Like with any relationship, the relationship you have with your law firm network will give back what you put into it. (This is true for any informal referral networks too, by the way)

While we wholeheartedly advocate that you join a network with the goal of being able to better serve your clients by offering them a broader level of expertise, and a vetted source of trusted partners around the world at a moment’s notice, we recognize the reality that many firms, of course, are also interested in receiving referrals, and working together with their fellow members to develop new business. While it’s a nice idea to think that you can join a network, tick a box, and sit back and watch the work roll in, the truth is that unless you’re in a jurisdiction where business is naturally incoming, this is unlikely to happen unless you put in some work. The network can and will help you facilitate your relationships with other members and will supercharge your networking and business development efforts, but there are some key strategic steps you can and should undertake to leverage your network membership. These ideas can also be applied to any informal referral networks that you may have. 

Research & Strategy

As with any business development efforts, you want to begin at the beginning. You’re busy professionals, and so rather than throwing up a few things at the wall and hoping some of it sticks and results in work, it’s better to invest a little time at the outset in considering what makes the most sense for your practice and your jurisdiction. Then develop a strategy, and the steps you’ll undertake to implement that strategy, and execute them. Review, rinse, and repeat.

The first piece of this is research. You already know your business well, so this won’t even take very long. You’ve joined a network or have an informal group of referral sources because your clients have needs in other places, or for other types of law that you are not an expert in. Make a list of the top three, for both incoming and outgoing work. Where do you expect to refer the most business over the next six months to a year, and where do you expect to receive the most business over that period? Do this for practice and industry areas within your firm as well (you’ll need this later).

With your list in hand, review the member firms in your network for those jurisdictions and identify whether those are the firms where you have the best relationships currently – while all of our relationships need regular tending, you’ll know at a glance whether there are firms on that list with whom you regularly interact at network events and in between, or whether you need to get a little better at engaging. Do a little further digging and see if you can identify from your list whether the contact partners share a practice area with you, and the same for those lawyers who regularly attend network conferences. If they don’t, make a note on your list that you’ll need to talk to those attorneys about introducing you to the right people at their firm.

While you’re conducting this research, make a note of any specialty firms within your network that share your practice area (even if they’re not in your target jurisdictions), and whether the network has a practice or industry group that you could volunteer for, in order to do some additional networking.

The next piece of this is the strategy piece, and we’re going to break that up a little bit.

Relationship Building

Relationship building is the heart and soul of any network or referral relationship. It is said over and over again until we’re sick of it, but it’s true – people do business with those they know, like and trust. If you want someone to refer work to you, you have to be the person that they think of for your type of law in your jurisdiction, at the right time.

How do you do that? By regularly engaging with them, becoming useful, and building a long-term relationship.

By focusing on those jurisdictions where you’re most likely to send and receive work, you’re maximizing your efforts. That’s not to say that other jurisdictions won’t send work to you, and vice versa, but in terms of your limited efforts at this point, it’s a good place to start.

We’ll break this down into two segments – during and in-between conferences (for those of you that don’t belong to a network or association, you can apply this first piece to networking events or other conferences you attend).

At Conferences

Conferences are the primary way for networks to bring member firm lawyers together and facilitate the relationships that drive their organizations. Whether it’s your first event, or your 15th year, it can be valuable to use the research that you’ve conducted to develop some strategy around the event to achieve even greater value out of attending. There are a few ways to do this:

  • Depending on the jurisdictions that you’ve identified, consider attending a conference outside of your region. You may typically attend the global or annual event, and your region’s conference, where you get the opportunity to network with a number of people, some of whom you know well. But if you’re a European lawyer for example, and have noted that you’re expecting a significant amount of work to come in from the US or Canada over the next year, it would be worthwhile to add in the Americas conferences for a couple of years. The attendees are often a different group of individuals, and as someone from outside the region, you’re a bit of a novelty, which highlights you to the rest of the group. Think outside the box when it comes to what you attend, even as it applies to the sessions within a conference.
  • Make use of your attendee list. Review the list before you arrive and identify the individuals who are from the firms that are on your list of jurisdictions or practice/industry areas. Here’s where it can get a bit tricky – depending on the conference, you may want to email them in advance and see if you can set up a way to meet with them at the event so that you don’t miss an opportunity. Whether this is a formal meeting, or you arrange to sit together during one of the business sessions or meals, is up to you, and will depend on the feeling of the conference itself (some conferences lend themselves to more formal, pre-arranged meetings, while some don’t). Or, you may want to handle this more organically, and try to bump into them during one of the networking opportunities. You can use network staff to help with introductions too, since they will likely have a good idea of who all of the attendees are. If you’re attending your first event for the organization, and you’re not sure how to handle meeting people, reach out to staff in advance, and they’ll be more than happy to answer your questions about the organization’s norms.
  • Even if each of the lawyers on your list are people that you know well, it’s advisable to set a goal of reconnecting with each of them at the conference at some point. Join them for breakfast, share a conversation over a coffee break, sit together over lunch, etc. Find a way to advance the relationship, and plan a follow up conversation for after the conference.
  •  Use your pre-conference planning to identify one new thing about yourself or your practice that you can share with your connections. Then use your conversations with each of them to identify two additional things – 1) how you can help them in some way and 2) how you can follow up with them within the next two weeks. Your goal here is to be useful and to continue the relationship. Yes, it feels burdensome, but it will all be worth it (and we’ll identify some ideas for follow up in the next section).

