Maximising the millennial networking resource

Maximising the millennial networking resource


Harnessing Generation Y's expertise in digital interactions can help a firm put a new spin on business development, explains Helen Hamilton-Shaw

The millennial generation is in the ascendant. Comprising around one-quarter of the UK’s 65 million-strong population, they are reshaping the landscape of work and how relationships drive business. The smartest firms are harnessing this millennial energy, particularly when it comes to 21st-century networking.

Millennials have a different world view to the Baby Boomers (1945-61) and Generation X (1962-80), shaped by growing up with globalisation, dramatic economic disruption, and rapid technological change.

For some, they’re known as Generation Y, for others the ironic ‘Generation Me’. They are the digital natives, brought up with technology, which has given the millennial generation the platform to reach the world in ways never previously imagined.

This ease with technology and virtual interaction led many to suggest that young people would lack the necessary communication skills as they entered the workplace, but research demonstrates that millennials place even more value on their inter-personal experiences in work and after-hours than their older colleagues, and are more likely to socialise with colleagues outside work than previous generations.

They care about the quality of their life and pursue ‘wellness’, by eating properly and exercising, and that attitude spills over into how they do business. Their reputation matters to them and they want to do well, but through a life and career built on integrity. This leads them to seek lifelong relationships based on shared personal values, contributing to the demise of transactional networking, and helping to shape holistic attitudes towards relationship building in the business environment.

This message came across loud and clear when I talked to some of our firms about how different generations approach networking. As communication and interaction between members lies at the heart of LawNet, it’s a given that our firms are among the most proactive when it comes to networking. I’ve been speaking to some of the younger millennial lawyers themselves, as well as the heads of marketing, both millennial and Gen X, about how networking is supporting their firms’ brand development.

Networking 21st century-style

Social media has revolutionised networking, with new and different routes to maintain day-to-day direct and indirect communication, and the opportunity to identify those people you most want to reach, by sector, segment, interest, or campaign group. However, everyone I spoke to, representing a mix of different sized firms, agreed that digital and traditional networking need to coexist side by side.

Attitudes to networking are changing and millennials are helping to drive that shift, as Gráinne Staunton, partner at West Country firm Tozers, explains: ‘I was in the first wave of the millennial generation to join the workforce, and have seen the changes to networking. Millennials tend to seek more authenticity and so identify relationships which are likely to be successful in that way, rather than just targeting for business. Most firms would agree they want to be the “trusted adviser” for families or businesses, and creating soft linkages based on trust is an excellent way to make that happen.’

That’s a view endorsed by Mary Porch, business development director of Ashtons Legal, although she believes the attitudinal shift is not solely age-related: ‘Building and maintaining rapport with clients, intermediaries, or influencers is an important part of our business development strategy. However, networking now comes in many different shapes and sizes, depending on legal discipline, location, and individual or target preferences and interests. Age can play a part but perhaps less than you might expect.

‘For example, we have people in their late 50s who regularly attend cycling networking events, while some younger lawyers are establishing a local Rotaract Group – a more traditional approach, but with its own Facebook page. In some cases, preferences are market-driven rather than lawyer-driven. So, for instance, the agricultural community still does much of its networking at regional shows, farm walks, or clay shoots.’

Contributing to commercial success

Networking, in all its forms, is at the heart of business development for most law firms, and the activity must contribute directly to commercial success. In the West Midlands, Laura Jones is the marketing manager at FBC Manby Bowdler: ‘Whatever the style of networking, it must deliver returns and face-to-face activity is very time-hungry. Everyone records time spent and we evaluate activity against results achieved. We’re looking for work referrals, but equally important is brand awareness and personal profile raising.’

Hart Brown solicitor Danielle Collett-Bruce understands that commercial imperative. Her networking skills were one of the range of achievements that helped her to win the LawNet Young Lawyer award last year. ‘Every lawyer is expected to be an ambassador for the firm through networking activities that align with Hart Brown’s values and strategy,’ she says. ‘I can see how networking is fundamental to success at every level: for the firm, for the department, and for the individual.’

Tracking and measuring such outputs is not simple, however, and although it’s integral to the business development strategy of the larger £10m-plus firms in our network, for growing regional firms it’s the next stage. As Staunton says: ‘Networking activity has always been reviewed within our appraisal system, but now we are focusing on creating a greater integration with personal development plans.’

Building skills

To deliver strong returns, it’s vital that lawyers of every generation are well-equipped and motivated to network. Firms may find enthusiasm is tempered by lack of confidence or lack of time. Spencer Davis heads up business development and marketing for Essex-based Gepp & Sons. ‘Individuals tend to go through stages, with trainees being very enthusiastic, but more resistant when they progress and workload builds,’ he says. ‘Everyone needs to be encouraged and supported to build their confidence and development is important at every level, as lack of support in the past may mean individuals reach partner level without acquiring the necessary techniques.’

At FBC Manby Bowdler, networking is incorporated into personal development for all staff. Jones comments: ‘We look at ways to support through training, and to respond to ideas for how individuals would like to network. You need to recognise individual strengths: some people are natural face-to-face networkers and others less so. We work on that by helping to develop social skills, and partner up new staff with a networking buddy, but if someone is more comfortable undertaking most of their profile raising through online content, then we will support that too. Feeling positive about what you’re doing will deliver stronger results.’

