Networking for Introverts
My name is Jessica Erickson. I am learning to be a trial lawyer. And I am an introvert.
Although the stereotypically gregarious and social extrovert comes to mind when picturing a well-networked trial lawyer, not everyone looks forward to or is energized by the constant social interaction and networking our profession requires. The stereotype simply does not always hold true, and many may find themselves going against their nature to bend to the “extrovert ideal” praised by both our profession and society in general. As a young lawyer who recognizes her introverted tendencies, I am figuring out how to balance my professional need to promote myself and make connections with my personal disdain for small talk and an overscheduled calendar. Instead of quashing my preferences and trying to become more extroverted, I am discovering that by planning ahead I am better able to maintain the energy needed to carry me through the many activities and tasks that my career requires.
Introversion is often an ill-defined and misunderstood trait. Contrary to popular belief, being an introvert does not necessarily equate to being shy or anti-social. (No one has ever called me shy or anti-social.) Rather, it has to do with how an individual person “recharges” or gathers energy. While an extrovert gains energy from highly social situations and meeting new acquaintances, introverts are often drained by intensely social functions where they have to be “on” and engage with numerous, often unknown people. Instead, introverts tend to be deliberate in word and action, and recharge themselves alone or one-on-one with close friends. For example, I prefer to recharge by hiking or camping alone, reading as often as I can, or engaging in meaningful, personal conversation. Susan Cain, a lawyer and author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, describes it this way:
Introverts . . . may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. … Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.
-Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking 25 (2013).
As an aside, I cannot recommend Quiet highly enough for both introverts and extroverts alike. Even if you consider yourself the most extroverted person on the planet, I guarantee you know, employ, or possibly live with introverts. And of course labels like these are not absolute; most people are neither purely introverted nor purely extroverted. Wherever one falls on the spectrum of introversion to extroversion, Quiet is a thought-provoking and engaging read.
For an introvert, just the thought of networking can seem exhausting and overwhelming. But in my few short post-law school years, I have found workable and practical ways to make connections in the legal community while simultaneously not overburdening myself. While it is a constant process and I am certainly still learning, I offer the following suggestions to my fellow introvert attorneys (who are out there whether or not they will admit it):
You do not need to attend every happy hour, join every committee, or be an active part of every organization that comes your way. Pick the events and activities that are meaningful to you. Recognize that at the end of a particularly stressful day, you may need to just go home instead of to that reception—and it is perfectly acceptable to do so.
Not every connection needs to be made in person. Do you find that you can express yourself better in writing than in person? Consider starting a blog or becoming more active on a listserv. Do you find yourself more open and engaging in small groups or one-on-one? Seek out ways to connect with others beyond large group events, such as coffee or lunch dates, or find a practice group to attend.
Take the time to formulate a few stock questions to ask people in case conversation does not naturally flow. Having in mind a couple go-to questions can help put you at ease and save you from the anxiety of feeling put on the spot to make small talk. My favorite standby is “What is the most interesting thing you are working on right now?” I then follow up with more probing, open-ended questions.
Sometimes bringing a friend can empower you to be bold and reach out to others. However, make sure your friend is on the same page as far as networking goes. Otherwise you’ll likely find yourselves in a corner talking only to each other all night.
Be honest with yourself in what you want to accomplish and make the necessary plans. Think not only about the big picture, such as which organizations to join in general, but set specific goals for individual events. For example, challenging yourself to meet three new people or finding someone who practices in an area you know nothing about can make a game out of a potentially draining experience. Regardless, take the time to figure out what you really want to do, not just what you feel you should do.
Networking does not have to be painful if you are an introvert, and I hope you find these suggestions as helpful for you as they have been for me. But at the end of the day (or the happy hour, CLE, or conference), make sure to take the time to decompress in whatever way works for you. You will be happier, healthier, and more productive because of it.