Schmooze or Lose
It’s a common sight at legal conferences and other professional gatherings: A few attendees will sit in the back row, frantically making handwritten corrections on a legal memorandum while keeping an eye out for the latest text message on their cell phone. At breaks, they return calls and check in with staff at their law offices. In between, they might keep one ear open to what the speakers have to say.
While such Herculean efforts give some lawyers a short term feeling of accomplishment, they’re missing the big picture: Legal conferences offer an opportunity to make connections with other members of the profession. So, experts say, if you don’t schmooze, you lose.
A growing number of states require lawyers to participate in mandatory continuing legal education, and some attorneys view professional gatherings as a necessary chore.
But professional conferences offer more than just “an opportunity to get some substantive education,” says San Francisco lawyer Michael Traynor. It’s a chance to meet people who can give you a leg up in the profession. “It’s important to be outgoing and friendly,” says Traynor, who serves as honorary co chair of ALI-ABA, a joint American Law Institute and American Bar Association effort to promote continuing professional education.
“When newer lawyers are attending legal conferences or CLE programs, they should go with two things in mind,” says Stewart M. Hirsch, a former in house lawyer who now is a Boston based client development coach for law firms nationwide. “One is to learn what they can. And two is to meet people that could be helpful to them and to whom they can be helpful in furthering their respective careers.
“That means get there early enough to get to meet a few people,” Hirsch says. “And use break times as much as you can to meet people. Have a goal of leaving the conference having met two or three people that you think you’d like to continue a conversation with.”
And, whether or not you drink, “always hang around for the cocktail hour, if there is one, just so you can talk to people while you’re there,” says Helen Perry Grimwood, president of the State Bar of Arizona.
Making professional contacts, they point out, can lead to long term client referral relationships, or a new job at a law firm or corporation.
One way to maximize the benefit of a professional meeting is to be a presenter, Grimwood says. “If you attend conferences that are in the area of your practice, try to meet the panelists and suggest areas in which you may have expertise for future panels.”
Lawyers just starting out should try to get on the CLE committee of a local bar association, she advises. That should put them in a position to chair seminars even if they don’t have expertise in the area. The chair introduces panelists, “and your name goes out on the publicity,” Grimwood says. “In addition to that, they become known by the panelists as someone who’s responsible and insightful.” It’s important to pick the right meeting to attend in the first place, Grimwood adds. “You should go to a conference based on what you’re really interested in, rather than, for example, just picking conferences based on where they are.”
National conferences are worthwhile for learning more about a practice in which you already specialize and making contacts in a niche area, she advises. But when you want to learn more about trial practice and rules in your own state, attend a local conference. If the subject matter of the meeting is interesting to you, Grimwood says, “then you’re going to make a better impression as well.”