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Networking for Women Lawyers

By Emily White

Women shaking handsDespite the dread that the prospect of networking evokes—networking is a skill that many lawyers, especially female lawyers, would be well-advised to master. Sandra Appel, a partner with the Toronto office of Davis & Company, decided to organize an event precisely because her firm recognized that many of its young female lawyers were not comfortable with marketing, and that networking was a skill they needed to learn.

“We felt that if we did a program that focused on women networking, we could try and initiate a comfort level, just among women, as their initial foray into marketing,” says Appel.

Networking is essential. A network, which Thomson defines simply as your web of relationships with other people, can go a long way towards helping you find work, helping you develop a potential client base, and helping you re-integrate into the work world after a maternity leave or other period of leave. Well-developed networks also provide an invaluable source of social and emotional support, and—if your contacts turn into clients or potential employers—your network will help you feel more confident and in control of your career.

Despite the advantages that networking offers, many young lawyers fail to attend networking events. A lot of this reluctance is due to shyness, but it’s also due to the fact that most firms don’t teach networking skills.

Judy Thomson, a chartered accountant who runs a networking skills training company, notes that when she started out in her profession, she knew that she had to bring in clients in order to become a partner, but no one ever taught her how to go out and meet those clients.

“You get tons of technical training,” Thomson says, “but no one ever teaches you how to network.”

Many young lawyers resort to looking for role models within their firms, and then trying to emulate the behaviour of senior lawyers who seem well-connected, but this trial-and-error approach is a long way from knowing how to go out and create a network of your own.

Networking Tips 

• If you’re invited to something, go, and ask if you can bring someone with you.

• Always carry business cards, and give your card to someone as soon as you meet them. Ask for their card in return. Even if this exchange initially feels awkward, it gives you a chance to keep track of who you’re meeting, and provides a way to follow up with them afterwards.

• Set a goal to circulate at every event, and aim to meet at least seven people at each event you go to.

• If you don’t know anyone, “rescue a wallflower”—go up to someone else who’s on their own, and then circulate together.

• Try to invite the people around you into your conversation circle.

• Remember that you have permission to introduce yourself to anyone you wish to talk to.

Thomson and Appel are adamant that networks are something that you can and should create, no matter how nerve-wracking the prospect of walking into a room full of strangers might seem. The trick, according to both women, is to view networking not as a thinly disguised business transaction but as a chance to find out what you can do for the person you’re meeting. You might be able to offer a service or a favour, or you might introduce a stranger to a colleague, saving that person from being the only one in the room with no one to talk to.

“When you go to a function,” notes Appel, “don’t worry about getting contacts. Worry about how you can assist the person with whom you’re speaking.”

Seeing networking as a positive experience—one in which you try to do something for someone else, rather than vice versa—can take a lot of pressure off the networking experience. Going to an event with a friend, colleague, or potential client can also make an event feel much more manageable. Appel notes that Davis & Company will likely encourage its associates to attend events in pairs, and Thomson advises that it’s always more fun and less stressful to bring along a “tag-teammate.” Under no circumstances, however, should you spend the entire networking event talking to the person who accompanied you.

Don’t sit with people you know,” Thomson emphasizes, “sit with people you don’t know.”

And make a point of attending events that you wouldn’t normally go to. If you’re a tax lawyer, go a meeting about land claims issues; if you’re a construction lawyer, go to a seminar about changes to the Divorce Act. Not only will going to a talk in a new field broaden your horizons, but you’ll get the chance to meet people who you wouldn’t otherwise cross paths with.

And it’s not just one seminar or discussion group that you need to go. “Most people want a quick fix,” says Thomson, “but it’s not a quick fix. You’ve got to be seen, and people have got to get to know you.” One networking event, in other words, does not a networker make. The term ‘network’ has the word ‘work’ in it, and Thomson stresses that you need to do a lot of it. She suggests getting out to at least one networking event per week; at a minimum, aim for one event a month.

For lawyers trying to balance work and parenting responsibilities, and for whom the prospect of even an event per year seems unmanageable, Thomson has this piece of advice: go to luncheons. “Don’t use that time to work through your lunch. Go to something.”

More Information 

• Packing My Own ‘Chute: Part V – Working the Room

• Confidence Building for Women Lawyers

• What Law Firms Can Do to Stop the Exodus of Women

Not every event you attend has to be law or industry related. Thomson stresses that networking opportunities exist everywhere. For people who are shy of public speaking, Toastmasters offers a great place to gain public speaking skills. Teaching part-time at a college or university will get your name known, as will publishing an article in your field and working with editors.

Events hosted by the CBA are natural networking opportunities, as are charity runs, fundraising dinners, political campaigns, and public lectures and conferences. All of these events provide lawyers with the chance to meet others, make contacts, and build their networks.

Whether lawyers go out and create their own networking opportunities, or whether they find themselves in networking courses offered by firms, building and strengthening networking skills is something every lawyer can benefit from. If you do nothing more than make yourself more comfortable in the wider world, notes Appel, “that’s a benefit in itself.”

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