What lawyers can gain from reaching out
The opportunity to connect and build relationships with others can deliver real value and personal support, advises Helen Hamilton-Shaw
Networking: a great way to forge beneficial relationships and build business, or a necessary evil, dragging you away from real work? Whatever side of the coin you fall on, most people would agree that networking is a fact of business life.
Harvard Business Review cites a mountain of research showing that successful networks lead to more ‘business opportunities, broader and deeper knowledge, improved capacity to innovate, faster advancement, and greater status and authority’. All compelling reasons to take it seriously.
But for a time-poor law firm leader, grappling with the competing pressures of finance, clients, and employees, it’s vital you’re getting value from the networks you join. And true value derives from a two-way engagement. You need a network that delivers the infrastructure to match your aspirations, but you must bring the investment of time and commitment to build trust with other members. Where to network?
It’s my job to deliver on networking infrastructure for LawNet members, and as part of that we regularly canvass opinion to see how we’re meeting needs and where we need to innovate. In some informal research conducted recently with managing partners across our network, we asked what networks people were involved with, both inside and outside the legal sector.
Within the sector, these included national, European, and international legal networks, as well as discipline-specific or business support organisations. Some also mentioned legal sector-specific user groups – these are often IT based but also organised by suppliers of a variety of services to law firms.
Outside the sector, most networking tended to be geographically based, tapping into local business groups, including local institutes of directors and chambers of commerce. Managing partners also spoke about the networking opportunities they get from attending various conferences and events, both in and out of the sector.
Alongside face-to-face networking, the rise of social networks has created a raft of new opportunities. The managing partners we spoke to were using these to varying degrees, mostly to support their offline networking efforts. LinkedIn and Twitter can be a good way to try to connect with someone new or reconnect with previous contacts. Following someone or their business can give you an insight into what they are focused on and things that are important to them, all of which create opportunities to get in touch.
Benefits of networking
When we asked managing partners what they value most about the networking activities they participate in, certain benefits kept coming up. First, it is a great source of information. Depending on the network, this might be about the profession as a whole, a specific sector, or local market.
For Steven Treharne of Mogers Drewett in Bath, information is one of the main benefits. ‘I see networking as one of the most important parts of my role. It helps me keep my finger on the pulse of trends and changes in our market. By knowing more about what other firms are doing both locally and nationally I can better understand our position in the market place. Local networks give me a great insight into what’s happening on our patch and help us build relationships with the local movers and shakers.’
Some networks are set up specifically to facilitate referral of work between members. For others, it can be more incidental. But in either case, it’s important to understand that it takes time for any cross-referral activity to deliver results.
Simon Gittings of Stamp Jackson and Procter in Hull, which is an active member of Eurojuris, the European-wide network of law firms, agrees: ‘If you are going to see real benefits from being involved in Eurojuris, you need to stick at it. It’s not realistic to expect you will achieve anything worthwhile by turning up to one or two events. I have seen so many lawyers over the past 12 years who came once or twice, and never again, but you need to build up personal relationships over a period of years to create the necessary degree of mutual trust and confidence.’
Another benefit many derive is to see things through a new prism. As Mark Twain once said: ‘There is no such thing as a new idea… We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations.’
It’s this kaleidoscopic effect that delivers one of the biggest benefits of regular networking: idea generation. Attending networking events exposes you to things that other people have done, which in turn can spark great ideas for your firm. So, be curious about what other people are doing, or how they are approaching a particular problem, and you may find a catalyst for creative solutions of your own. As Derek Rodgers, managing partner at Gardner Leader based in Newbury, explains: ‘Many of the things which have contributed to our growth in recent years have started from a conversation with someone at a networking event.’
His is a view echoed by Gittings, who asserts: ‘The more we talk and the more we listen, the more we learn and the more ideas we generate.’
Rewarding legal networks
Accepting the benefits, it can be hard to decide where to invest time and energy when it comes to legal sector networking, especially when there are so many opportunities.
For Ed O’Rourke at Ashtons Legal, it largely comes down to who the other members are: ‘In my view the best networks are those that bring similar businesses and challenges together. While we can learn from businesses that are both much larger and much smaller than us, the reality is that their businesses are often vastly different to ours and the means by which they overcome their challenges are remote to us.’
However, for Steven Treharne, a legal network needs to focus on the value it’s ultimately providing for members. ’A mutually beneficial two-way exchange of information, ideas, knowledge, and help is the foundation of a good micro-network, but that same principle applies when the network becomes larger. If it is not beneficial to both parties, even allowing that the benefit may not be simultaneous, then ultimately it will fail.’
How that mutually beneficial exchange plays out in practice is likely to depend on the nature of the network and whether it’s an open or competing environment. So, while the group buying power, CPD training, and professional indemnity insurance scheme are most often cited as the primary reasons to join LawNet, it’s the opportunity for informal peer-to-peer knowledge sharing and learning in a non-competing environment that is consistently rated as one of the most valuable components of membership, once firms get involved.
As Rodgers explains: ‘The biggest benefit for me is the opportunity to meet and exchange views with managing partners and others from the firms in our network. At every event there is always open and constructive discussion and people who are willing to share ideas and views on things that have worked or not worked. This provides a great source of thought leadership.’
For others, it’s more about the support they get from being able to talk to their peers in a safe environment. As Paul Bury, managing partner of the Endeavour Partnership, says: ‘It’s really good to share our experiences with other people and realise that the experiences that we have are not unique.’
That reassurance is echoed by Cat Maclean of Edinburgh-based MBM Commercial, who remarks: ‘Among LawNet members, there’s a real openness and we share greatly, much more so than other firms do with each other. There’s massive value to that. I attend many partner discussion suppers and the topics are always things that we are grappling with.’
Taken together, the benefits and opportunities add up to make a compelling case for strategic networking, particularly that sense of strength in numbers. When faced with the barrage of changes and competing pressures, being managing partner can be a lonely role to hold. The opportunity to connect and build relationships with others in a similar position can deliver real value and personal support.
Helen Hamilton Shaw is the member engagement and strategy director at LawNet