How to Network Comfortably and Ethically
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By Roy S. Ginsburg, JD

Everyone knows that, much like diet and exercise, networking is good for you and that, similarly, there are lots of excuses for avoiding it. 

Understanding Networking-An Attitude Adjustment

When coaching lawyers or conducting CLEs on business development, I hear a lot of resistance to incorporating networking as a means of building a book of business. Here are the most common excuses:

* I don't have the time.

* I'm a professional; networking is like being a salesperson.

* It is outside my comfort zone.

A better understanding of what networking really is will convince you that most anyone can learn to do it comfortably. A better understanding will also lead to a realization of how indispensable it is. 

Let's discuss first what networking is not. Networking is not showing up at a conference or reception glad-handing and distributing business cards to strangers. Who wouldn't feel uncomfortable doing that?

Networking is a straightforward concept. It's building a network of people for the purpose of mutual assistance. Put the emphasis on mutual. It's not "I want your legal business." Rather, it's developing relationships among those who can help one another in professional, as well as personal, ways. In its simplest form, networking presents a platform for exchanging information that is mutually beneficial. It may be about a legal advice, but it could even be about a baby sitter or plumber if the need is expressed.

Further, and this is key to building a network, it's more about giving than receiving. Only when you give (advice, praise, recommendations, etc.) do relationships grow and develop. Once that occurs, it's only a matter of time before you get something back. 

It's human nature; people like to reciprocate. Developing trusting and dependable relationships, however, doesn't happen in one meeting. It is a process, and it requires persistence and patience to reap the benefits. 

Getting Past the Excuses

No more excuses! Below, I discredit the attitudes that stand in the way of networking progress:

I don't have the time.

Once it's understood what a well-developed network can accomplish, it can actually be a time saver. For instance, everyone who is part of your network is a potential resource, with access to information, opportunities, or ideas that could otherwise require hours of your time to gather. With an established network, it's possible the answer to a practice management issue is only a phone call or two away. 

However, the main reason lawyers should network is for business development. Attorneys have a tendency to overestimate the importance of their technical skills when, in fact, prospective clients are weighing more "human" considerations, such as "Is this someone I get along with?" and "Can I trust this person?" 

Think about the successful lawyers you know. Are they the most exceptionally skilled or technically competent legal professionals? If not, then what is it that sets them apart and sparks their success? Undoubtedly, it's the number of people they know and the quality of the relationships they have with them. Building meaningful relationships, over time, is the key to a robust practice; and effective networking is the genesis for developing those relationships.

I'm not a salesperson.

If there's a consistently common objection to networking that I hear, it's "I didn't go to law school to be a salesperson!" 

Don't confuse networking with a sales call. Remember, networking is about sharing information and listening for ways to be of mutual assistance. 

Letting people you meet know that you practice law in a firm that offers a range of services is information, not sales.  Most people are grateful to know where to find a lawyer when they need advice about estate planning, protecting a company's intellectual property, completing a business transaction, or trying to keep someone out of jail. And all lawyers can be proud of the fact that they earn their living by helping people. 

It's out of my comfort zone.

Just as networking is not handing out business cards at receptions, it is also not cold calling complete strangers. Rather, think of it as developing relationships with people with whom you may be acquainted, but would like to know better. 

Is a cup of coffee or lunch out of your comfort zone? I have coached well over one hundred lawyers from across the nation who practice at firms of all sizes. Rarely have I worked with an attorney who could not carry on a pleasant conversation in a one-on-one setting. 

Start with people you already know, professionally or personally, to create a contact list. Think about people who can benefit from an enhanced relationship with you. Here's a starter list of prospects:

*   Law firm (cross-sell) 

*   Clients   

*   People from bar association or trade/industry organizations 

* People from organizations where you volunteer

* Opposing counsel from past cases

*   Extended family members

* Friends (and their friends)

* Neighbors (do you ever wonder what to talk about at the annual block party?)

* People you went to college or law school with

* People from previous jobs

* Members of your church or synagogue

Then what?  

It's called a contact list for a reason. Prioritizing the list, contact these people to set up a casual get-together. Be prepared that not everyone will accept your outreach, so don't take it personally. They are either too busy or are too shortsighted to see the benefits of networking. 

Building a network is a numbers game. It's not about having the best personality or leading the popularity chart. To be successful at it, you must continuously circulate, adding new names to your contact list.  Building your network within groups where prospective clients or referral sources are likely to be found. You can do that by attending conferences, becoming active in professional and community organizations where you interact with many individuals and where your contributions to the organization are visible. Networking doesn't happen in your office: Get out and meet someone new. 

Practical Tips for Effective Networking

If I have achieved my goal, I've made the case for the value of networking and that it doesn't have to be an uncomfortable exercise. Here are some general tips to make those networking efforts more effective:

1.      Network systematically. Make a contract with yourself that you will spend a certain amount of time networking. For example, your contract could be a commitment to have a certain number of coffees, lunches, or association gatherings per month. Keep the commitment realistic. The goal is eventually to make networking a seamless habit.

