It’s true – running an organization that is built on in-person personal relationships has it’s challenges. But what doesn’t have its challenges in 2020, right?

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post about how lawyers and law firms can leverage their referral networks to achieve more value, whether these networks are formal or informal (I happen to run a formal one). There’s no reason that this has to stop because in-person events have been put on pause; in fact, many of our members have said they’ve never felt their membership has been more valuable than it has been this year. In part, that’s due to the historical relationships that they’ve built over many years. But we’re welcoming new firms too. And it’s possible to forge new relationships and create new business – it simply takes a little creativity.

As with any relationship, the relationship you have with your referral network will give back what you put into it. This is not a “set and forget” situation – if you ignore your friends, they won’t stay your friends, and if you ignore your referral sources, you won’t stay top of mind for them either. I’m going to be speaking mainly from my perspective of the formal network, but these ideas can also be applied to any informal referral networks that you may have as well.

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.

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 – and hey, during pandemic times, you *may* even have a little more time for research. You already know your business well, so this won’t even take very long. Let’s say that 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 jurisdictions, 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. Yes, I know that this is even harder when we’re limited in our face to face time.

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.

Typically, I would break this down to in-person events and in between seeing people in person, but we’re dealing with a completely virtual world at the moment (for the most part – I know that some parts of the globe are more open than others). Let’s apply what we would typically consider to be “in-person” events and activities to be “online” networking opportunities. Your formal network will either be making these opportunities available for you, or you can create these opportunities with your referral sources directly.

Virtual Events

Conferences are generally the primary way for networks to bring member firm lawyers together and facilitate the relationships that drive their organizations. However, since we’re not meeting in person at the moment, we’re limited to mostly virtual events. A lot of the same rules can apply, though, so don’t assume that you can register for a Zoom meeting, and then show up cold. Whether it’s your first zoom call or just the first that day, 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 an event outside of your region. Virtual events are breaking down borders, and THIS is the time to get to know many of your colleagues outside of your local area. It may involve varying time zones, but it will be worth the effort. Why? 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 jumping on calls with North Americans. 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.
  • Make use of your attendee list, if one is available to you. Review the list before hopping on the call and identify the individuals who are from the firms that are on your list of jurisdictions or practice/industry areas. If the list is not available (more likely given the current state of affairs, jot down the names of attendees you’d like to get to know better, and follow up with them after the call. Connect on LinkedIn and set up follow up calls or Zoom meetings where you can connect one-on-one.
  • 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 – this is challenging during a Zoom call, unless you’re able to have breakout rooms, but send a side chat to that person, and ask them to arrange a call just between the two of you. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that you want to reach out to someone until you see them “face-to-face” over Zoom.
  •  Use your pre-event 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). As a note, given the constraints of Zoom, and whether the host of the session may or may not give you time to network individually, this may not be possible during the call itself, but it’s great prep work for you to do, so that you’re ready to then follow up with the attendees you’d like to be better connected to and advance the relationships. A little pre-planning goes a long way in making the most out of your time and effort in participating in these meetings.

In Between Online Events

When it comes to building relationships to leverage your network membership or referral relationships, online events are easy. Most of you (don’t be shy, I know it’s true) will hop on a zoom call with little to no preparation (unless it’s a client call) – maybe you read the description for the session when you registered, or you checked out who the speaker or topic was. If it’s a networking call, you may have gotten the chance to see some familiar faces, some unfamiliar ones, and signed off with the best of intentions to follow up, before getting immediately caught up in the daily grind and forgetting to continuing 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 in the (home) 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. If you don’t know anyone from the firms you’d like to meet, reach out to the network’s administration to ask for an introduction.

    Most likely, they lawyers will make the intro 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 arrange a Zoom meeting – I know we all have Zoom fatigue at the moment, but it’s the closest that we’re going to come to “meeting” face-to-face for a while. It may feel uncomfortable to meet someone cold over Zoom, so if there is someone that knows both of you and is willing to be the third person in the video to begin with, that’s a great place to start.

