There are many professional networking groups attorneys can join, from those whose sole purpose is networking, such as BNI (Business Networking International) and ProVisors, to those with a service orientation, such as Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, to those with an emphasis on learning, such as estate planning councils.
Networking groups have a certain appeal. We are all told that we get our best clients from direct referrals from other professionals and former clients who can sing our praises. The question is how to meet these potential referral sources, stay “top of mind” with them, and let them know that we’re looking for referrals. Some people are very comfortable socializing, keeping in touch and being direct about what they need. Many more of us are not. Networking groups provide a structure for taking these steps that may not come naturally.
Networking groups also allow us to meet and get to know other members who may be outside our normal circles. That’s a benefit. On the other hand, it can be a limitation since we will only meet people who happen to be members of that particular group.
As with any other marketing activity, you will get out of networking groups what you put into them. The more time you spend interacting with other members, referring cases to them and taking part in group activities, the more referrals you will receive. So, you can’t just stick in a toe. In addition, relationships take time. So if you do join a networking group, you probably won’t get results immediately. It could take at least a year and perhaps two before referrals start coming your way.
With these caveats in mind, which group should you join? First, while you may check out a number of groups, just join one. Second, make sure you would feel comfortable with and interested in the other members of the group. Third, consider the time commitment – some groups meet monthly and others weekly.
In my case, I joined ProVisors, a very successful West Coast-based networking group. A few years ago, one of its active members, Joe Chatham, moved to Boston for personal reasons and started organizing a local chapter. A dynamo, he came to town not knowing anyone and within months had organized three 20-person groups. I joined one without high hopes, but was interested in giving it a try. Our group met one morning a month with a structured program to enable us to get to know one another. ProVisors’ mantra is Know, Like, Trust, Refer . You are not going to refer your valuable clients to someone you don’t know well and you are not going to be comfortable with everyone in your networking group. Since it takes a while to go through the stages of meeting someone, getting to know them, getting to like them, and finally being comfortable referring to them takes time. ProVisors counsels new members not to expect immediate results and to commit to at least a year before joining.
In addition to the monthly breakfast meetings, ProVisors has what they call “troikas.” At each breakfast meeting, attendees hand in their business cards and through a sometimes random, and sometimes directed, process they are placed in groups of three who schedule a time to meet, usually for breakfast or lunch, sometime during the following month. Members may also “guest” at other group meetings and participate in various social events. As you can see, involvement in ProVisors can become quite time-consuming if members take advantage of all the networking opportunities.
After two years of membership, I was leaning towards dropping out of ProVisors. I had met a lot of new people, but had not received any referrals. In addition, ProVisors had raised its dues. At about that time, ProVisors went through a management shakeup and Joe Chatham chose to create his own networking group called USA 500 Clubs, which in many ways may be viewed as a new and better ProVisors. The “500” refers to the limit on membership of each chapter to 500. Along with many of the Boston-area members of ProVisors, I followed Joe into his new group and I see it as an improvement.
USA 500 follows many of the ProVisors practices, with a few tweaks. Each group has at least one member from a local charity who does not pay dues, and the dues themselves are a bit less expensive. There’s some variety in the small group get-togethers, alternating between two-, three- and four-member lunches or breakfasts. But the two biggest changes are in philosophy and the website.
First, Joe Chatham’s point of view, which is reflected in the inclusion of charities, is that as members we’re here to help one another. If that’s our primary goal, eventually each of us will be helped by other members of the group. And he extends helping beyond simply referring business, to help with other important aspects of our lives, such as jobs and internships for our children.
Second, the USA 500 website is a vast improvement over ProVisor’s and has become a major locus of communication among members of their needs and referrals. These range from exchanging Red Sox tickets to finding private investigators. I recently posted two requests on the same day, seeking insurance help for a client whose house burned down and seeking a private investigator for a case in which our firm is involved. Members provided numerous responses within hours.
I don’t have time to take advantage of all of the USA 500 networking opportunities, but I have found it useful and am beginning to get some referrals. In contrast to ProVisors, I am inclined to renew my membership when it comes up.
To conclude, networking groups vary and whether they will work for you depends on what’s available where you live and work, whether there’s a good fit for you in any of the groups, and if this is how you want to spend your time.