Navigating 'introvert hell': You don't have to be hard-charging to be an impactful legal networker

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A law firm partner once advised me to “grow a thicker skin!” when networking at legal conferences. He disfavored my quieter, one-on-one approach. I tried mirroring his extroverted, aggressive style. It didn’t work. I felt fake and awkward, annoyed and stressed. Years later, after writing The Introverted Lawyer, I finally understood why walking into a room of 300 lawyers or potential clients at a legal conference and feeling pressure to instantly forge business development connections felt daunting. The fluorescent lights, the sea of suits and the din of rapid-fire chatter seemed chaotic and not conducive to authentic conversation. I usually circled the perimeter, clutching a glass of pinot grigio, not knowing how to infiltrate this “club” to which everyone else already seemed to belong.

Last year, my entire perspective on networking changed. On the opening night of a legal conference, I attended the welcome dinner, a raucous affair in a brewery. High-powered lawyers hobnobbed near the buffet. The venue was loud, brightly lit and chock-full of gregarious extroverts. What am I doing here? I looped the rustic space, perused the appetizers, scanned nametags for conversation starters and chided myself for wanting to leave. I bumped into my co-panelist, who mouthed, “This is introvert hell.”

Laughing, I responded, “Want to spend another half-hour here and then grab dinner at the hotel?” Newly emboldened as a team, we dove back in for 30 minutes, intermingling with different groups, inviting individuals to our panel and learning about other upcoming presentations that piqued our interest. We then hopped in an Uber, returned to the conference hotel and shared a wonderful dinner and vivacious conversation, solidifying a new friendship. Since that dinner, we have collaborated and cross-promoted one another’s work several times. This lasting connection sprung out of shared authenticity and vulnerability.

Instead of forcing extroversion in high-pressure networking scenarios that naturally drain our energy and cause unnecessary internal conflict, introverts can be powerful connectors by recognizing and capitalizing on our inherent strengths. For naturally quiet individuals, being a good networker is not—as is often suggested—about “boosting our confidence.” We are confident. We’re good at what we do. Instead, it’s about strategically choosing circumstances that play to our gifts: impactful one-on-one connections in environments that ignite, instead of sap, our spark.

a few strategies

“Know thyself.” Socrates championed this mantra. If you are a naturally quiet lawyer, first get to “know thyself”—your personality strengths and perceived challenges. Read books on introversion and understand why highly stimulating networking environments can feel energy-sapping—instead of energy-generating as they might be for extroverts. In what types of interpersonal interaction do we thrive? One-on-one? Small groups? Attending presentations and connecting with the speakers? Sports outings? Volunteering? In what venues of interpersonal interaction do we not thrive? I do not thrive in “speed networking,” small talk, situations involving constant interruption and high-pressure “sales” scenarios. Make a list of your networking likes and dislikes.

Identify concrete, long-term and event-specific goals. It’s important to identify why we want to develop business: Is it because someone is telling us we have to, or is it because it’s valuable for our personal growth and professional fulfillment? Let’s own exactly what we want for ourselves. Is the goal to land one giant client now, or plant multiple seeds of connection for the future? What type of clients or cases do we want five years or 10 years from now? What types of individuals—personality, character, demeanor and values—do we want to work with in the near and distant future? For specific events, is the goal to gather piles of business cards, or instead initiate three new potentially noteworthy relationships?

Don your research hat. Before networking events, identify the attendees, what their roles are, who might fit into your long-term plan and what makes these folks interesting outside the law. People love to talk about hobbies, travel, sports, families, art, music, food and adventure. It’s much easier to connect with a stranger over a mutual appreciation for Italian travel, artisanal doughnuts, Frida Kahlo or indoor rock climbing than it is to ask the individual to hire you. Have any of these potential “connectors” written anything intriguing? Most authors love to bond with “fans.” Positive feedback sparks instant connections.

Establish boundaries. An effective networker does not need to meet everyone, gather every business card or attend every coffee break, meal or social gathering of a full-day or multiday event. I can be highly functioning for a couple hours of social interaction, and then I absolutely need to be far away from people to rekindle energy. Intersperse breaks into your networking schedule: a walk outside, especially to explore an unfamiliar city; a quiet half-hour in an art gallery in the middle of the day; a retreat to a peaceful hotel room; or a solo workout.

Recruit a teammate. Team up with a networking collaborator at an upcoming event and develop a joint plan for infiltrating conversations and navigating the room. You can split up and later regroup at a set time so you have a known end point for solo networking efforts. Develop an interesting tag line for co-introductions: “This is my friend Carlos. He’s a bankruptcy lawyer from Chicago, but he also trains in Krav Maga.” Or: “This is my colleague Prianka. She does M&A work in Orange County and just ran the D.C. Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon.” When I don’t have a teammate for an event, I allot myself 15 minutes to ease into the space and scope out any obvious fellow introverts lurking alone. I approach them first, usually with a joke about how “I’m the worst at small talk.” If the person is responsive and open to bonding over introversion, it’s a great opportunity to develop engaging tag lines for one another and then test them out “in the field.”

Create a role. Task-based roles at networking events serve as automatic ice breakers. Volunteer to run the registration desk, create nametags, distribute handouts or circulate sign-in sheets. Speaking on panels is another valuable way to participate in a networking event and showcase your creative persona through engaging slides or content. People will want to connect with you—the subject matter expert—after your presentation. Your topic is a ready-made focus for follow-up dialogue. Further, if a networking group does not exist in a subject matter area in your geographical area, create one and be the leader.

Be you. As a naturally quiet person who grapples with performance anxiety, I was told all my life to “fake it till I make it.” That was terrible advice. Dressing up in a suit and trying to fake extroversion made me an abysmal networker instead of a great one. Now, I wear something professional that makes me feel like me. I approach each potential connection authentically and craft tag lines that reveal who I am inside rather than just a boring professional label: “I’m a law professor and a writer, but I also love the band U2 and boxing.” We are not just lawyers; we are artists, athletes, music aficionados, travelers and connectors. Aren’t we tired of talking about politics or the weather? Let’s creatively highlight commonalities and discern interesting differences that will help us go deeper than small talk. Channel Aristotle’s logos-pathos-ethos-kairos formula and consider a mode of describing yourself that is smart, emotionally engaging, perhaps funny and demonstrative of your character.

Follow-up. Introverts excel at follow-up. In the comfort of quietude, we can use our thoughtful writing skills to reach out to new contacts and reprise points of deep connection. I set aside a “correspondence afternoon,” an homage to the olden days when people penned letters. Keep a list of new connections and carve out a few hours each week to write emails or handwritten notes, building on initial bonds. Write to speakers whose presentations you enjoyed. Send authors kudos about their latest articles or blog posts. LinkedIn and Twitter are fantastic ways to stay abreast of other people’s interests and work. Please use them for good, not evil, and promote the achievements of others. Also, consider writing your own shareable articles about legal topics that interest you.

If you’re an introverted lawyer and have been told you need to change to “be a better networker,” I invite you to instead pause and honor how amazing you are. In the words of the great networker Bono, “Free yourself, to be yourself if only you could see yourself.” (U2, “Iris.”)

Heidi K. Brown is an associate professor of law and director of legal writing at Brooklyn Law School. She is the author of The Introverted Lawyer: A Seven-Step Journey Toward Authentically Empowered Advocacy (ABA 2017) and Untangling Fear in Lawyering: A Four-Step Journey Toward Powerful Advocacy (ABA 2019).

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