What’s the secret to successful networking?

By Jerome Doraisamy|18 January 2021
What’s the secret to successful networking?

According to Cassandra Heilbronn, lawyers will have success with networking if they employ a handful of simple, practical approaches.

Cassandra Heilbronn – a former president of Women Lawyers Association Queensland and the sports legal manager for a government authority in the Middle East – has always felt comfortable with networking, having being thrown into such social interactions from an early age.

“When I was three years old, my parents put me in Tiny Tots, for the Endeavor Foundation, to raise money. You had to wear a pretty dress on stage. As part of that, I had to walk around door to door selling cookies and raffle tickets in my hometown of Bundaberg, QLD. So, from that young age, I had to know how to introduce myself. ‘Would you please buy some tickets? I’m raising money’. That really translated well into my high school years, but then into my legal career without me even knowing,” she reflected.

“I think using those networking skills certainly helped me progress quicker internally at my firms than those who are more the eight-hour billables a day, black letter law, always at their desk type of person.

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“For me, it comes naturally. I don’t even realise I am networking. To me, it’s just maintaining relationships.”

What has become apparent to her over the course of her career, she told Lawyers Weekly, is that not all legal professionals are innately comfortable with such communication.

“It took a while for me to understand that some people just cannot network. They don’t know what to do or they’re very scared,” she mused.

Speaking recently on The Corporate Counsel Show, Ms Heilbronn said there are a number of rules to abide by in becoming better as networking in law.

From the outset, she noted, situational awareness is critical when introducing yourself.

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“Having the confidence to go up to someone is a key part of it, but not going up when you know they’re in the middle of a conversation, and being able to judge the room, [is paramount]. It is a learned skill, but that is a really, really important part of networking,” she advised.

Part of this awareness, she continued, is understanding that professionals may be keener to socialise at certain events rather than engage in work conversations.

“As an invited guest to a corporate box [at a sporting event], for example, it’s not strictly a professional environment, but if you can build a relationship with them, they’re more likely to engage with you later on,” she opined.

“If it’s a chairman’s lounge [that you’re attending], look to see who the board is. They could be with consulting firms, or have their own businesses, and they can be another touch point for a potential professional relationship.”

A secondary step in knowing whom you will be interacting with is touching base with your own colleagues, Ms Heilbronn continued: “It’s always good to do your research before you go to an event. Once, in meeting the board of a football club, it turned out it was one of the top clients for [my former employer] MinterEllison. So, I said to one of the partners, ‘I’m going to this event, I know they’re your client and I’m just letting you know I’ll be there. Happy to have a chat to them if anything is needed’,” she recalled.

“I didn’t work with that partner, so it was a great opportunity internally to build a relationship and then be able to say to the person I was meeting, ‘Oh, I understand you work with so-and-so at Minters,” she said.

“It always loops back around.”

Elsewhere, lawyers “can’t be pitching” when they attend events for networking purposes, Ms Heilbronn stressed.

“I think some people in a networking setting will rush to pitch too early and they won’t read the room or read the person. You can certainly tell by body language if someone is not interested or if you’re oversharing or if it’s just not the right time,” she warned.

“I always say that organisational psychology should be taught as part of our legal degree, because what I learned doing those studies was that I can’t compare it to anything else that I learned from the non-legal subjects.

“I guess it’s hard, because lawyers often don’t necessarily have that natural networking ability. They will read peer-reviewed articles on how to network, walk in, introduce themselves, say, ‘I know your business’, and pitch. Sometimes, you’ll have to do a lot of work to build that relationship again.”

If you have managed to successfully garner a relationship, however, following through in meaningful ways can solidify a connection, Ms Heilbronn said.

“Make sure that they remember you without that hard follow-up networking style afterwards, because [your initial interaction] was more casual. I always find a bottle of champagne or a bottle of whiskey goes well for that,” she suggested.

Finally, for those who are uncomfortable with networking in any circumstances, she said it can be helpful to “remove the word ‘networking’ from the equation.

“You’re just building a new relationship. You’re forming a new friendship. If business is going to result, it’s not going to be on that first night. It’s not even going to be in the first week. It will take at least a year or two before that comes. In that time, you’ve got plenty of opportunities to interact with them again,” she surmised.

Such strategies, she added, are not just relevant for those in private practice: “As an in-house lawyer, you don’t know where you will end up, and many will make a move to a C-Suite position. Being with board members, for example, it’s a perfect opportunity to have genuine interactions.”

Ultimately, Ms Heilbronn concluded, such skills are part and parcel of one’s lessons as a legal professional.

“As lawyers, we need to keep building our business. It’s LOL: life of a lawyer,” she said.

To listen to the full conversation with Cassandra Heilbronn, click below:

What’s the secret to successful networking?
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