Where would you be without your professional network? You rely on your contacts for advice, career guidance, job leads, mentoring, referrals to clients and news about colleagues and the legal industry. Over the years, you’ve worked hard to establish your network, and it’s important to carefully tend the relationships that comprise it. A professional network is a dynamic, organic entity that needs attention and nurturing.
But once established, it’s easy to take your network for granted. This is risky, because it can lead to blunders and mistakes that are sometimes hard to reverse. Here are five common ways attorneys misuse their networks, and guidelines for making sure this doesn’t happen to yours.
In the day-to-day rush and stress of working it’s easy to put networking efforts on the back burner or neglect them entirely. On occasion, this can’t be helped. There will always be times when you have to devote all your attention and energies to an especially demanding case or project. But if ignoring your contacts becomes habitual, you could ultimately find yourself with a network full of gaps – or no network at all.
Maintaining ties doesn’t have to be difficult or time-consuming. A friendly e-mail to offer congratulations on a contact’s new job, promotion or professional achievement is a good way to keep the lines of communication open. Another way to stay in touch is to send an occasional article of interest or notify contacts about lectures or seminars that might help them professionally. Inviting them out for lunch or coffee may be more of a time investment, but it will further strengthen connections.
#2: One-way networking
If the only time you reach out to your contacts is when you want or need something, you’re making a big mistake. Remember that you are part of others’ networks and therefore are a potential resource for them. If networking doesn’t run both ways, contacts won’t be supportive for long. Be willing to help others by sharing expertise, knowledge or connections. And if someone asks you for guidance or advice, make time to assist them, even it’s only to offer a suggestion or refer them to someone else who might help.
#3: Overusing contacts
Most of us have go-to people who we always rely on for specific assistance. This is normal, but be careful not to call the same contacts over and over again. These individuals may start to feel that you’re taking advantage of them, especially if you never offer to reciprocate. To avoid this mistake, expand your efforts and make it a point to reach out to contacts you haven’t spoken to in awhile.
#4: Lack of appreciation
Gratitude sustains and strengthens all relationships – including professional ones. When your contacts provide significant assistance, such as helping you during a job search, or make a small gesture, like sending an article on a topic of interest to you, be sure to thank them for their thoughtfulness and support. Failure to do so is a serious breach that can quickly damage a network.
#5: Spamming your contacts
Avoid sending blanket e-mails and generic messages to your entire contact list. A better approach is to send specific, customized messages to select contacts. Take care when you sign up for newsletters, subscribe to journals or visit various websites. These often will ask if you want to “recommend” the publication or site to a friend (often, you may be offered a discount as an incentive). It’s fine to check the yes-box if you think a specific contact would truly be interested in the material, but otherwise, don’t clutter your acquaintances’ inboxes. This does not count as networking and could cause them to develop an unfavorable impression of you.
#6: Short-term thinking
When you make a new contact, think of it as the beginning of a potentially long-term relationship. Rather than adding another name to your list, take the extra step of following up an initial meeting with a written or emailed thank-you note. If a contact writes a letter of recommendation for you or makes a phone call on your behalf, let him or her know how things turned out. Similarly, if you help someone else, follow up after a week or two to see if there’s anything else you can do.
It’s no exaggeration to say that next to your training and legal expertise, your professional network is among your most valuable assets. Keep this web of relationships alive and healthy through consistent contact, offering assistance and returning favors and showing a sincere interest in your contacts’ careers. It’s the best way to ensure that your network will always be there for you.
Charles A. Volkert is executive director of Robert Half Legal, a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of attorneys, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. Based in Menlo Park, Calif., Robert Half Legal has offices in major cities throughout the United States and Canada.