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Bloomberg Law Analysis

ANALYSIS: Turning Networking Into Netplaying, Once and for All

Nov. 16, 2020, 11:11 AM

The legal profession attracts many introverts. This makes sense. Much of the work performed by lawyers is solitary. Lawyers consider, reflect, read, research, analyze, review, write, and edit. With much of their workday spent in or seeking quiet isolation, it is not surprising that many lawyers struggle to network. But, for those interested in honing their networking, some opportunities may be more worthwhile than others in the current environment. And with the right activities, networking may feel less like work and more like play.

When workplaces are open for business, lawyers interact with others — like it or not. Even with private offices, lawyers are bound to run into people in hallways, elevators, stairwells, bathrooms, and coffee spots. These functional inconveniences force informal interactions that result in a sense of community. So, complaining about the coffee on your floor with a colleague while waiting for the “good” coffee you went to the main floor to retrieve is actually a bonding experience that opens lines of communication. As the coffee trickles out, an uncomfortable silence may give way to a discussion of projects, kids, conferences, vacations, and more. Voila! You are strangers no more. And that is step one in networking: turning strangers into not strangers.

Networking events traditionally play out in a similar way. A bunch of strangers are placed in a meeting area — a bar or a hotel conference room, say — in the hope that proximity will result in interaction. (Add food and beverages, and the odds of interaction increase.)

When Covid-19 sent lawyers home to work, Happy Hours moved to the web. But they don’t work as well as their in-person counterparts. Only one person can speak at a time, so unless the participants all know each other — which kind of undermines the purpose of the event — a moderator may be needed to avoid cross-talk. And it may be difficult to speak to a group of strangers in such an event. Not only can it feel exposing, and maybe even trigger public speaking anxiety, it also may be difficult to decide what to say to kindle an interesting discussion among the group without relying on a unifying element such as place or predefined topic.

So, now what? Where does this lack of traditional social cues leave us?

Option 1: Don’t bother networking; it doesn’t help anyway.

If you look only at the number of events you attend and compare it to the number of tangible opportunities resulting from contacts made at those events, this honestly seems the best approach. Rarely do you leave an event with a new attorney/client, mentor/mentee, or job applicant/opportunity. But this is the wrong calculation.

While the hope is that connections will eventually reap tangible rewards, the operative word is “eventually.” The goal is to find people you enjoy speaking with, regardless of what they do and where they are in their careers, so that they think of you when the right opportunities come around.

Option 2: Attend virtual networking events and hope you get an opportunity for meaningful participation.

Try this a couple of times and see if it works. If it does, great! And I dare say you are likely not an introvert. If it doesn’t, see the other options discussed.

Option 3: Focus on virtual activities that are targeted to your unique interests.

With all the different directions you’re being pulled in these days, there is no reason to spend your time doing something else you don’t enjoy. In the past, you may have attended an event simply because. If nothing else, at least you would enjoy the free food and drinks. But in the pandemic era, why go through the effort of putting on a real shirt to drink your own alcohol in front of the computer?

Instead, focus your efforts on activities you enjoy, and build a network of people with whom you share common interests. Do you enjoy cooking and want to expand your skills? Look for, or host, remote classes. Are you a movie buff? Participate in viewing parties and discussion groups. Need a chance to vent about working at home alongside your kids? Numerous working parent groups can be found. Miss all the museums and shows you moved to the city to enjoy? See online exhibits and events and discuss them with others. If painting is your thing, attend or host an art party — and if you expand the event to include coloring and sketching, the universe of potential participants grows.

The options are never ending. With a little research and planning, you can have fun networking with like minds. There is no reason for you to be stuck in a room with people interested in discussing their fantasy football picks if you don’t even know when the season starts.

And if you don’t want to coordinate activities with others, you can always do your own thing and connect through social networking. Social media allows you to connect on your own schedule and decide when and how to turn a typing relationship into an audio/video relationship and (perhaps someday) into an in-person relationship. On Twitter, the pandemic brought a flurry of new and interesting hobby-based posts. Who would have thought that so many lawyers are interested in and successful at baking their own bread? If you also like baking, you could make many worthwhile connections through social media and host an event to share tips and tricks. The same goes for numerous other interests.

Option 4: Focus on socially-distanced in-person activities that target your unique interests.

The in-person days are not entirely behind us. For those interested in social distancing within reason, a little planning can get it done. Some sports are still on the table — think about a distanced game of Frisbee, hiking and biking, and walking. Picnics are possible, as are painting and drawing activities. Or take your book club meeting outside. With a little planning, distanced fun can be had by all!

For those willing to put their creative minds to work, there are countless ways to connect. And connecting is good for your mental health as well as for your professional success. So rethink your plan and, for the first time ever, you may find yourself excited to network!

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