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Networking for the solo or small firm practitioner

David Paul’s Field Notes
|Written By David A. Paul
Networking for the solo or small firm practitioner

I am often asked by lawyers venturing out on their own questions like “What hardware or software should I purchase?”; “Should I lease or buy?”; and “How do I set up a trust account?” Surprisingly, the one question I am not often asked is “What steps can I be taking to network my practice?”

Networking is an essential ingredient to a law practice and it was certainly an important consideration for me when I went out on my own some 17-plus years ago. Prior to venturing out on my own, although I had managed to work my way up to the ranks of partner in a medium-sized Kamloops, B.C., law firm, the fact of the matter was that I had little if any experience in the basics of running or maintaining a law practice. At the time, it seemed like my sole function at the “firm” was to represent clients and generate an income.

Undoubtedly, the jump to solo practice would have been far more difficult had it not been for the assistance and guidance of senior colleagues in my community. Having experienced the benefit of that strong collegial network, I can’t overstate the importance of avoiding isolation or, conversely, the importance of networking.

Networking isn’t just about learning. Of course, networking is also about becoming known, developing your reputation, and building your brand as a lawyer in the legal community. From a work-life balance perspective, a well-developed network also provides an invaluable source of social and emotional support.

The purpose of this article is to highlight some of the things that you may wish to consider incorporating into your own networking plan.

Firstly, start networking early in your career. If you are in law school, start now! If you are hoping to practise in a particular area, call a lawyer with an established reputation in that area and ask if you can meet with him or her and learn about the work they do. Ask when they will be in court so you can observe them in action. Ask if they would mind you tagging along for a day or so at their office to see how things are done. Ask if you can assist with their legal research. Who knows, you may end up securing a summer job, or better yet, an articling position.

Get involved in your local, provincial, and national bar associations. Participation in these associations is an excellent way to meet and learn from other lawyers. Participation in these associations can also be a great source of agency and referral work. Speaking of referrals, find out if your association has a referral network. If so, get your name on the list. You would be surprised by the number of people who call your office because of that referral network.

Regularly participate in continuing legal education. Now with mandatory CLE in many provinces, many CLE providers are making courses more accessible by offering programs via the Internet.

While a webinar may be the most economical means of taking the course, consider personally attending at least one course per year. I have met many top-notch lawyers at these seminars and I have yet to meet one who has been reluctant or unwilling to share his or her experience about a practice matter or an area of the law. Occasionally, these same lawyers have also been a source of referral work.

If you have had some recent successful experience in a particular matter, consider writing a paper and volunteer to speak on the topic at your next bar function or upcoming CLE. This is an excellent way to get your name known and market your skills and knowledge to members of the legal community.

Don’t forget the other firms. Form a relationship with a large firm. There is a variety of knowledge and expertise in the larger firms and they can be a great resource should the need arise. There is a great comfort in being able to make a call and get that burning question answered. Consider a reciprocal arrangement with a lawyer who practises in a different field. For instance, if you practise family law, consider a reciprocating referral arrangement with a solicitor at another firm that does not have a family law lawyer.

Participate in your local pro bono program. Pro bono clients may not be able to afford your services today but they may down the road and will remember your good deed. They are also an excellent referral source. The odds are the individual you have assisted will have nothing but good things to say about you when speaking to others.

Take time to be collegial. Don’t leave the courthouse immediately after you have finished your case. Take the time and make the effort to socialize with your colleagues. Find out what they have been working on and tell them what you have been working on.

Don’t be shy! Even if you can’t golf, attend your bar association golf tourney. It’s not about winning the game but developing the contacts and formulating the relationships. See networking for what it is — a positive experience.

Don’t be embarrassed to call upon your colleagues to ask for their advice or recommendation and do it sooner than later. It’s alright to say, “I’m stuck, what should I do?” Don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions: “Is this over my head? Should I be passing this file along to someone else?” The whole process can, in fact, be very therapeutic.

Don’t take your client’s battle personally. Attack the problem not opposing counsel. Treat opposing counsel with respect. You never know when you might need to call on that individual for advice or even a job opportunity.

Join your local chamber of commerce or other service groups. They can be excellent sources of referrals.

Get involved in your community whether it be as a speaker at an event or school, a coach for one of your children’s sport teams, a member of a board, or a volunteer in your church.

Volunteer at law day. This event is usually very well publicized and attended. It’s a great way to get your name out to the community. Attend charity events, fundraising dinners, political campaigns, and public lectures and conferences. All of these events provide ample opportunity to meet new people, make new contacts, let people know who you are and what you do, and get your name known.

Finally, pay it forward by mentoring others. If you give, you will get back. If you are a senior lawyer, open the invitation to those just starting out to call you and learn from your experiences. This not only enhances your reputation among younger members of the bar but gives you the opportunity to get to know these people and perhaps form new and rewarding associations.

David A. Paul is a senior lawyer and mediator who practises at the boutique law firm Paul & Co. in downtown Kamloops, B.C. His firm’s web site is kamloopslaw.com and he can be reached at (250)828-9998. His Field Notes column focusing on small and sole-firm practice will be running bimonthly on canadianlawyermag.com.

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