Ashtons Legal takes a similar attitude, as Porch explains: ‘The most successful networking is done with like-minded people with shared interests; being flexible enough to recognise this and play to people’s strengths is important.’

As well as using buddies, individuals can hone their confidence through ‘safe’ environments. Collett-Bruce acknowledges that networking for junior lawyers can be daunting, but found that by committing to attend the same networking group on a regular basis, she was able to develop her skills in a familiar environment.

It’s also important to build understanding about the firm, as Jones says: ‘We have networking training as part of our induction process. It makes sense to instil the networking ethos from the start, and equip individuals with the right brand message and values to talk about the firm. We need our young lawyers to understand the trajectory of the firm, the ambitions we have for the business, and how they can play a role in helping to achieve that, as well as realising their own personal ambitions.’

Developing digital communications

Finding the time to network is an issue that spans the generations, so encouraging digital interaction is as important as teaching someone how to engage a roomful of people and is an opportunity to utilise the digital confidence of millennials in the firm.

Collett-Bruce is one of the younger generation taking the lead on developing the firm’s profile through social media, having spotted a gap for her department to engage with clients and referrers in this way. In her own networking, she combines face-to-face events with follow-ups via the associated LinkedIn group or Twitter hashtags at the event and afterwards. She also follows new contacts on Twitter and tries to keep the conversation going. She adds: ‘I think my generation may be a bit more creative in our approach, but however it’s done, it is still about communicating to make connections, and being able to engage with all generations.’

At FBC Manby Bowdler, early adoption of social media as a business development tool has been helped by encouraging trainees and apprentices with social media talents to join a team of digital champions, working with others who are less proficient to develop their skills. But, as Jones explains, the firm does not assume that every trainee or apprentice is equipped to take on that role: ‘Just because someone has grown up with technology doesn’t mean they are automatically comfortable with it and equally, many senior lawyers happily embrace social media.’

That’s borne out by Porch of Ashtons Legal who says: ‘We have established lawyers with niche disciplines involving a broad geography who are more active in engaging with others on Twitter than some of their younger counterparts; for instance, the heads of our French Legal Services team (@MattRGCameron) and Road Transport team (@TransportLaw).’

Building profile through CSR

A valuable route to relationship building is through a firm’s corporate social responsibility programme. At Ashtons Legal, CSR has developed to the point where a charitable trust has been created to administer the proceeds of its internal fundraising. Also, staff take part in their local community and both expertise and physical resources are provided to local organisations. Often, business development activities will be designed so that they align with charitable causes.

FBC Manby Bowdler echoes that, saying CSR plays a massive part in the firm. ‘It’s a great USP for everyone in our business to be proud of,’ remarks Jones. ‘Everyone must participate, but with freedom to direct their own activity, and we find there’s passion and a real commitment to make things happen. It’s a great way to raise the profile of the business while doing something worthwhile and interesting – whether it’s work experience placements, lecturing at the agricultural college, providing input to the manufacturing sector, or community activity.’

That’s echoed at Tozers, winners of Devon and Somerset Law Society’s 2017 CSR award. Gráinne Staunton says: ‘CSR is important to our clients, our referrers, and our staff. We encourage the whole firm to be involved and to vote on the charities supported, which helps everyone to feel part of the work, and proud of each year’s achievement.’

At Gepp & Sons, Davis adds: ‘Operationally, we’re becoming stronger at making the most of such activity. For example, simple product placement using branded t-shirts for staff involved in community-oriented events, to encourage people to target our team members for event information or just as a friendly face to chat to.’ Increasingly, indirect networking through CSR involves a combination of direct community action and online interaction. ‘There is more networking being done through campaigning for positive change in the social media sphere than ever before,’ says Porch. ‘For instance, our asbestos-related disease team are actively involved in the campaign to remove asbestos from schools and are building online links with others as a result.’

What goes around, comes around

Such campaigning activity reflects the importance of referrers and influencers when it comes to networking, whether through other professionals, sports, or social activity. At all life stages, simply ensuring your social groups, friends, and family know what you and your firm do can help build opportunities.

Younger lawyers at FBC Manby Bowdler are encouraged to network with peers from other local and regional professional firms, as the links will help them in their work. Collett-Bruce at Hart Brown confirms that networking isn’t just about getting work in, it’s about building up a network of contacts to refer clients, with trust in the quality of the delivery, and to find mentors, within your own firm or among other professionals.

Many LawNet firms cross-refer, both within the UK network and internationally through our tie-up with Eurojuris, safe in the knowledge of a given expertise, combined with shared values. For Staunton, building on such shared values can be significant: ‘We consistently build strong relationships with clients who have been referred to us by like-minded professionals, because the client has faith in the mutual trust, and, together, we can deliver on their issues holistically.’

Embedding millennial attitudes to relationships, and harnessing their expertise in digital interactions, can help the entire firm put a new spin on business development. Firms with networking strategies that feature personal development, targeted and evaluated activity, and clear social media usage policies can expect to receive a significant return.

Helen Hamilton-Shaw is member engagement and strategy director at LawNet