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Solo Contendere: The holidays – time for a networking party

The University of St. Thomas Law School, my alma mater, is having its Christmas party in a few hours. I’m still waffling about whether I’m going to go. It’s not that I don’t want to. But I have work stacking up, and the Vikings game is tonight as well. It would mean fighting rush hour traffic both ways from my office in St. Paul over to Minneapolis and back again; probably at least an hour of driving for about an hour of time spent at the party.

The other problem is that it’s hard not to look at this as a networking event. It’s fun to catch up with people and see the old haunts. And if it’s anything like the other networking events I (rarely) go to, I end up spending all my time talking to people I already know. Which is good but silly. There’s no better place to meet and get to know other lawyers than a Christmas party with its baked-in connection: You went to the same school as almost everyone there. Meet. Talk shop. Talk about the good old days. Leave with an impression of people you’ve never met before, or only knew vaguely. There’s something wrong with me if, after years in practice, when a potential client approaches me with a case outside my wheelhouse, there are still times I have to tell them that I don’t know anyone who practices in that area. How is it possible that this still happens?

Easy. I haven’t been networking. And it’s because I have arbitrarily divided events into “social,” which I like, and “networking,” which I don’t.

In the classic division of “finders, minders, and grinders,” I fall firmly in the grinder camp. I would much rather still be in my office late at night polishing a summary judgment memo than out meeting new people and rounding up new business. I’d always rather email with clients than meet on the phone or talk in person. It’s more efficient. When I do go to networking events, I tend to go to the same ones and talk to the same people. It’s not that I don’t like new people. It’s just that if given the choice I’d usually rather talk to a friend than go meet someone new. I find the social event within the networking event, and spend my time there. That’s not a great thing for a solo practitioner.

Having a good network is essential for everyone, of course, not just small-firm lawyers. For a solo attorney, though, a good network is essential. It means a fresh set of eyes when you’ve immersed yourself in a case so thoroughly that it gets hard to see another perspective. It means people to keep you in the loop about new developments in the law that you might have missed. It gets you out of the office and into a professional setting when it’s easy to become cloistered. It means having someone you trust when you can’t be there in a client emergency. And yes, it means a network of people who are willing to refer cases back and forth, helping keep everyone working in their preferred practice areas.

Intellectually, I know all these things. But I still keep the artificial distinction between meeting someone socially and meeting someone while networking.

I don’t mean to sound anti-social. I’m not, I assure you. There’s something about calling an event “networking” that makes it sound forced and unpleasant. But there shouldn’t be. The key, someone once told me, is that you shouldn’t think of networking as a professional event. If you look at it as a way to professional advancement it will be strange and forced, even if you’re as interested in helping others as meeting others who can help you. The key to networking is community — meeting and engaging people on a personal level. Put in a way that made more sense to me, what she was saying was that the distinction between fun “social” events and tawdry “networking” ones was a false one.

It was good advice, but I’ll admit, not an easy one to put into practice. It’s hard to avoid the negative connotations of the term “networking.” So I’m trying to take the sting out of it by calling everything a networking event. Bar association happy hour? That’s a networking event. Christmas party?  Networking. Tailgating the Vikings game? Sure, that’s networking too. I figure if I use the word in the context of less “professional” events as well, it will draw the negative connotations out of it.

Presumably, the best “finders” are those who are genuinely interested in other people, and for whom networking never has that (for me) negative association that comes with explicit business development. I don’t know, because that connotation is always hovering around when I’m at networking events. Not tonight, though. Tonight I’m going to a Christmas party. A networking Christmas party. I will drink eggnog and eat little appetizers and know that people are there because we are all Tommies, and even if there’s also some business advantage to meeting new people there. I’ll try to remember that there’s only an artificial distinction between making new friends and expanding your professional network. Oh, and I’ll get my picture taken with Santa. He doesn’t care whether I can refer him cases or not.

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