During the past decade law firms have experienced significant change. Things just aren't the way they used to be. During better times, business was easier to acquire and maintain. Client fee sensitivity, competition, specialization, and poor public image have made the practice of law much more difficult. It requires much more effort to manage and sustain a successful law practice.
What constitutes the basic requirements for developing and sustaining a successful law practice in today's business environment? One thing is for certain: What used to work may only suffice in the future. Attorneys and firm managers who recognize this fact and adjust early are likely to be ahead of the game.
Two basic objectives of business remain unchanged:
- Maintain existing clients and expand business to better meet their needs.
- Acquire new clients to replenish lost clients.
While this basic focus to develop and sustain a successful practice does not change, the ways in which these objectives are accomplished have changed dramatically. The strategies and tactics used by attorneys changes as the market makes it difficult to retain and acquire clients.
There is one common denominator to sustaining a successful practice: acquiring and sustaining meaningful relationships. While the answer may seem obvious, it must not be dismissed. Networking develops and maintains meaningful relationships.
The word "networking" causes some people to shrink in disdain. Networking is an important part of business, but few really know how to go about it.
What is Networking?
Networking is at the very foundation of all business development activities. As business development tool, it requires some understanding: You can't expect to attend an occasional cocktail party and consider that networking.
Networking is maintaining regular contact people for the ultimate purpose of developing business. It is the sincere and constant effort to help others, anticipating that you will, in turn, be helped.
Effective networking involves defining possible contacts, determining your networking purpose, developing a plan of action and committing the time and energy necessary to produce meaningful results.
Why is Networking Important?
Networking works! Most practices know that business is generated through sustained networking activity. They know the nuances and benefits of networking:
- Quality relationships take time to build and get stronger over time. They cannot be maintained without regular communication.
- People tend to feel most comfortable with others in their age group. Typically, a range of five to seven years on either side of a person's age creates an atmosphere of compatibility.
- People who share common interests (religion, political affiliation, physical exercise, children of the same age) transcend most age barriers.
- People are attracted to others who are most like them, or to those who offer unique perspectives.
- People appreciate and remember when you show personal interest in them or others important in their lives (family, employees, charitable activities).
- People do business with people they like, trust, confide in and feel comfortable around.
How Can I Network Effectively?
Networking concerns two key issues: how you establish new relationships and how you maintain effective and ongoing relationships.
Building new relationships is difficult. Firms must clearly define who they would like to have as new clients and then develop a complete listing of their current and future network of contacts. A firm's network is a group of people who may, over time, refer business to the firm or become clients themselves. By taking the time to define its network, it is better able to utilize the network. Keep the many facets of any successful network in mind:
- All the people you used to know - former neighbors, old friends, former clients, fellow employees, school acquaintances
- All the people you now know - church members, family, current clients, social contacts, charitable affiliations
- All of the people who know you - former students, attendees at your speeches, newsletter recipients
- All of the people you would like to know - prospective clients (by person or company name), influential people, leaders of trade/business associations
Decide which people on your networking list are strong possibilities for a sustained business relationship. Make these the firm's priority contacts.
Obviously, the stronger the relationship becomes the easier it is to maintain. It is important to remember that all business relationships, no matter how solid, require time and attention. Older relationships can more effectively be maintained by introducing new and creative ways of staying in touch.
Many people may balk at developing a networking list. They believe they already know their business contacts. Administrators should view this as a red flag which indicates employees are more interested in perpetuating old habits that produce familiar results. Prove that developing a network list can be illuminating. Formerly strong client relationships which weaken over time are indicators of poor networking. If it a firm does not communicate to its good clients, the door is open for other attorneys to develop a relationships which could replace your firm.
Now that the network list is clearly defined, the firm may proceed. Keep this hints in mind to ensure success:
- Establish a strong relationship so that networking contacts recognize you even from among a large group.
- Maintain one-on-one name recognition.
- Invite the person to an office luncheon and exchange business information.
- Establish a mutual point of interest -- search for something you have in common.
- Send informal notes to confirm meetings.
- Follow-up with a breakfast meeting to stay in touch.
- Express interest in finding out more about the person's business -- extend a desire to visit the person's place of business.
- Forward articles of interest.
- Invite business contacts to social events attended by other friends and associates.
- Make some type of ongoing contact every four to six weeks until you feel comfortable that this individual is a viable part of your network.
Maintain Your Network
Consider yourself the "gardener" in maintaining business relationships. Gardeners know strong growth requires constant care. Only through long-term commitment and vision will a beautiful garden flourish.
Business relationships will prosper with diligent care and nurturing. If unattended, they too will wither away. Attorneys who recognize the value relationships will take the time to manage and nurture those relationships and ensure a successful practice.
Firms can never stop managing their network. Even well-developed networks can deteriorate within a year if they are not properly maintained. Keeping the network viable can be relatively simple:
- Make regular telephone calls to prospective clients.
- Invite people to quarterly or semi-annual luncheons or holiday parties.
- Send copies of firm newsletters with personal notes. Also send birthday and anniversary cards.
- Plan annual meetings with clients to review satisfaction level.
- Occasionally stop by clients' offices.
To manage effective networking systems, firms must define the strategic focus of their efforts; defining their existing and future contacts; and develop a specific plan of action for managing networking efforts.
An effective business network is the foundation of all successful business development efforts. Attorneys and administrators must be focused and deliberate about how they maintain current clients and generate new business.