2. Listen. Remember the ears-to-mouth ratio. You have two ears and one mouth. Listen at least twice the amount of time you talk. If you don't listen, you will not learn how you can help this person. 

3. Be enthusiastic. Few people hire lawyers who don't enjoy what they do. When I was an in-house attorney, I wanted lawyers who truly loved what they did. I was once involved in a First Amendment case and was seeking counsel. I obtained three referrals. On paper, they all had the necessary credentials and experience. I then interviewed all three. One lawyer in particular simply exuded a passion for the First Amendment when we talked. Guess which one I hired? 

4. Be confident, not arrogant. Many lawyers find it difficult to strike the proper balance. Of course, I always wanted to hire lawyers who sounded like they knew what they were doing. Unfortunately, there were many who crossed the line, boasting about themselves or their law firm. I was never impressed, but I was always incredibly bored.

5. Be patient. How many people do you know who got married after only one date? Then why expect to be hired after one lunch? Remember, networking is a process of building relationships. It may take years of staying in contact before being retained. 


There's the cliche, "it's not what you know that counts, it's who you know." Well, in the legal industry, we know for sure that what you know is of primary importance. But it doesn't do much good if others don't know you know it.  

Investing the time to develop a wide network of informational resources, advisors, and prospects yields a return that exponentially increases over the years. And that's because just about all the contacts you make, at some point in their personal or professional lives, will need legal services. Wouldn't it be great if you popped into their minds? Networking effectively will assure that outcome. 

The Ethics Rules Surrounding Networking

While there are no specific rules that have the word "networking" in them, certainly one of the primary goals of networking is business development. All lawyers seem to know the "rule" that attorneys are not supposed to ambulance-chase. But what does that really mean? According to Rule 1-400(C), an in person or by telephone solicitation "shall not be made ... to a prospective client ... with whom the member or law firm has no family or prior professional relationship ..."  

Of the three biggest misunderstandings many attorneys have about this rule, the first is that the rule applies only to hospital emergency rooms. In fact, the rule applies in any room in any type of building. 

The second common misunderstanding is that it's appropriate to solicit a "sophisticated" client -- for example, a corporate executive. There is no such exception in the rule. While the origin of the rule was likely intended to apply to environments such as hospitals where "unsophisticated" clients may be present, the rule is not written that way. If a lawyer reads in the newspaper about a company being sued and calls the CEO and asks to be considered as defense counsel, that is unethical unless the CEO falls within the exceptions noted above. If not, Rule 1-400(C) is violated. 

The third frequent mistake lawyers make concerns referrals. Those who are successful at networking frequently receive calls saying, "My friend's company really needs your help. Call so and so right now. Here's the phone number." Many lawyers think that it's permissible to make the call since, presumably, the potential client has somehow consented to being contacted. The rule, however, contains no such consent exception language. Unless the potential client falls within the rule's specific exceptions, the rule is violated. 

Then what do you say to the person who has been nice enough to provide your name to someone who may become a new client? You say something like "Thank you so much for thinking of me. However, I hope it's not too much of an inconvenience for you to have your contact call or email me. The ethics rules prohibit me from contacting your friend. I could get disciplined for doing that."

Besides the solicitation rules, lawyers should also be familiar with the rules regarding referral fees. After all, if your networking efforts are successful, you hopefully will be getting referrals. Do you know how to handle them?

Referral fees are strictly prohibited by the ethics rules for non-lawyers by Rule 1-320. Subdivision (A) states that lawyers are not permitted to "directly or indirectly share legal fees with a person who is not a lawyer." In addition, the rule provides that a lawyer "shall not compensate, give or promise anything of value to a person or entity for the purpose of recommending or securing employment."  

As for lawyers, referral fees are allowed, but you must follow certain requirements. Rule 2-200 states that they are permissible under these conditions:

*   Client consents in writing and is advised how fee is divided

*   Total fee is not increased by because of fee sharing

One final word of caution about networking. Many of your efforts may involve a meal or perhaps taking a potential client or referral source to a sporting or some other entertainment event. Is there anything unethical about picking up the tab? If you recall, Rule 1-320 states that "shall not compensate, give or promise anything of value to a person or entity for the purpose of recommending or securing employment."  Are $1000 courtside seats at Staples Center "anything of value?"  Under most circumstances, the answer is no. Most regulators would simply view client entertainment expenses as an accepted form of business development efforts and leave it at that. However, if there was ever any evidence that there was an explicit quid pro quo for the entertainment, i.e., "Client X, thank you very much for that case. Since you were so kind to give me that business, my firm will take your entire family to event Y," that would be a problem. 


After reading this article, attorneys can earn one hour of self-study "Legal Ethics" California MCLE credit by completing and submitting this associated exercise.

ROY S. GINSBURG is an attorney, CLE provider, and attorney coach. He provides services to individuals and firms from offices in Minnetonka, Minnesota. He can be reached at

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