Networking Instead of Hunting: The first mistake that keeps you from meeting real prospects

Seldom have so many put in so much time and effort and gotten so little out of it. For most lawyers, that about sums up their view of networking. I’ve seen no statistics, but I’d be willing to bet that attending networking events eats up the largest chunk of the time lawyers spend trying to get business.

For most lawyers, the thought of hanging around at yet another networking event, making small talk but not knowing how to get anything out of it, is discouraging. You may recall thinking, “Why did I buy a ticket to this event? I hate these things. A bunch of lawyers, standing around, smiling, trying to hustle work from businesspeople who usually have attorneys already.”

Why do so many lawyers have such difficulty with these events? There are five primary reasons. In today’s lesson, I’ll talk about the perspective most lawyers have regarding networking and how it sets them up for failure.

Wrong Perspective

The label we use to describe these events -- networking events” -- establishes the idea that we’re there to meet a lot of people to initiate relationships that will somehow become clients or lead to referrals.

The problem is that most lawyers are innately uncomfortable with, and ill-suited for the grip-and-grin routine, so they’re far less likely to succeed at it.

In her article, The Unique Psychological World of Lawyers, Robin Muir Rolfe cites the work of Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the founder of the school of Positive Psychology, which focuses on attributes and behaviors that produce success and happiness. Mr. Seligman has identified optimism as a critical attribute for both. In his book, Authentic Happiness, Dr. Seligman reviewed his research as to whether any personality attributes, and particularly optimism, were consistently correlated to success in any of 104 careers he studied. The only career he found consistent correlations for was lawyering. And the attribute? Pessimism. Pessimism was so highly correlated with success in lawyers that the higher the pessimism in law students, the higher their grades. Dr. Seligman points out that while pessimism is evidently a positive attribute for the practice of law, it can have profound effects on the individuals high in that quality, affecting their resilience and personal and professional relationships.

Skepticism is a trait that ranges from being cynical, judgmental, questioning, argumentative and self-protective on the high end to accepting, trusting and giving the benefit of the doubt on the low end. The general population has an average score of 50 on skepticism, while among lawyers it is consistently the highest scoring trait, averaging 90This trait can be very useful in the practice of law, particularly litigation, tax and M&A. However, most people tend to use their strongest traits in every arena of their lives, so this high level of skepticism is also carried over into personal relationships that may call for more trust and collaboration.

Lawyers also test very high in urgency (sense of immediacy or impatience) and autonomy (prizing independence). Lawyers test particularly low in resilience (processing feedback and recovering from defeat) and sociability (interacting with others and initiating intimate connections).

Organizational psychologist Dr. Larry Richard has written extensively in his Lawyerbrain blog about the lawyer personality and how it impacts their success with modern practice challenges. He, too, cites lawyers’ high degree of skepticism, observing that “they focus on problems rather than on what’s working well.” He points lawyers to the work of Dr. Judith Beck, who establishes a key principle that emotions drive behavior, but thinking drives emotions. In other words, when you change how you think, it changes how you feel. Thinking and feeling are not “opposites”, as we often are told, but rather they are complementary functions that work together in the brain.

“Lawyers are skeptical and exhibit a disproportionately high degree of negative thinking, which is fine in their lawyer role but an impediment in the other roles that they are called upon to play these days, such as rainmaker. They are very low in Sociability, low in Interpersonal Sensitivity, low in Resilience, high in Urgency, and very autonomous. These traits help them be effective as lawyers, but interfere with their effectiveness as rainmakers.”

Unless you’re an outlier among lawyers, with a much higher resilience quotient, and much lower Skepticism quotient, this meet-a-lot-of-people philosophy cannot work.

I trust that we’ve now established that a “networking” perspective, i.e., meet-and-greet as many people as possible, can’t work for most lawyers. However, who says we have to view it through that lens?

There’s a different perspective that’s much better aligned with the lawyer personality: hunting. When you hunt, you’re looking for something specific, which changes your purpose from meeting as many people as possible (yuck) to filtering the crowd in search of specific people. By definition, this narrows the nature of your interaction and shrinks the time you’ll spend with any individual at an event. It also simplifies the process of choosing which events to attend.

Here’s an example from my own lawyer-training career.

It may surprise you to learn that I have little tolerance for the facile chatting that characterizes most of our interactions at networking events. So I devised a strategy that minimized it for me. First, I defined who I was looking for, and decided that I would only speak with people who matched that definition. At the time, I was focused on BigLaw, and the optimal person for me to meet was an official- (management committee, practice chair) or de facto leader (big rainmaker; senior partner) from a big firm that had a lot of partners with great contact lists, but who brought in little or no business.

With that, I became a hunter. Shortly, I’ll explain how.