In addition to understanding the area of the law that you’ll specialize in, there are a variety of “soft skills” that will be essential to navigating the practice of law successfully. Your professional skills may need to be further expanded over the coming years as the industry itself changes and stretches, but for now, there are a few tried and true ones you can rely on that will serve you well regardless of where you end up practicing.

A law student recently asked his connections on LinkedIn to rank the following five skills in order of importance – networking, presentation skills, business writing, communication, and time management. I’ve been exploring these topics for law students over on the ABA Law Student blog, Before the Bar, but they’re equally valuable for more experienced lawyers as well. So let’s take a look at how we can adapt these tips for practicing lawyers.

Have a Plan

We’ve discussed the importance of business development planning here ad nauseum, and the reason for that is because it’s essential. Start with your goals and expectations – what do you want to achieve from your networking? Are you looking to expand your practice by 5 new clients? Would you like to do more work for the same clients? Are you trying to find new referral sources? Would you like to expand into a new area of the law?

Set some reasonable, measurable goals for yourself, and write these down. Then, create a strategy for achieving these goals. It may involve attending formal networking events, reaching out to friends and current clients in your network, getting to know some of your partners better, broadening your social media reach, etc.

Use these goals and strategies to develop your overall plan, which should be a written one that you can check in on quarterly – this will allow you to review what you’ve done over the past three months to advance your goals, as well as set up for the next quarter what activities you’d like to commit to.

It’s also helpful to have a plan for each of the activities that you pursue as well. For example, if you’re attending an event, whether it’s purpose is overtly networking or not, you may want to:

  • Commit yourself to meeting five new people and getting their business cards.
  • Review the attendee list in advance, if there is one, and research those people online to see who you’d like to get to know better.
  • For networking events, reach out to the organizers to see how you can volunteer or assist.
  • Write down one key fact about everyone you speak with, so that you have a reason to follow up.
  • Commit to setting up five phone or in-person meetings with the people that you’ve met within a week of the networking event.

As you work to execute your plan, consider having an accountability buddy. Is there a partner at your firm that you’re close to, or a mentor you’re working with, who can act as a sounding board for the goals and strategies you’re undertaking? Having someone to be accountable to can be a huge motivator for sticking to your plan.

Do your Research

I mentioned this briefly above, but in today’s hyperconnected world, there’s no excuse for not doing your research, and we all pretty much expect it these days. You’ve already checked out friends and potential dates online, so why not also look at potential clients and referral sources?

Social media gives you incredible research tools on your targets. When you have a plan, as you’ve created above, you have an idea of who your “audience” is and you can look up:

  • The latest news stories about them.
  • The experience and interests of their employees.
  • The things the company really cares about (this is helpful to identify how you would approach a potential client).

All of this is key information for how YOU will be able to add value as a potential client’s lawyer, or when connecting with a possible referral source. This does take an investment of time, but the research is well-worth it.

Add in an often-overlooked area of research too – when you’re connecting with someone from a different country, or even a different state, do your cultural research. This can also hold true with someone coming from a specific industry. Familiarize yourself with language patterns, cultural norms, etc. that you may need to know in order to show respect and stand out from the crowd.

Hone Your Elevator Speech

We all know our elevator speeches by now, but how effective is yours…really?

You know that it’s the 30 seconds or so that you get in which to describe what it is you do when someone asks you what your job is, like if you were to get in an elevator and only had as much time as it takes to get to your floor to explain your value.

Consider for a moment what your typical answer is once you have your law degree in hand – either “I’m a lawyer,” or “I’m a partner at X law firm.” Does that sound about right?

But, importantly, while your elevator speech is *technically* all about you, it should actually explain how you help to solve the problems of your potential clients, or, when speaking with a referral source, how you may conversely help them. It tells people a) who your clients or potential clients are, b) what you can do to help them, and c) why that person should keep talking to you.

In my case, my elevator speech is something along the lines of “When a mid-sized firm doesn’t want to merge with a larger firm or open an office overseas, I help to connect those lawyers to other jurisdictions around the world so that they can refer their clients with confidence.” That not only explains what I do, but opens the door for additional conversation and discussion.

Social Media can Supercharge your Efforts

Whether you’re super confident with social media, or still thinking that it may be something that “the kids use,” social media can supercharge your networking efforts. Currently, we have the most generations in the workforce in history, and their use of social media varies widely. In the legal industry, while we do see a lot of usage of Facebook (a bit surprisingly), the majority of lawyers are still most comfortable on LinkedIn and, slightly less frequently, on Twitter. So, when you want to know more about in-house legal departments or a potential referral source, those are a fairly safe bet.

