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A new lawyer's guide to networking

  • June 17, 2014
  • James Raiswell

When you’re starting out as a lawyer and developing your practice, you quickly discover that you need people – people to turn to for advice, people who can help develop your skills, people you can represent. But how do you find these people while still managing to bill 2,000 hours?

Among the soft skills you need as a professional, few are more important than networking. The most successful lawyers are those whose names clients and colleagues remember and who are able to quickly find solutions to problems. These lawyers are successful not only because they’ve honed their legal skills, but also because they have a web of contacts across a range of industries who count on them – and whom they count on in return – for advice on complex legal problems.

Those lawyers who are the most successful at networking do more than collect business cards at an event; they research potential contacts ahead of time and follow up after an event with personalized, relevant communications. Above all, they recognize that every opportunity to meet new people is a chance to network and are always prepared to rise the occasion.

Networking within the firm

When you start as an articling student or as a law firm associate, your firm should – and likely will – be your best source of professional development. And it is through the firm that you will take those initial steps toward developing a network of contacts, both within and beyond the profession.

In one regard or another, all firms provide professional development programs for soft skills like networking, professional presence and business etiquette – skills new lawyers might not have learned in law school or previous careers.

Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP’s Practice University, for example, takes junior lawyers through a series of structured courses that deal with marketing and business development. “One of the most important networking skills we teach our young lawyers is to maintain the contacts they have developed through law school and through previous jobs,” says Meghan Thomas, director of professional development with Fraser Milner Casgrain’s Toronto office. “Odds are, many of these people will become useful contacts in the business world, or lawyers themselves. It’s important to remember that these are more than just friends; they’re potential business leads.”

Blakes, Cassels & Graydon LLP also runs its new lawyers through similar courses. Mary Jackson, Blakes’ chief officer of legal personnel and professional development, says that networking is a difficult skill to teach to a large group because it’s often difficult to find a common denominator among the students. Some will have a reasonably well-developed skill set, while others may start from zero. To address that problem, Blakes uses a combination of classroom and one-on-one teachings to help each young lawyer best develop their networks.

“We will often bring in a professional coach to work one-on-one with the young lawyer to expand and refine the associate’s network,” she says. “It’s more costly to do it this way, but our firm sees this as an investment in our people.”

Recognizing that the practice of law is best developed through observation and hands-on exercise, many firms pair their young lawyers – especially summer and articling students – with more senior lawyers. Mentoring programs such as these not only give young lawyers a taste of what’s to come, but also help them develop a network of contacts. Nancy Stitt, director of student programs with Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt, says the buddy system allows young lawyers to sit in on conference calls and court proceedings and to learn firsthand about the nuances of each experience.

“In the early stages of their development, it’s very important for young lawyers to build up their network of contacts within the firm, and the buddy system is one important way they can do this,” says Stitt. “Our firm organizes quite a number of social events, especially in the summer, where young lawyers can meet more senior colleagues to learn about new practice areas and to make their faces known.”

In your early days with the firm, much of your time spent networking will be within the firm, especially at social events. And while these functions are useful in terms of helping you develop a base of contacts, you should also view them as opportunities to polish your networking skills.

Networking outside the firm

Since not all business contacts come from within the firm, you’ll also have to be aware of the need to develop contacts outside the industry. One of the best ways to do this is through a mentor or a more senior partner, who may be able to introduce you to new clients or contacts you might not otherwise have had a chance to meet. Equally effective is networking through professional associations, particularly those aimed at young lawyers – like the Young Lawyers-CBA – where you can share experiences with a sympathetic group.

We’ve all heard that a key part of professional development is the ability to strike the perfect balance between work and life, and being involved in community activities – volunteering for charities or playing on a sports team, for example – is a great way to develop your network of contacts outside the practice.

“Some of the most successful lawyers cultivate business from friends and from social contacts,” says Thomas. “The old adage that friends can become clients and clients can become friends still rings true.”

Fraser Milner and Blakes both encourage their lawyers to get involved with BoardMatch, a service that pairs charities and not-for-profit organizations with professional volunteers willing to serve as directors. The experience, says Thomas, is useful for any lawyer, but especially young lawyers who benefit from the practical experience and from the contacts they develop.

While networking outside the practice is a great source of work, it’s important to remember that it’s very labour-intensive. It takes time to cultivate clients, and the best advice in this regard is to be patient and persistent. Your contacts won’t necessarily be immediate sources of work, but could become quite valuable in the future.

Networking online

The Internet has changed the way in which we communicate and, by extension, the way in which we network. For example, look at how social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace have enabled people to re-establish contact with old friends and long-forgotten acquaintances.

But are these sites of any value for professional networking purposes? The answer depends on whom you ask, but the underlying message is that, while networking sites offer the chance to re-connect with contacts every now and again, they shouldn’t be relied upon as a source of generating new business.

“Personally, I think networking is changing and these kinds of sites can be valuable tools,” says Jackson. “As the 20- and 30-year-old lawyers develop professionally, they will choose to network in a manner that’s different from the previous generation. What’s more, a new generation of clients will change with them.

“The way to teach networking is not for an older generation to force its ideas upon the younger one,” she adds, “because networking is influenced more by cultural trends than formal patterns.”

Stitt is less enthusiastic. “I don’t see a tremendous amount of value in using sites like Facebook,” she says. “Because these sites are not controlled or monitored, no one can be sure of the accuracy of content or of someone’s identity. As a law firm, we have a reputation to uphold and we can’t afford to compromise that reputation for the sake of convenience.”

Thomas sees some value to using networking sites, but suggests that lawyers may benefit more from using sites like LinkedIn that are aimed at professionals and, in the case of Lawbby, at lawyers in particular.

“Facebook is fine for keeping up with your friends in high school and university, but we encourage our lawyers – junior and senior – to spend time on sites dedicated to the practice of law,” says Thomas.

The debate over these sites’ worth is rapidly coming to a head. The Ontario government, for example, has outlawed the use of Facebook on its equipment because it deems the site as “unacceptable for use for government business purposes.” Some law firms are also considering the value of these sites and it likely won’t belong before they implement their own usage policies.

The right tools for the job

One of the most important things to realize about networking is that it’s an incremental process, and one that must be developed on an ongoing basis. As you grow your network, keep it nurtured. Stay in touch with everyone on your list and keep adding to the list on a regular basis.

Don’t think of networking as an onerous or daunting task. With the right attitude and the proper tools, it can be both enjoyable and profitable.

James Raiswell is a professional freelance writer who specializes in corporate and promotional communications. Contact him at

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