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As many have correctly observed, from now through the end of the year is the most intense business socializing period of the year. Many see this as a networking opportunity. After all, we'll have an opportunity to meet a lot of people we don't know, some of whom might be prospective clients or referral sources.

This may be a shock to your system, but, you should be hunting, not networking. Compared to hunting, networking is a waste of time. To use a favorite Chris Rock expression, "That's right; I said it."

Let's start with two definitions of "networking," from Wikipedia and Webster's :

Business networking is a socioeconomic business activity by which groups of like-minded businesspeople recognize, create, or act upon business opportunities.
— Wikipedia
net·work·ing noun

1: the exchange of information or services among individuals, groups, or institutions; specifically : the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business
— Merriam-Webster

The key words are "productive relationships," and " opportunities." This is very different from "any relationships" and "hoping there's somehow an opportunity."

Observing what typically happens at networking events, these definitions seem to have been interpreted as "gathering a bunch of people at a venue and hoping to encounter an undefined 'someone' possessing undefined characteristics who, for undefined reasons, will want to give us business of some undefined type, at some undefined time in the future."

How could that possibly work?

Pretty vague, eh? With everything so undefined, how could this possibly work? This is well beyond long-shot odds. No wonder most lawyers come home disappointed and discouraged.

  • Without a specific purpose, how can we declare success for the evening?

  • Without specific, objective, easily-revealed characteristics, how could we know if those we meet are the right ones or not?

Is everyone and anyone equally opportune for us? Of course not. So, if "anyone who can fog a mirror and order business cards" is a bit too broad a description, who do we want to meet at this event? What objective, easily-revealed characteristics would allow us to recognize a productive connection?

Without knowing what we're hunting for, not only can't we find it, but we also don't know where to hunt. That assures that we'll waste a lot of time going to gratuitous events.

Tennis, anyone?

Let’s put this in a dating context. Let’s say you're a skilled and passionate tennis player. You've learned that your passion for playing tennis means that having a skilled tennis player as a mate is really important and that, conversely, having a spouse who's not a serious player will be a source of friction because of the amount of time and money you spend playing tennis. There's no point going to a generic mixer. After all, only 10% of the US population plays tennis, only 20% of those are considered "frequent players," and less than 30% of those are serious players (skill rating 4.0 or higher), so your odds of meeting a serious tennis player of either gender at a generic event is roughly 6 out of 1,000. Long odds, indeed.

So, you go to an event that's for tennis players. That raises your odds of finding a frequent player to 20%, and a skilled player to 6%. Assume that they're evenly split by gender, and you've got a 3% chance of meeting a serious player of the desired gender.

This person you're chatting with likes and plays tennis but isn't a serious player? Move on. Your purpose is to find serious players, not people who merely enjoy playing. Time spent with other than serious players doesn't further your goal.

If you find yourself at a generic mixer, as soon as possible after saying hello, you find a way to learn whether or not this person plays tennis, and how seriously. If he or she doesn’t, you have no reason to invest time cultivating them in the unfounded hope that somehow, someday, they’ll start playing tennis, and quickly be able to play well. You’ll move on, looking for tennis players. Non-tennis players are irrelevant to your purpose.

Why don't we apply that same instinctive reasoning to our pursuit of the right business contacts?

Law practice example

If you're a corporate lawyer with expertise in helping family-owned businesses deal with the challenges of transitioning ownership and control from the "founder generation" to the "successor generation," you're looking specifically for owners of family-owned businesses. So, instead of going to your town's generic business networking functions, you're better off seeking out a local chapter of the Family Firm Institute. It's populated exclusively by owners of family-owned businesses.

Now, the odds that whomever you meet has a family-owned business approaches 100%. All you have to do is pose the business problem that drives demand for your expertise, and invest time only in those who have a reason to care about that problem.

The side benefit of associating with a demand-triggering business problem is that it makes it easy for others to recognize who you should be connected to. They hear their friends and colleagues talking about ceding control of the family business to the sons or daughters; they rarely hear them talking about legal services.

Every time I post something like this, I get flamed by people offended that I'm saying there's no value in meeting people and getting to know them. On the contrary, it's thoroughly enjoyable to meet new people and learn about them. However, that's not why we go to business networking events. As the definitions remind us, we're there seeking opportunity, not acquaintances.

Lawyers simply don't have the time to indulge an egalitarian approach to meeting people. Most spend an hour or two per week on all forms of market outreach, not just networking. They aren’t in position to bet on long shots, wandering aimlessly, hoping for the best.

IMO, lawyers would be better off dumping the idea of “networking,” with its implied randomness and hoping, in favor of “hunting,” i.e., knowing exactly who would have a reason to need someone with your skills, and under what conditions. Knowing this, you only attend events with a high likelihood of being populated with such people. You spend your time filtering the room, briefly discussing the problem that you solve, looking for those who acknowledge having that problem, and disengaging from others as quickly and graciously as possible.

Too much of lawyers’ business networking consists of hanging around with no purpose, happy to talk with anyone who can fog a mirror, thinking that coming home with a biz card from anyone who can fog a mirror constitutes some type of success.

Do that after you retire. For now, know what you’re looking for, and make it your purpose to find it.

Mike O'Horo

RainmakerVT's online business development training is the easiest, most convenient way to learn critical skills you need to get a proper return on time spent at networking events.

Learn how to identify and express your demand-triggering problem that opens doors to the right conversations. "Door-Opener": Associate Yourself with Business Problems that Drive Demand for Your Expertise

Learn how to hunt effectively in a way that's comfortable for you and those you encounter. Networking Events: Progress from the Doorway to a Sales Opportunity - Comfortably