Networking and Job-Finding
When I was a young lawyer in the 1980s, Alberta was in a recession. Firms did not always have a steady supply of quality legal work, and the dreaded “M” word, “marketing,” was used. The fact that I was being asked to do marketing as a first-year lawyer was a factor leading to my first job change. I didn’t think that I knew anything of value, so how was I supposed to sell my—or even the firm’s—services?
Most law firms held marketing events. We associates were told that we were not allowed to hang out with each other at marketing events and that we had to be seen interacting with clients and potential clients which filled those of us who were introverts with trepidation. Our group think approach was that if one of us was engaged with a guest, one or more of the rest of us could join them—there wasn’t a rule that said a group of us, together, weren’t allowed to hang out as long as there was client in the midst! In terms, I learned my favourite strategy: looking for people who were alone and looked a bit uncomfortable too.
I am much more comfortable with the term “networking” than I was with “marketing,” although that term didn’t really come into lawyers’ lexicon until I had left private practice. I don’t know exactly when networking became a thing but in 1991 an anthropologist named Dunbar coined the theory known now as “Dunbar’s Number,” that 150 was the maximum number of contacts a primate could maintain stable social relationships. But most of us now have professional networks well in excess of 150 people, thanks to the internet and social media.
Occasionally, people question why lawyers need to network. And I understand the theory behind this question: a lawyer’s work should speak for itself such that a lawyer does not need to self-promote. Cream rises to the top, people like you will find you, etcetera.
But this misses the true value of networking—the formation of a community that can provide support to all of its members.
Assist is not in the job-finding business. Helping people secure jobs is outside of our mandate—and as a registered charity, we can only have objects and activities which fall within the definition of “charitable objects” as defined by the CRA. Briefly, the four charitable objects that the CRA recognizes are the relief of poverty, advancement of education, advancement of religion, and other purposes beneficial to the community. And regardless of which head of charitable objects you identify, you must also show a benefit to the public and not a private group of individuals.
Is anyone into archaic legal history? The four charitable objects have their roots in an 1891 House of Lords decision, relying on the Statute of Elizabeth passed in 1601!
While the fourth head of charitable objects may sound broad, it actually isn’t. If you read the case law on what falls within this head, it is very limited. When Assist first applied for charitable organization status about 15 years ago, we learned that our stated object of providing meaningful supports for lawyers and immediate family members with personal problems was not considered a purpose beneficial to the community, notwithstanding that keeping lawyers well so that they can serve the public interest is a fundamental interest in our society.
We weren’t alone in discovering that a good mission was not a charitable object—but this is what happens when you are looking at seventeenth century legislation. There is a case analyzing whether providing free internet services to poorer communities was a charitable purpose!
Assist was able to achieve charitable organization status—necessary in order to grant tax receipts for donations—by founding our programs in education, and that is what we continue to do today. Our community groups, like Red Mug Coffee Circle, are part of our mandate of educating the Alberta legal community to understand and cope with causes of emotional distress in their own lives, and to cope with causes of addiction, mental illness and emotional distress by providing peer support and referral services.
Again, for those of us who geek out on details, you can read a summary of Assist’s objects on our website: https://lawyersassist.ca/about/who-we-are/.
So, Assist can teach lawyers to cope with causes of emotional distress (not having a job, not having the right job, etc.) and provide peer support in respect of this distress. Periodically, someone will ask us if we could maintain a job bank to facilitate job searches, but that does not relate to our charitable purposes, and we cannot do that.
Instead, we create communities of caring lawyers, a network of people who will provide suggestions, leads and encouragement, and this is why networking is important both for lawyers who are seeking work or who are building their practices. And we provide resume and cover letter reviews by peer support volunteers, which is education within the peer support mantle.
In spite of the fact that we cannot be engaged in job-finding services, we have, through our education and peer support activities, helped connect people with potential opportunities—a fortuitous offshoot of our work when it happens, but not one of our purposes.
I find that people have a range of reactions to networking, or which I prefer to call community-building. Some people are resistant, feeling that networking is somehow artificial. While other people go full bore on what is really marketing, that dreaded M word from my early days. But networking doesn’t have to be artificial or aggressive—it just means that you are being conscious when you meet people in the course of doing your work or socializing professionally that you may want to build ongoing relationships with some of them. If you do not like someone or feel that you don’t share the same values as them, you don’t have to network with them—you are free to throw their virtual business card in the shredder!
The heart of community-networking is to find people you enjoy talking with. If you attend a CBA section meeting and have a good conversation with a table mate, tell that person that you enjoyed meeting them and that you would like to stay in touch. It is that easy. And if you want to know more about the presenter at an educational event, you can reach out to them and express interest in learning more. Perhaps they can suggest some additional resources. Again, it is that easy.
We shouldn’t be shy about networking. It is part of what we want to do as human beings as we are social creatures. If you are not finding any people that you like in the events and activities that you do, or in your practice area, may I suggest that you may be in the wrong practice area or social sphere? When I think back on the early days of my career when I was uncomfortable with marketing, I realize that I was in the wrong job. I was a lawyer who loved putting transactions together as a process, but I wasn’t inherently interested in the business components of the transactions. I received feedback from a partner that I didn’t seem to have great recall about deal components if asked a few months later, and I didn’t. I dumped all of the unnecessary details because they didn’t inherently interest me. But I was able to pivot to a related practice area—still comfortably in the corporate/solicitor’s practice—where I was fully interested in learning and retaining the details of the work that I did. And how did I do this pivot? It was through networking: a former colleague told me that his organization was looking to hire someone, and I said I was interested. Again, it can be that easy.
But if I hadn’t bothered to maintain a friendship with that lawyer, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity. To paraphrase Wayne Gretzky, you don’t get 100% of the jobs you don’t apply for.
Networking does not have to be transactional, although some people may choose to employ networking transactionally. The best networks are ones that arise out of common interests and once you have a common interest, you can just let the magic happen. You don’t have to be a transactional networker unless you want to be.
Are you shy about networking? Here is an easy way to dip your toe into the sea of networking: join us for Red Mug Coffee Circles on Mondays (email@example.com). A group of lawyers gather. Some are senior peer support volunteers who may be able to provide helpful suggestions or share some wisdom. Others will be newcomers to our profession, and others will span the middle ground. And sometimes we learn from our more junior colleagues—our information sharing is not top-down or a one-way street. If you like chatting with the people who are present, come back the next week, and at some point you may find yourself meeting someone for coffee to chat more.
The same strategy works at other lawyer gatherings. As you get more comfortable, you can set yourself a goal of building a connection with one person that you meet. My pre-pandemic brain always wants to use business card analogies, so I would say that your goal can be to give out one of your business cards or to receive one business card from someone else. Then you set a goal of giving and receiving two business cards. There is no consequence to not meeting your goal—sometimes, it just isn’t the right crowd and that is okay too. You want to build a network of the right people, not just any people, so not connecting at some events is going to happen. Use the experience to learn more about yourself and what kind of people you resonate with.
Dunbar’s number—the concept that you can only develop meaningful relationships with about 150 people—has been challenged in the digital world. You may not have to limit your network to 150 people—it depends on you and how you interact with your network. You may prefer to have a close and highly interactive relationship with a smaller group which may meet your needs for community and networking. And some people will choose to do more.
You can choose to build whatever kind of network you want, but don’t shy away from being intentional about building your network. It is your support system, and it may, at times, be a lifeline.