In the middle of my 3rd year of law school, I decided that I wanted to live in Chicago.  The problem with this idea was I knew a grand total of 2 attorneys in the entire state of Illinois. I knew where I wanted to go, but I had only two contacts and lots of work to do. So I picked up the phone, called them, flew from school to Chicago, met with them for lunch or drinks, followed up with them relentlessly and put aside my fear that someone would say no to me. Slowly my network grew from two attorneys to five, to twenty five, to fifty and so on.  Two years later I am practicing law in Chicago because of the networking I undertook as a law student and new lawyer. My grades were good, don’t get me wrong. Hard work in the class room probably opened some doors for me. But the most important doors in my life I have opened myself through my own effort to network and build lasting relationships.

For the longest time, I believed that having good grades and a stalwart resume were the keys to success in America. This notion is laughable at best. We are conditioned to believed that those with the best marks get the best jobs. Recently, I heard a law school classmate of mine actually say, “I don’t need to meet people. I let my resume speak for me.” I almost fell out of my chair laughing. The problem with this type of thinking is that your resume may shine, but people want to work with people they know and like. If you’re simply a piece of paper, you are very easy to discard. 

An academic study by an assistant professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management confirms what I experienced when I got hired in Chicago: Hiring managers don’t always pick the most qualified applicants. They hire people they like and want to spend time with. They hire people who they think could be their friends.

I was always taught, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. This has proved to be true time and time again in my life. For example, I was eating lunch at my desk a few weeks ago, catching up on work. A friend of mine at a respected plaintiff’s personal injury law firm called me out of the blue and needed a favor. He needed me to run on his firm’s team for the JP Morgan Corporate Challenge here in Chicago. I immediately agreed.  In the process, I met business leaders, fellow attorneys and members of the community that I otherwise would never have met. The power of networking is tremendous if done correctly. Here are my thoughts on how to make sure you are expanding the radius of your network.

1. Pick up the phone
Nobody is sitting in their office thinking “oh I should call that kid who sent me that resume, his resume just speaks to me. It is so amazing.” Your resume doesn’t speak for you at all. Only you can speak for you. So pick up the phone and make a call. I know, in today’s day and age actually talking on the phone is frowned upon. It’s scary. You’d rather text or email or send a Facebook message. Well you know what? Nobody cares what you want. They care about what benefits them. It’s very easy to ignore an email, text message, or social media message. The ringing of a phone is much more difficult to ignore. So give them a call, ask for their advice, seek out mentors. If you don’t pick up the phone, they’re not going to seek you out, they’re going to keep living their lives.

2. Get off the couch

Or out of the office, class room, law library, etc. Get out and meet people. I know what you’re saying. “I don’t know where to meet anyone, people won’t talk to me, nobody wants to meet me, can’t I just send my resume to the firm that I want to work for?”  Sure, you can send them your resume. But they’re just going to send you a “Dear John” letter. Why waste the paper?

Instead, you can go make connections by putting yourself out there. Join your local bar association and its young lawyers division. Attend events. Find a charity to work for, join their board. If all else fails, go to the closest local bar, sit at the bar and make small talk with everyone around. Do this once a week for 6-8 weeks and suddenly you’re the guy who can help out the bartender’s friend who just got arrested, or the regular patron who is going through a divorce. You can only do this if you get off your butt and hustle.

3. Follow Up

Life is busy. I don’t remember what I ate for breakfast some days. I have a long list of things on my to-do list. I have clients and cases to manage, court appearances to make, motions to file and countless deadlines. So how am I supposed to remember the law student I met at that alumni reception six months ago? I’m not going to remember them. Plain and simple.

Being memorable isn’t as hard as you think. Make sure you have business cards, pass them out to EVERYONE, but make sure to get one in return. Ask for business cards, email addresses, phone numbers, etc. Then make sure you call and email. Make sure you follow up periodically to see how people are doing, ask for advice or simply to take them to lunch or for a drink. This isn’t just how you meet colleagues, it’s how you make friends. Get after it.

4. Don’t be afraid to fail. 

Many of our decisions in life are driven by the fear of failure. What will people think of me? Here’s the plain and simple truth: You do not cross the mind of 99% of the people you know on a daily basis. The worst thing that can happen by a failed networking attempt is that the person you failed to connect with STILL knows who you are and knows how to contact you.

Brent Beshore wrote a great article for Forbes recently called “No One Cares About You- And That’s Great.” I suggest reading it. The fear of failure, embarrassment or rejection should not drive your decisions. Don’t be afraid to hear the word “no.” The more you reach out, connect and try to build relationships, the less you will hear it.

Networking is the single most important thing you can do for your career and your future. Unless you want to let your resume speak for itself and be simply a cog in someone else’s machine or taken out with the trash. If you’re content being an employee forever, then sit on the sidelines. I want my name on the door. Time to go shake some hands.

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