Inside Counsel: It’s who you know: The 5 ways to meet and keep great contacts at your next conference

Originally Published in Inside Counsel | May 13, 2015 | By Adam Donovan and Will Card

In the first article of this two-part series (“Ready for the spotlight? 7 ways to prepare for your next speaking appearance”), we posed some important questions to ask yourself and the organizer before attending a conference and explored best practices for new and veteran speakers on the circuit. In this article, we’ll discuss setting realistic networking goals, the do’s and don’ts of partnering meetings, and how to work the room to your advantage (without being creepy). We’ll also provide reliable methods of follow-up in order to significantly expand your network. After all, isn’t that the point?

1. Be an engaged participant

Active participation in the speaking sessions should go without saying—it’s the key to making the most out of your time at the event. However, bear in mind that most connections are made between sessions in the often awkwardly named “networking breaks” and after the meeting concludes for the day.

Networking breaks are also a good opportunity to meet the speakers and attendees with whom you’re looking to connect. If you generally have difficulty thinking of what to say when approaching someone, you can use the topics from the last session as a natural starting point (this means actively listening to what the speakers and other attendees are saying).

Whatever you do, don’t rush off and check your phone in the corner. Grab a coffee and try to meet two or three new people during each break. The breaks are usually short, so don’t worry if you get trapped in a conversation, because you’ll be able to wrap it up before too long.

After each day’s program concludes, you may observe a rush to the bar. Even if you plan to abstain from drinking, join the crowd. The more informal setting gives you a chance to get to know the speakers, attendees and organizers on a more personal level.

2. Lean on the conference producers

The success of a conference is largely determined by the experiences of the non-sponsoring attendees. The more effective the meeting is for you, the more likely you are to return and recommend it to your peers.

In turn, this makes it easier for the conference producer to sell the meeting to future sponsors. The conference staff are there to make your experience the best it can be, so put them to work!

Looking for an introduction to a speaker or panelist? Ask the conference staff to provide one. Looking for a list of other attendees? Ask the conference staff. Interested in being a speaker at a future conference? You get the idea. Experienced attendees engage with conference producers long before the meeting even begins.

3. Get personal

Remember that behind those name tags are interests, hometowns, families and personalities. Don’t be afraid to get to know your peers on a personal level—it will help make connections that really stick.

Furthermore, don’t be afraid to show a bit of your own personality as well. You’ll be surprised how memorable a brief conversation about your favorite sports team, recent family trip or new hobby can be. Use your unique personality to stand out from the crowd and be someone that people really remember.

4. Make your conversation actionable

It takes more than just a few minutes to create a strong connection. While networking, stay on the lookout for follow-up opportunities to keep in touch after the event.

If someone brings up a department challenge, don’t be afraid to, in your follow up, send them that helpful article you read last week. If someone mentions a next vacation spot that you know like the back of your hand, don’t be afraid to shoot a list of the best restaurants in the area.

What’s important is that you formalize the conversation with actionable next steps. Whether on a personal or professional level, the best connections involve multiple touch-points over a period of time.

5. Maximize the value of off-the-clock time spent with outside counsel

If outside counsel are present, you can be sure that they have invested resources to be there. Instead of steering clear out of fear of being “pitched” for work, you can use the time to your advantage, especially if there are scheduled partnering meetings. While outside counsel can’t offer legal advice, they are motivated to demonstrate that they can add value.

Interested in trends they’re seeing in your industry, or in a specific area of law? Now is the time to ask—off the clock! Ask about the value-added services they offer their clients and if they are available to you. At the very least you’ll get an idea of how your existing counsel stacks up.

Not to mention that you never know when your current counsel may be conflicted out of representing you on a new matter. Take time to make these connections and put them to work for you.