  • 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. The best benefit of this is that you can then share it with your clients and potential clients to showcase the value of the relationships that you have, the collective power of the breadth of the network behind you, and that you’re thinking of the issues that affect them in more than your own jurisdiction.
  • Do some meet and greets. Above, I described using Zoom to make introductions or ask for introductions to other lawyers in the firms in your target referral jurisdictions. There are a few key ways to supersize this – first, and most simply, follow up on all of your existing relationships to reconnect and ensure that you’re advancing that relationship and staying connected. Set up a Zoom call or happy hour, or get creative about staying engaged. Second, use those calls to make introductions to other members of your firm, either partners within your same practice area or other complementary practice areas. Ask your connection to invite her or his partners to attend too, and discuss ways you can help each other. Finally, and truly aim for this scenario, bring in clients to these discussions. In the jurisdictions where you’re likely to send the most work, grab those firm partners on a call, and invite your clients to come on so that you can introduce them. Prep the firm beforehand, so that they can speak intelligently about something that may be affecting the client’s industry coming up, and ask questions. This seems altruistic, but it will endear you to your own client (making you a valuable partner to them), and will ultimately come back to you.
  • Do a (virtual) 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 present to the firms on your list (and potentially others) and a selection of their clients who would be interested. While you may miss out on in-person networking, if you make it a Zoom meeting, or a combination webinar/meeting, you will gain valuable information from the Q&A session, strengthen your relationship with the firm, potentially network with some of their clients, and show 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, through phone calls and in Zoom meetings 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.
  • 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 (virtual) 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 virtual event, consider whether it might be of interest to your clients too – not every event will be right for this, and they are also overwhelmed with work, but the right event at the right time may present an opportunity. If you’re not comfortable making those introductions to other members of your referral network 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? Whereas in the past, you might have been tempted to wait for an in-person conference or tried to schedule a call to handle these issues, now you can all hop on a Zoom meeting to hash out some of these questions together. Grab the other lawyers that you think would form a great team, and start brainstorming.

Starting with some research to target your relationship building efforts, and then engaging with network members during and in-between virtual events in a strategic way, will enable you to leverage your network membership in a way that will be incredibly valuable, even, and especially during the time of pandemic.

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Photo of Lindsay Griffiths Lindsay Griffiths

Lindsay Griffiths is the International Lawyers Network’s Executive Director. In this capacity, Ms. Griffiths is responsible for the oversight and management of day-to-day operations of the International Lawyers Network (ILN). She develops strategies and implementation plans to achieve the ILN’s goals, and handles…

Lindsay Griffiths is the International Lawyers Network’s Executive Director. In this capacity, Ms. Griffiths is responsible for the oversight and management of day-to-day operations of the International Lawyers Network (ILN). She develops strategies and implementation plans to achieve the ILN’s goals, and handles recruitment, member retention, and a high level of service to members. She is engaged in the legal industry to stay on top of trends, both in law firms and law firm networks.

In her role as Executive Director, she develops and facilitates relationships among ILN member firm lawyers at 90+ law firms in 67 countries, and seeks opportunities for member firms to build business and relationships, while ensuring member participation in Network events and initiatives. These initiatives include facilitating referrals, the management and execution of the marketing and business development strategy for the Network, which encompasses all communications, push-down efforts, and marketing partnerships, providing support and guidance to the chairs and group leaders for the ILN’s thirteen practice and industry specialty groups, the ILN’s women’s initiative, the ILN’s mentorship program, the management and execution of all ILN conferences, and more.

JD Supra Readers Choice Top Author 2019

During her previous tenure as Director of Global Relationship Management, the ILN has been shortlisted as a Global Law Firm Network of the Year by The Lawyer for 2016 and 2017, and included as a Chambers & Partners Leading Law Firm Network since 2011. She was awarded “Thought Leader of the Year” by the Legal Marketing Association’s New York chapter in 2014 for her substantive contributions to the industry, and was recently included in Clio’s list for “34 People in Legal You Should Follow on Twitter.” She was also chosen for the American Bar Association Journal’s inaugural Web 100‘s Best Law Blogs, where judge Ivy Grey said “This blog is outstanding, thoughtful and useful.” Ms. Griffiths was recently chosen for as a Top Author by JD Supra in their 2019 Readers’ Choice Awards, for the level of engagement and visibility she attained with readers on the topic of marketing & business development. She has been the author of Zen & the Art of Legal Networking since February of 2009.