  • Follow relevant hashtags on both sites to stay up to date on what’s happening in the areas of practice that you care about, current issues in your area of practice, and hot topics related to the companies you’re targeting.
  • Follow companies on LinkedIn and Twitter to see their latest news and events. Create search columns on Twitter to see any time the company name is mentioned.
  • Use LinkedIn to see who you may already be connected to within the organization, or where you may share a mutual connection that you can leverage. This can be especially helpful with potential referral relationships.
  • Prior to a networking event, connect to key attendees on LinkedIn and Twitter, with a personalized note that explains why you’re reaching out. If you don’t have advanced access to an attendee list, follow up with everyone you met afterwards by connecting on LinkedIn.

To really stand out, consider developing your own thought leadership pieces on topics of interest that you find these companies are interested in.

  • As you’re following key contacts on Twitter and LinkedIn, see what they write about or share on, and use that as a key thesis to add your own comments.
  • When you share the piece (also on LinkedIn and Twitter), tag them and use the opportunity to introduce yourself.
  • Observe what hashtags are being used with similar pieces and add those to your social shares.
  • Engage in follow-up discussion in the comments and replies, and potentially use that discussion for additional content.

Engage fully in the platforms as well – in addition to engaging in conversations in response to your posts, share other posts of interest, particularly those within the areas that you’re concentrating on, and that may be of interest to the key contacts that you want to gain the attention of. On LinkedIn, identify 2-3 groups that you may benefit from participating in and ask and answer questions, post comments and connect.

Networking Happens Everywhere

For older generations, social media used to be something we could “check off” on our to do list – it was separate from the projects that we did day to day, rather than an underlying piece of our full strategy. Networking can be a bit the same (even though it’s been around for much, much longer). You may think, “Oh, I have ‘networking’ on my plan for this month. I’d better sign up for that alumni reception or find a networking event to go to.”

But networking happens everywhere, all the time. At those events, yes, but also spending time with the parents of your children’s friends at sporting events. Standing in line at the coffee shop. Chatting about something you’re passionate about on Twitter.

Because of this, it doesn’t have to be a big scary thing – there are ways to network that can make it more enjoyable if it’s not high on your list of fun things to do.

  • Find local events or activities that are centered around things that you enjoy – running clubs, charities, cycling groups, book clubs, cooking classes, even your local political party if you’re passionate about it. Check your local paper to see what events may be happening in your town, look on LinkedIn for some groups that may have local opportunities, or join an organization that you can get involved with.
  • Never eat alone – I’m an introvert, so this can be a challenge for me, but if you give yourself a goal of forcing yourself to meet with someone for a meal once or twice a week (or more!), this can be a great networking activity. Law school classmates, local alums, legal partners, current referral sources, online relationships you’re trying to take offline, people you’ve met at actual networking events, etc. Grow your group beyond the same people that you always dine with, and you’ll find your network expanding rapidly. If you’re struggling for new company, ask your friends to invite one new person each time you meet for a meal.
  • Take online relationships offline – as I mentioned above, look at taking your Twitter and LinkedIn relationships to the next level. If you have been conversing online with someone who is local (or you’ll be traveling to their city at some point), offer to meet them for coffee or a meal. The online connection smooths the in-person meeting tremendously, and there’s truly no substitute for meeting face-to-face.
  • Add an extra day to your travel – whenever you have the opportunity to travel out of town, whether it’s for business or pleasure, add an extra day on to the trip for networking. Meet up with local friends you haven’t seen in a while, reach out to those LinkedIn or Twitter connections you know in that city, or even send out a general social media request for whoever may like to connect while you’re in town. Reach out to some local lawyers to set up meetings while you’re visiting – you’ll get the additional perspective on practicing law in another jurisdiction and develop potential referral connections for the future.

Sales is not a skill that is taught in law school, and while you may feel uncomfortable with the idea that you have to learn more about selling to be an effective lawyer, it’s true no matter what your job description is. All of us must be able to communicate effectively about what we do and how we add value and be able to identify who we help and how. The one thing that is always driven home about sales is “always be closing.” But for lawyers, it’s more appropriate to say that it is “always be networking.”