I once got stuck in a horror movie at a party. It was my cousin’s engagement party and I was 11. I have a lot of cousins and while I can now name almost all of them, at the time I didn’t know the names of anyone beyond them – the second cousins, the great aunts, the family friends from church who are technically not family but who appear at family events as often as four bean salad.
I got stuck with an older woman I didn’t know. She was very nice but seemed not to know how to talk to me. Once we had agreed that we were at a very nice party we ran out of things to say. And then …. we just stood there. For so very long; like several minutes. That is a long time to gently nod and smile weakly, and occasionally say “mmm”. It only ended when my sister wandered past and I blurted, “Oh look my sister! I have to go.”
Now, as an adult, I know that the method society has agreed upon to exit a conversation like that is to say you need to go to the bathroom, even if you have already exited five conversations that way that evening. (Is that why the women’s bathroom at events is always full, because nobody wants to talk to each other? The penny drops.) But I didn’t know that then. I was a child, and I rightly delegated responsibility for entry and exit from the conversation to the adult. All I knew was I had to be polite. I couldn’t say, “This is horrible, please let me leave”, but I hadn’t been given the code version of that (“Ooh, I see they have refreshed the dip, if you’ll excuse me”), so I just stood there. Minutes are long when you don’t know how many of them there will be and no-one is saying anything.
That incident is exactly why I hate “networking”.
My mother is very wise, and a principle she lives by is that “your network is your net worth”. When I write it down it sounds a bit capitalist and inhuman, which is not how she means it. I think the originator of the principle used the word worth because of the half rhyme with work, but they really meant “opportunity pool” (definitely not as catchy).
The idea is that the people who know your name, like you, respect you, and would be willing to take your call, are the people from whom new opportunities might come (and to whom you might give opportunities yourself).
I used to hate networking…
For two reasons. The first was the fear of being stuck in a conversation I couldn’t exit, which I think is very reasonable. The second was that I hate falseness and self-interest, and I felt that your average networking event stunk to high heaven of both.
I have read a lot of books on business and professional development, and many of them tried to tell me that “selling myself” was really a generous act, a recognition that what I have to offer had value and people would benefit from hearing it. These books said that every act in life is a form of sales, really, when you really think about it. And these books were not by the cynical marketing types who preach duplicity and profit at all costs; they were by authors I love whom I believed to be trying to add good to the world. But even so, these books made me feel deeply uncomfortable and sometimes even vomiting.
I can see the first part of the argument, that when you genuinely believe that you have a service or an idea that could improve something for someone else, you need them to know about it so they can receive the benefit. But sales is about self interest, and you can’t forget the second bit, where you are telling someone something so that you can get something from them (money, a job, an opportunity).
The question becomes, then, if you hate traditional networking, how do you make a network? It’s actually easier than you think, and might only cost $5.
Six easy steps
Step 1: Identify a person in the profession you would like to meet.
Step 2: Email the person and tell them you would like to meet them. Explain why you want to speak to them specifically, and humbly ask if you can buy them coffee to discuss that thing.
Step 3: Prepare for the meeting by having some thoughtful questions to ask.
Step 4: Meet for coffee and make an honest effort to pay. The types of people who like helping junior lawyers also like to pay for their coffee, I have learned, but try anyway.
Step 5: Feel the sparkly feelings of being yourself and being helped by a person you admire, and probably having new insights and perspectives on whatever you were wondering about.
Step 6: Send a heartfelt thank you note by post or email.
Congratulations socially anxious, party-hating friend: you just networked. And you didn’t have to be false or make small talk or eat hummus. Boom.
I started out in the profession assuming everyone more senior than me was basically out for themselves and had no time for others, especially strangers. But it turns out this is a profession full of people who care about their junior counterparts and enjoy being asked for help and advice. If you are polite and respectful of time and expertise, you can learn directly from people you admire about work areas you might want to move into, or how to improve your leadership skills or advance your career, or how to handle a difficult situation you are managing, or anything else people use drink mixer events for, including simply meeting interesting people. Some people will not have the time or inclination, but many will if you ask nicely.
It turns out there are lots of ways to do anything, and even if everyone else does it one way, you can find a different way that works for you.
Katie Cowan firstname.lastname@example.org is a former lawyer. She is now a director of Symphony Law, a consulting practice for lawyers. Katie hosts the New Lawyer podcast (thenewlawyer.co.nz) and writes on matters affecting the legal profession.