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ARTICLE - Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Attorney at Law Magazine (Twin Cities) view .pdf of article

The Best-Kept Secret to Business Development

by Susan H. Stephan

What's the secret? Networking - it's as simple as that - or is it? What comes to mind when you think of "networking?" An awkward montage of plastic cups of warm wine, dry vegetables and furtive glances? That untouched stack of business cards you have collected over the years? A common definition of a network is "a supportive system for sharing information and services among individuals and groups having a common interest." Doesn't that sound ideal? Then why do so many attorneys have anxiety at the thought of networking? Our research has shown the answer is simple - but not easy.

The key to summoning positive images of networking is to remember that networking is all about relationship building to support business development. And, great news - people generally want to work with people they like to talk with, so networking should be something you strive to enjoy. If you have not quite reached the network = enjoyable relationships + regular new business stage, consider increasing your odds by taking these five steps:

1. Select the right events
It is unrealistic to try to do everything. An effective strategy is to determine your goals for participating in networking events so that you will pick the opportunities that are least likely to waste your time. Whom do you want to meet? Is there an industry group that focuses on great potential clients for you? Other attorneys are fabulous to hang out with, but make sure you have access to the broadest group of potential clients and referral partners as opposed to the "all attorneys all the time" approach.

2. Prepare for each and every event
Preparation will make you feel comfortable going into an event and will ensure that you spend your time efficiently. While preparing, it is crucial to consider and internalize your "defining statement," i.e., how you will present yourself. It might be: "I am Xavier Yards; I am an attorney - I counsel business owners on their intellectual property strategies." Make your presentation simple, true and focused on what you want your target market to know about your practice. Also be prepared to articulate what you are looking for through this networking opportunity. Today, veteran networkers often are conditioned to ask people, "What can I do to help you?" This is a great, direct, question - be ready to answer it clearly and simply.

3. Engage and Ask
Once you have arrived at an event, make the best of it. People will look forward to talking with you if you seem positive, confident and engaged. Networking can bring in new clients for the firm and help keep you informed about what's happening, not only in law, but in business trends and other areas that might be helpful to your clients. Try to resist the urge to bunch up with every other attorney at an event to talk shop; instead, meet the non-lawyers and ask them how they spend their time. Referrals from other attorneys can be valuable, but some of the best business relationships are built directly. Ask open-ended questions and figure out where you might have common ground. Remember to listen intently to their questions and replies. Wherever there are people, there is information that you can gain - ask for it.

4. Remember to follow up - realistically and strategically
Follow-up can be the hardest part of networking, so you want to make it easy. Focus on the few best contacts you have made, pull them out of your stack of cards right away. Then get in touch within a day or two, to keep the connection going while your contact still remembers you. If you want to try to add everyone you met to your digital address book or your social media circle, and if you have a plan in place to keep in touch on a regular basis, that's an option. However, most attorneys benefit from focusing on quality of contacts over quantity. Once you start to build a network, it is essential that you not neglect it, so take on what you can handle.

5. Make Time
I know, you don't have time for networking. It's seemingly true - clients, deadlines, meetings, maybe you want to see your family once in a while. Adding more to your heaping plate by attending an event that you then have to follow up with more tasks might sound like a bad choice. Trust me, it's not. Rather, it is essential to your success that you schedule the time for to network.

Building your network is simple, but not always easy, unless you plan your events, prepare for each one, engage in the ones you have selected, and follow up in a manner you can manage. Make the time, get out there, and enjoy yourself. Action begets results.

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