Aug 03, 2009

Networking That Never Goes Out of Style

Every fourth Friday of the month, for more than a decade, the Washington D.C. area contingent of Solosez, the ABA's online listserv, has had a standing lunch date at an area restaurant, thanks to  Terry Berger, the Maryland solo who started it all.  Over the past ten years, the location and time of the lunch have changed just twice (the restaurant that played host for the first seven years closed down).  The agenda never deviates: fifteen minutes for informal mingling, then it's time to be seated and go round the table with introductions -- name, jurisdictions where licensed, and a quick elevator speech on practice areas.  Then the floor opens for discussion and questions on any topic, from an aspect of law practice to recommendations on different law products and services. 

Each month brings a diverse mix of anywhere from a dozen to forty lawyers of different genders, ages, and races.  The lunch group includes forty-year veterans to new grads and the occasional law student; corporate specialists who represent large clients to general practitioners who deal with only consumers.  Yet the conversations flow more smoothly than any other bar event I've ever attended because we all share the common goal of running a successful law practice and serving our clients' needs.  But perhaps one of the best kept secrets of this informal monthly lunch is that it's been responsible for the exchange of tens of thousands of dollars in referrals as well as the creation of longstanding business relationships and personal friendships.

In the Internet Age, it's all too easy to forget the value of personal, face-to-face interaction when it comes to building and marketing a law practice.  I'm equally culpable.  Most of my posts here at the Legal Marketing Blawg focus on 21st century concepts like search engine optimization, social networking tools, or video

But even these seemingly magical, modern-day tools have their limitations.  For starters, many lawyers still aren't engaging social media, which means that if you rely exclusively on those tools, you miss out on meeting older lawyers who can serve as mentors or a source of referrals.  In my own case, I've met several older lawyers through Solosez lunches who have helped me with my law practice but whom I would have never met if I'd limited my marketing efforts to social media tools.  Second, personal meetings can solidify online relationships, making them more likely to produce referrals or other financial opportunities.

There are myriad opportunities for lawyers to interact with other lawyers in person, from bar association meetings to business networking groups to pro bono activities.  All of those activities are worthwhile and should comprise at least a part of a lawyer's marketing portfolio. Yet as far as I know, none of these organization-sponsored events have consistently produced the same number of referrals and personal friendships as the Solosez lunches that I frequent and other similar, "organically-grown" networking groups with which I'm familiar.  So below are some simple but foolproof steps for creating a good old-fashioned regular get-together which provides a respite from the online world and can prove lucrative opportunities besides.

1.  Choose An Event and Location That Caters to A Broad Spectrum of Preferences

Don't try to be original in arranging an event or choosing a location.  You might think that hosting a monthly happy hour at a local punk rock or hip hop club is an original idea, but that kind of event is likely to exclude many older lawyers.  Ditto for holding a monthly lunch at a costly, five-star restaurant which may deter financially strapped new solos from attending.  Instead, focus on locales which cater to the greatest common denominator in terms of prices and menu choices. 

Location is also important.  Try to choose venues with access to parking and public transportation.  If you can't find a convenient location, encourage potential attendees to carpool.

Finally, if you're choosing an eatery with table service, be sure that the establishment will provide separate checks (if attendees are brown-bagging or purchasing food at the counter, a separate check isn't needed).  Nothing puts a damper on a companionable meal than trying to equitably settle up the check afterward.

2.  Make It A Regular Event From the Outset

Don't just organize a single lunch event because the event may take time to gain traction.  In addition, many times, potential attendees won't be able to attend the first event, so having a second event planned will help hold their interest.  You can start out with a few pre-scheduled quarterly or monthly breakfast or lunch events and refine the frequency depending upon interest.

3.  Open Up Your Contact List

Once you've decided on a location and a couple of dates, decide who you want to invite.  Do you want to reach out to all solo and small firm lawyers or your area?  Or limit the event to a certain sub-category, such as female lawyers or family lawyers?  Once you've come up with the group you want to include, invite everyone on your personal contact list who meets the criteria as well as those whom you know virtually through social media.  If you think that attendance may still fall short of what you'd like, ask your contacts to pass the invitation along to others who might be interested.

4.  Maximize Networking Opportunities

One reason why most networking functions fall short is that they do not offer any meaningful opportunities for attendees to get to know each other.  In planning your event, take care to structure to facilitate networking.  For example, when you send out invitations, remind attendees to bring business cards.  Allow time for attendees to mingle informally, but be sure to provide time for formal introductions and elevator speeches.  In that way, attendees can easily single out those whom they'd like to get to know.

5.  Relax and Have Fun

Too many networking events can feel awkward or tense, particularly if participants have spent a lot of money and feel pressured to come away with contacts to "get their money's worth."  But since folks need to eat breakfast or lunch anyway, they're less likely to feel that they've wasted their time by sharing a meal.  So encourage people to simply relax and have fun.

Marketing with Web 2.0 tools may be the current trend, but getting together for breakfast and lunch is a networking technique that never goes out of style.  More importantly, in an era where we increasingly spend more and more time online, getting together for a meal satisfies our all-too-human appetite for personal connection.