Like many in house attorneys, I began my career in a law firm. At that time, the common perception among younger attorneys was that there were two, almost universally acknowledged, joys of going in house: no more networking (now called client development) and no more time sheets.
When I moved to Chicago, I was the stereotypical small town girl. I did not know any lawyers, and my mother worked nights in a rural post office in Colorado, sorting mail. I did not know anyone other than individuals I met during my summer at the law firm. I saw that many of my fellow associates were comfortable attending dinners, charitable events and professional gatherings. They drew upon a family legacy of professional relationships in the Chicago area to talk about the firm and their career, and some brought in actual clients. But nothing filled me with more dread than these networking events. I couldn’t even figure out what to wear. The thought of spending my evenings and weekends approaching strangers at events for causes and organizations in which I had no underlying interest, just to frantically hand out business cards in the hope of developing a book of business, was not my idea of a good time.
The first several years of my in house career kept my introverted heart happy. The office was located in the suburbs, so we were removed from the social and professional circuit. We were extremely busy after our spin off from our corporate parent. Nose to the grindstone was the banner under which we proudly lived our lives. I spent time socializing with my coworkers and developing relationships with people with whom I already had something in common – the company.
Suddenly, we had a new General Counsel, and I had the privilege of meeting a woman who became a mentor and friend. Through my relationship with her, I learned how valuable networking truly was. And I was surprised to learn that it had nothing to do with giving strangers business cards.
For purposes of this article, I will assume that you are already developing relationships with your colleagues in house. You are learning about the business and demonstrating your value as a team player. You understand that it is easier to work with people when you know them personally, and that this is especially true when you are working in an international company with colleagues representing different cultures around the world.
For an in house attorney, networking is not about client development (although it might help you find your next job or a not for profit board position). The benefits are much more personal – your network will help you develop as an attorney and as a professional; it will help you identify resources to better represent your client; and it will serve as a support system for you as a person. You will form genuine friendships that endure beyond titles or professional roles. As I walk through a transition, it is my network that helps remind me of who I am as a professional and a person, and what I have to offer in my next role.
At times, business colleagues might say that networking outside of the company is unnecessary or just about ego. But networking will make you better in your day job. Your network will give you people to call when you need to find a quick answer. You will be able to identify and select outside counsel in a remote location. Networking will introduce you to others in companies facing similar challenges. You will be able to benchmark easily and quickly determine best practices. You will learn about developments in the legal profession – legal operations, AI and virtual legal practice, and ways to manage legal costs in a lean environment. Networking is a great way to meet people who are not like you, which will make you more comfortable participating in or managing a diverse workforce. Attending CLE and other events will keep you up-to-date in various areas of the law, and you will know who has the expertise that you might need in those areas. And most importantly, being known in the legal and business community will ensure that your phone message gets returned when there is an emergency impacting your company.
How you network depends very much on who you are as a person. It will also depend upon the nature of your practice and industry, where you live, and your personal circumstances, including how much time you have to spend on networking activities. And it is always a balance. We are all very busy. It is hard to spend time at conferences and events when you have a full ‘to do’ list at the office. It is easy to fall into the nose to the grindstone approach. You also likely have family or other personal obligations that must come first. But, if you move forward in a thoughtful and structured manner, building a professional network is worth the time spent. In my next #CallingonChristine article, I will highlight the top ten networking lessons that this introverted, small town girl learned over time.
And on the question of time sheets, you can hold on to the illusion that they are a thing of the past, at least until the Tax Department shows up and starts talking about allocations.
Until next time…