You’ve identified the attorneys in your area of focus, and you reached out to them. Now what? How do you grow a relationship? It’s about showing up and following up. It’s deceptively simple. But few do this. Let’s see why this is so valuable.
I was a BARBRI representative in law school. It was a great gig. Heading into law school I knew that BARBRI was the most popular bar prep option but I didn’t know much more than that. I was interested in being a BARBRI rep because I knew it would be social – I would have to overcome my introversion and talk to my classmates. And in order to explain why we could help with bar prep, I’d have to learn about bar prep in the process. The time commitment was minimal, usually an hour every month at the table in the lobby, socializing with your fellow reps and students. The perfect job.
I remember some students asking me with serious interest how I found out about the role. I was baffled. It was simple – there were flyers for the job throughout campus (is that still a thing?) and I responded. Something like this happened to Warren Buffett (from Alice Schroeder’s The Snowball):
The thing is, a relationship isn’t just a prize you get awarded for showing up. That’s necessary but not sufficient. After you show up, you follow up. If there was one bit of feedback I got from the attorneys I got to know in law school, it was that I was good at following up. What did they mean by that?
- I followed up regularly. I kept track of the people I was talking to, and emailed every month or so. I updated the attorneys on my achievements in school, new thoughts on career paths, new questions on conversation topics we covered.
- I followed up with substance. It was evident I was putting in the time to get to know what IP lawyers do. Who their clients are, which firms serviced which industries and which clients they served, the differences in workflow for prosecutors or litigators. Knowledge of an industry is a flywheel – as you gather information, and share what you know, people perceive you as someone who is an insider and they share more with you. Following up is the spring starter by which you kickstart your network flywheel.
- I committed. Life happens, and schedules change. But as much as possible, I kept my commitments. If I said I was going to email something later, I did. If I said I was going to set up a time for coffee, I did. If I scheduled a coffee, I showed up for it. You wouldn’t believe how many attorneys told me that this was rare. Commit.
I’ll now turn to Buffett’s longtime partner Charlie Munger, who exhorts us “invert, always invert.” So let’s invert this by viewing this from the attorneys’ perspective. What do they need in order to want to grow a relationship with you?
Above all, attorneys are busy. It’s difficult to make time for students, and even the most well-intentioned attorneys are wary of committing to something like a mentorship role (even the ones that formally sign up to be mentors). When attorneys carve out time and share their hard-won insight, they want it to be used. It’s like the (probably) apocryphal story of Picasso drawing on a napkin.
The mistake many law students make is not seeing this as an investment the attorneys have made. Law students fear they will draw down a finite reserve by following up, not realizing they can grow the value of that investment for mutual gain. This explains why following up is so scarce. But you know better. Show that you’ve learned from what the attorney shared. Show that you’re piecing it together with other insights from other attorneys (and build social proof that others have invested in you). Keep coming back with insights won and ask for more insights. This is why following up is so powerful.
Think about why else following up in this way is effective. You’re not only showcasing that you are using the information, but you are also showing that you’re trustworthy: you have discretion and judgement and discipline.
When you understand this perspective, other aspects of the approach will fall in place. You’ll realize that you don’t have to put people on a pedestal. If you’re enterprising enough that you’re reaching out to attorneys, you’re the kind of person who ends up with positions like those attorneys. They’re you, just in the future. Over time, mentors become friends and colleagues.
Following up is a practice. Reflect on other practices in your life for insight on how to approach this process in a way that works for you. One of my Headspace meditations described meditation as planting a seed. To help it grow, you have to water it regularly (discipline) but you also have to approach it with warmth (authenticity). The easiest way to be authentic is to seek out people you admire and want to get to know. Ask questions, reflect on the answers, come up with your own perspective, then share it. The relationships will grow.
Be likeable. Life is serious enough as it is. Be a breath of fresh air for someone – someone that gives the other person energy and enthusiasm. Honestly, many attorneys are pretty jaded and cynical from years of practice (not that you have to be when you progress). We’re drawn to people we like and we want to help them. It’s intuitive enough, but it remains underrated. To learn more about social proof and likeability, read Influence.
If you’re looking for other frameworks to consider, I think a perfectly good way to think about building professional relationships is dating. If you wouldn’t overextend yourself or seems anxious to please in a dating context, you shouldn’t here either. See if that perspective serves you.
Relationships are investments. Put in the up-front work and you’ll reap the dividends for years to come. As with any investment, the secret ingredient is time. Be patient and play for long-term gains. And come back to me years from now and let me know how it went.