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Cracking the networking code

Networking. Just hearing the word conjures images of juggling wine and hors d'oeuvres while shouting stilted small talk in a too-loud room. Oh, you're at XYZ Corp.? And how long have you been in that role? That sounds...fascinating...

Stress about mingling in a room full of strangers, anxiety about what to talk about in a professional environment, and general distaste for the mercenary nature of the interactions can make networking sound like a form of penance, especially for junior lawyers, the necessary price for a fancy dinner or a partner-approved night out. But networking doesn't have to be stressful. It can be easy - and even fun! - if you keep a few things in mind.

It's a team sport. While networking can absolutely be done solo, it is much easier, especially at the beginning, if you work with a partner. Going to networking events with someone you know takes a lot of the stress off. When you have good company, everything becomes easier: navigating an unfamilar venue, balancing your glass and napkin-wrapped slider while shaking hands, or keeping the conversational ball rolling. Try not to go with a big group - it's too easy to stick together all evening, which kind of defeats the purpose. But someone you can talk freely with about the experience, whether a peer or trusted mentor, will make your time less stressful and more effective.

Have a hook. You wouldn't try fishing without a hook. Don't try networking without one either! What's a hook? It's a brief opener that grabs the attention of the person you're talking to, tells them who you are and - hopefully - makes them want to connect. So, don't say, "Hi, my name is Tyler, and I'm a first-year bankruptcy associate at Dewey, Cheatem and Howe." Instead, try to tailor your introduction to the person you're talking to: "Hi, I'm Tyler! I just started on the bankruptcy team at Dewey, Cheatem and Howe, and I have already been really struck by the difficulty of navigating management's view of a company's prospects versus the financial reality. I heard you say that you've represented several large companies in insolvency - do you have any words of wisdom for someone just starting out on how to negotiate this dynamic?" Obviously, this is easier if you come prepared with a few things about your practice area that you find genuinely interesting. Read up a bit before the event so you'll feel ready to make intelligent conversation, then dive in as appropriate.

Find your tribe. Stay on the lookout for "your kind of people." It's important to be able to make professional connections with people with different life experiences, particularly if you are from an ethnic, cultural or socio-economic background that doesn't mirror your professional context. But there can be a lot of personal satisfaction in connecting with people who share in parts of your identity that you don't often get to emphasize in your work life. Whether they are people who share your eccentric hobbies, religious identity or just your outlook on life, professional connections who share a personal affinity are true treasures in your network.

Be a good listener. Listen carefully for what the person you are speaking with is interested it. What makes her lean forward? What makes his eyes light up? Follow the thread. Show an interest. If you're a talker, be careful to share floor time generously. If you're a quieter type, make sure your body language and conversation convey engagement. Networking is fundamentally the art of making connections with strangers. When people feel heard, respected and engaged, they are much more open to connecting.

Follow up. You don't have to follow up with every person you meet at a networking event. In fact, unless you are very highly motivated or have a masochistic streak, always trying to follow up with everyone will quickly turn you off networking entirely. But if you can, reach out within a few days to the people whose company you enjoyed or who said something striking or meaningful. An email or a handwritten note reminding them who you are, where you met and expressing appreciation will almost always be welcome. And you should keep following up! When you read an article that reminds you of someone, don't just smile at the memory - send it to them! A two-sentence email is often enough to contextualize what you're sending: "Hi Marie, This article reminded me of our lovely conversation about bees at the the HRC gala last fall. Hope all is well."

The upshot: Networking is all about connection. So create conditions that make it easier for you to connect, find people you want to build relationships with, and enjoy the ride!

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