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Networking tip 9: Remember that people's positions change and grow

Suppose you look at your network and think that nobody there is of real value. Perhaps the people in your inner circle have no current relationship to your area of law, or perhaps—at least at this point—they are still too junior. Yet someone who might not appear helpful today can become helpful in the future. When talking to lawyers about their clients, I hear hundreds of stories about work that resulted from unanticipated circumstances or unexpected people, and it’s quite common for someone in a network to move unexpectedly into a position requiring legal services.

Likewise, remember that people who may currently be valuable to you might not necessarily remain so. People can lose their jobs, or they can move to a company where you have a conflict of interest. Don’t rely too heavily on any one person in your network, because things so often shift and change. Preparing the groundwork (just in case!) is part of a mature approach to building your career.

If you do find yourself in a situation where a previously valued contact can offer you little or nothing, I do hope that you will not commit one of the worst of all networking sins: displacing this person from your network. Never ditch someone who has been loyal to you simply because of a change in circumstances. You might as well wear a T-shirt proclaiming, “Once someone’s no longer beneficial to me, I no longer give a s**t!”

I’ve watched this happen many times. Frequently it occurs not because the lawyer is actively unkind but because he feels that he must, in such a case, prioritize replacing the financial value of the connection, even though this means completely neglecting the once-important contact. However, this is a mistake on many levels. First, do you really want to be known for treating people like machines, to be chucked away after they’ve outlasted their usefulness? (Not exactly a positive notch on the “belt” of your brand!) Second, if a person has been valuable to you in the past, then clearly you have established rapport with him or her, and to create that level of trust with someone new will take considerable effort for a far less certain result. And third, fickle fate may choose eventually to reward your former contact with a new or better position, and you really won’t want to be a “former friend” at that time!

My colleague and I some years ago together built up a relationship with “Kevin”, who over many years advanced in the client organization to a level where he was able to engage legal services for the projects he ran. Kevin continued to give both my colleague and me lots of work, and I believe he considered us friends as well as business associates. 

Eventually, though, Kevin was made redundant as the result of an international restructuring. He took this as an opportunity to change career direction, which meant that he was no longer involved in engaging legal counsel. I stayed in touch with him, however, and was able to help Kevin in his new venture by providing some contacts. Years later, when he moved into yet another position where he was once again in need of legal advice, he immediately contacted me. As I was in the midst of transitioning out of practicing, I suggested to Kevin that he instead contact my previous colleague—his friend, or so I thought. Kevin’s response was an emphatic, “I will never give him work again!” It turned out that this had nothing to do with my former colleague’s law skills: It was simply that, once Kevin was out of work, my colleague no longer gave him priority. According to Kevin, my colleague, who had previously been extremely courteous and attentive, didn’t even bother to return his phone calls!

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