in the community, or power on a corporate board. They may have a point, but I am just not wired that way. And my first touchstone for this journey is not to do anything inconsistent with who I am, in attempting to learn how to network. While I will be out of my comfort zone at times, I will not be fake. So now to begin!
January Networking Resolution:
Have a face-to-face conversation with every person in my practice group by the end of the month.
I chose this resolution because it seems to me that when you want to learn a new skill, you have to start with where you are. Each of us has a circle of co-workers, fellow students, etc. Some associates and partners in my practice group I know very well, because I have worked on intense cases with them and pulled the occasional all-nighter. We have enough firm events that I think I recognize our entire practice group by sight. But, I don't know everyone. I think the reason I don’t know everyone comes from a combination of circumstances: I did not work as a summer associate with the firm, my time is pretty full outside of work, and the firm culture is such that there is no expectation that we keep company with each other socially. So, here is how my first resolution worked out:
Week of January 4th:Face-to-face conversations don't happen unless you make them a priority.
I just downloaded the list of all the litigation partners and associates, and there are 56 people - a lot more than I thought. That's more than two face-to-face conversations a day. Ugh. And I have no idea who at least five of the associates are! (At least I recognize all the partners.) For the last two years I have been working on a couple large matters, which means I have regular interactions with two partners and about five associates. It hits me that I have no idea how I am going to have a face-to-face conversation with 56 people without it seeming really odd. Do I even have a reason to speak with most of them? Associates are a little easier because you can stop by their office and have a general conversation without it being a big deal. But I can't see walking into a partner's office and saying "Hey, how are things going?" Do I lay in wait for them in the hallway and strike up a conversation that way? I am going to have to think about how to start conversations.
I take care of twelve people in just a few days, basically covering all the people I am working on matters with, or have worked with recently. It is pretty easy to start up a conversation about shared work. But even meeting up with this small group of people took more planning than I expected. Face-to-face conversations don't happen unless you make them a priority, I guess. Most of the conversations are short- five minutes or less – as that seems long enough to make a connection without being obtrusive. Actually, I had not realized that I already have a good connection with these twelve people. It is nice to remember, even though I feel like I sit alone in my office most of the day, that I am part of a team. Next week is when the rubber meets the road, because I will have to go outside my usual group. Forty-four people to go.
Week of January 11th: I have to remember to talk with other people when I am around them.
One of my colleagues unexpectedly gave my resolution a boost when she asked me to be part of a moot court panel for her upcoming appellate argument. When we met for the first practice round there were four other associates for me to cross off my list! What surprised me was that, if I was not following my networking resolution, I might have just said "hi" to everyone else and nothing more. It sounds dumb, but I have to remember to talk with other people when I am around them. I arrived at the moot court panel a little early and started a conversation with each person, using the general question of "What’s up with you?" or "What is keeping you busy?" Both sounded kind of corny to me, but they worked. I found out that two other associates are working on appeals and I was invited to help with their moot court panels as well. More networking! I have not started prowling the halls yet, as three moot court panels, along with my normal work, kept me busy this week. Thirty-five people to go, which seems like a lot.
Week of January 18th: It takes deliberate effort to join a new circle of conversation.
Well, it is now the third week of my resolution and I still have thirty-five people to speak with. Yikes! Time to start prowling the halls. For the partners, I concluded that it would be too awkward to set up meeting times, or wander into their offices. So instead, I am utilizing elevator, hall passing, and lunch line at the firm café times, and asking questions related to current cases. It requires a little research ahead of time so I have a question ready like "I heard you used this outside discovery company for the Smith case. What did you think of them?" or "When you were an AUSA, did this particular issue ever come up at sentencing?" They are short conversations, but they make a connection. The only awkward partner conversation was when one partner responded to my question, as we were walking out of the building one night, with a long silent stare. I realized she actually had ear buds in and was on a call. Oops! But the next time I saw her, she seemed unperturbed and we had a brief chat about the weather. We also had a litigation practice cocktail party this week for a retiring partner – a gold mine for my resolution! I was surprised, though, by how easy it is to spend the whole time talking to the people you already know well, and what a deliberate effort it takes to break into a new circle of conversation. Also, I was surprised how many people left the event as soon as possible. Usually I am one of those people, but not tonight! Once I started circulating, it was not too hard to start a conversation at the cocktail party because we had a common topic - the retiring partner. I was invited to an informal after-party dinner and we heard some great war stories from the retiring partner. Twelve people to go!
Week of January 25th: There are some people I just don’t like being around.
I think there is a reason that the last twelve people on my list are, well, still on my list. They fall into three categories, so far as I can tell. Senior associates who have never had the time of day for me, junior associates that I have nothing in common with, and, to be candid, people I just don’t like being around. Actually, I should add a fourth category – partners who are always traveling (not sure what to do about that). Also, I am working on a large, complicated appellate brief right now and I hate to interrupt my concentration to get up and interact with other people. At least I have figured out a common topic I can use for all the remaining associates. I am working on a pro bono project that is big enough to need several associates. My plan is to walk by the associate’s office, and, so long as he/she is not on the telephone or typing, just knock on the door and ask "Hey, do you have a couple minutes to talk about a pro bono project?." Hopefully that will allow me to reach the goal.
By the end of the month, I was able to speak with fifty-three out of my fifty-six colleagues – not a bad ratio! I will still try to get the remaining three sometime in February. I will be blunt; two associates in the final group were really rude when I asked them about the pro bono project. They basically responded by saying ‘No, I don’t know why anyone would take the time for that." But, I survived. Another associate rambled on for about forty-five minutes- no kidding – telling me about every pro bono project he had worked on. That was forty-five minutes I really could have used for the appellate brief, but again, I survived. The rest of the group was fine, though I dreaded it each time I knocked on a door.
I remember thinking at the beginning of January that this would be an easy networking goal – boy was I wrong! It takes real work, thought, and planning to connect with co-workers, once you step outside the people who work with you on the same cases. I never really thought it, but it is entirely possible to be around someone day in and day out in the workplace and never make a connection. That is not a good thing. After this month, I feel like I am more aware of the people around me, and that I can start a conversation more easily. Also, I know more about my co-workers and can make connections with them in new ways. So far, so good.
Possible Upcoming Resolutions:
Schedule one lunch a week with legal professionals not at my firm.
Travel out of state to attend a law school two-day event.
Try to meet five new people at lunchtime CLE events.
Create a list of my professional contacts and email, call, or write three people from that list every week.
Attend a networking event…without a buddy.