In Between Conferences

When it comes to building relationships to leverage your network membership, conferences are easy. Most of you (don’t be shy, I know it’s true) will go to a conference with little to no preparation – maybe you read the conference materials on the plane on the way there. You meet a bunch of people that you like a lot, leave with the best of intentions to follow up, and then get caught up in the daily grind almost immediately, and forget to continue engaging.

It’s really hard to stay engaged with your networks when the call of the client is much more important – I totally recognize and support that. But build some of this into your calendar and make it automatic, and it will start to work for you. And when you make it really targeted, it’s more efficient than making new friends and crossing your fingers.

So far, you’ve identified where you should get and send work, and you’ve met some (or maybe all) of those people that you should be connected to. Now you’re back in the office and wondering, what’s next?

  • First, make sure your list is complete. Earlier, we discussed identifying the right people in your practice area at each of the firms on your list. If you met lawyers from all of the firms, but they weren’t from your practice area, reach out to them, and ask them to introduce you to their colleagues in those departments. Most likely, they’ll do it by email, because that’s easier for all of us these days. But when that happens, request a phone call follow up with your new connection. Bonus points if you can arrange a Skype video call – it feels really uncomfortable for those of us who are introverts, but we’ve been testing it with some of our lawyers, and it makes a HUGE difference in the strength of the relationships that are formed when you’re not able to meet in person (more on this later). Something about that “face to face” connection, even though it’s virtual, helps to cement the relationship more than even the voice call will.
  • Work on co-authoring some articles on topics of mutual interest. All networks like to publish content from their lawyers, and collaborative content is highly prized. It’s easy to put together disparate content from multiple sources, but if you can grab a colleague from another jurisdiction, or even two more, and discuss a hot topic from your individual legal perspectives, not only will that give you the opportunity to see how the others work, but it will also have the secondary benefit of spotlighting you within the network. Doing this regularly may also uncover some areas of commonality when it comes to issues that you deal with for clients, and even clients you may share or want to pitch together. If you aim to do this quarterly, it’s not a huge burden, but it can offer some big results.
  • Do some meet and greets. Since you’re focusing on jurisdictions where you have a lot of incoming and outgoing work, it’s likely that at some point in the near future, you’ll need to visit those cities to meet with clients or potential clients. This is the perfect opportunity to connect with your local law firm friends. Arrange to meet with them in advance, preferably in their office, so that you can meet additional colleagues in their department and others. Consider bringing another lawyer with you too, so that you can introduce more of your colleagues to the firms as well. Offer to similarly host them when they’re visiting your city. Huge bonus points if you include them in your client meetings.
  • Do a road show. These have been really successful among my lawyers who have done them. Are you known for a particular topic? Prepare a presentation on either a hot topic of interest, or your jurisdiction if it’s of particular interest, and offer to visit the firms on your list (and potentially others) to present to them and a selection of their clients who would be interested. It allows you to meet more of the partners of the firm, network with some of their clients, and also shows the breadth of the hosting firm through their relationship with you. Bonus points if you consider co-presenting with your local hosts on the topic to offer multi-jurisdictional expertise.

All of these opportunities allow you not only to showcase your expertise and meet more of the right people within the firms in your network, but also to advance the existing relationships that you have within the firms. You’re showing yourself to be a valuable resource to them in your area of expertise, and you’re doing so on a regular basis, so that when an opportunity arises, your name will immediately come to mind first. But are there additional ways you can be proactive?

Supercharge your Relationships

Once you’ve fully engaged with the above tactics, and even found additional ways to adapt them, you’ll have strong, ongoing relationships with your potential referral sources and most valuable network friends. What more can you be doing to push these efforts to the next level?

  • Continue to weave relationships within your firm. We alluded to this above, but you always want to be thinking about how you can engage the other members of your firm and the firms on your list in your initiatives. There are two avenues to consider here – the first is within your practice or industry area. Bring colleagues with you, both in person and through phone/Skype calls to introduce them to members of the other firm. The more layers of relationships you can create, the stronger the overall relationship is for both firms. This especially applies for the next generation – get your associates and young partners connecting as well and encourage them to find ways to work together too. Look into secondment programs and mentorship opportunities that your networks may offer.

    Second, look outside of your practice area. There may be opportunities for your practice or industry to cross-sell (I know, we all hate that term) with other groups in your firm and your target firm. Bring lawyers from outside of your practice or industry and introduce them to their counterparts at the member firms that you know. This may be particularly effective when you’re doing a roadshow that may require additional areas of practice expertise. Use these opportunities effectively to support the members of your firm, and further weave relationships within the network.

  • Dig into your client relationships. We suggested this above as well, but take it one step further. Do two things – first, look at clients that operate in the six jurisdictions that you expect to receive and send the most work to. How might you introduce those clients to the firms that you know there? Early on in the process, this might feel intimidating, but at this stage, you will know those lawyers and their capabilities very well, so you should feel confident in making those introductions, if you haven’t already. Second, when you’re attending a conference, look at the list of attendees, and the jurisdictions that they represent. Similarly, consider your clients in those jurisdictions and how you might introduce them. If you’re not comfortable with those introductions yet, use the above steps to improve your relationships with those lawyers first.
  • Much of this looks at how firms can refer work back and forth to each other, but there is also a great deal of new work that member firms are working together to pitch for. Use the relationships that you’re developing to identify opportunities with current clients and potential clients that you can work with fellow firms to pitch for. Leverage your existing relationships to address some of the questions that might come up in advance – for example, how would you handle billing? Would you charge a single rate, a blended rate, etc.? Who would act as the main contact person on the account?

Starting with some research to target your relationship building efforts, and then engaging with network members during and in-between conferences in a strategic way, will enable you to leverage your network membership in a way that will be incredibly valuable.