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Memphis, Tennessee, United States
Small town paralegal in the city. Once ran a law office, now being run by one. Med mal defense litigation. I think it's growing on me.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Networking for Newbies

I am jumping in head first trying to become involved in local paralegal organizations and my own community. It sounds easy, in theory. Show up, meet people, organically meld with those people because you have common jobs, ideas, or goals, and then proceed to work together to make the world a better place. If only.

In two weeks I have four different opportunities to humiliate myself in a vain attempt to network and expand my social and business circle. I am right in the middle of this two week period. The first one occurred tonight, at our local Chamber of Commerce's monthly Business After Hours event. Every month, one business or organization belonging to the Chamber hosts a little shindig after the work day. Sometimes the host provides alcohol, from what I hear.

Let me begin by explaining that I have never been to a Business After Hours event. My Boss only recently had to explain to me that I can go to Chamber events because the business, not just he individually, is a member. So when this event came up and he mentioned it to me, I thought, why not? I'll go mingle, meet people, and eat free food. At least I was right about the free food.

Our tiny, rural town hosted the area-wide Chamber event tonight at the town hall. I can say in full honesty that the food was delicious. Someone had made scalloped potatoes or hashbrowns (whatever they were, they were covered in cheese and possibly sour cream) that caressed my taste buds with soft and smooth flavor. And the chocolate pudding... oh! the chocolate pudding! But this is where the comfort ended.

When I walked in, everyone was wearing a name tag. I should have found one and written my name on it, but I get horrible stage fright in large groups of people I don't know well, and I tend to forget common sense things. I hide it by doing silly and obvious things like walking around the room, alone, with my head held high, daring someone to accuse me of not knowing a soul. I could probably handle myself better.

When I saw two people I sort of know, I was drawn to them like a magnet. I stood by them making forced small talk through the door prize drawings, trying to think of witty and intelligent things to say. Wishing I knew them better. I saw many familiar faces as I glanced around, but no one I could say I really know. I was about to leave when I ran into the Town Coordinator. That is not her real title, but it might as well be, as she seems to put everything together. She urged me to return to the food table for more pudding and coffee. So I went back for a hot cup of coffee, I don't know why, really, perhaps because I was nervous and eager to please in whatever little way possible. That's when I ran into the Boss.

Now, during work hours, the Boss and I get along quite swimmingly. I bow to his authority and he, in turn, gives me great freedom. Or something like that. It's your basic casual work situation, and one of the reasons I like my job so much. But meeting the Boss in a social setting is... different. I find him to be an amicable person at work, so why wouldn't we have the same dynamic outside of the office? Of course, I ask that question as if I don't know, but I believe the answer is me. I am a completely awkward person when I am outside of my comfort zone. The office is my comfort zone. A Business After Hours where I know few people and the Boss knows everyone... Not so much. I wanted very much for him to introduce me to people, help break the ice in at least one conversation, something, anything. But everyone left after the door prizes anyway. And I did, too.

In a way, I'm glad the Boss doesn't do the introduction thing. It would be helpful to me, really, but I need to be able to handle myself on my own, without prodding from others. But I swear, in the moment, all I could think about was how sad and left out I must appear to everyone around. In actuality, I am probably the only one there who noticed how awkward and alone I was feeling.

After the After Hours event, I came home and readied myself for what would be my first live Paralegal Mastermind call with Vicki Voisin. I normally listen to the recording when she emails it out, but this week, I decided to do it in real time. If you are a paralegal, and you do not know Vicki, get to know her. Stop reading right this instant and make your way to the Paralegal Mentor website or her blog. Sign up for her newletter, her call, her classes, whatever you can. Then please come back and continue reading this post, and perhaps leave a comment that will make me feel better about having an awkward night.

Speaking of awkward nights, the Mastermind call is an interactive experience, where you can ask questions and make comments at various times throughout. Even via telephone, I had stage fright. I had to make myself press *6 to make the one comment I did, and I blubbered my way through it. But I did it. And Vicki graciously allowed me to self-promote Paralegalese, too.

I have two more possibly awkward, uncomfortable events coming up within the next week. The next one will be the Alabama Association of Paralegals, Inc. (a NALA affiliate) summer educational conference this weekend. I am looking forward to it, but I will not know one soul there. I expect I will be standing or sitting alone for much of the time, arguing with myself as to whether to approach someone for a conversation or remain set off, like a leper. I will force myself to meet people. And I will make silly conversation while striving to sound half-competent. I will probably ask weird questions. Or at least, they will come out of my mouth in a weird way. But I will expose myself to a greater community of paralegals in my state, and I may even make a friend or two.

Next Tuesday, I have been invited to the monthly meeting of the Baldwin County Association of Legal Professionals (a NALS affiliate). I expect to falter through introductions there, as well, and, since it is at a restaurant, a quiet and shy meal. But perhaps I will be able to coax my brave and confident professional persona out a bit to make a few friends and business acquaintances. Either way, I will be there, diving in head first to whatever awaits.

If you are able to pull anything from this post, reader, I hope it is that networking takes practice, that awkwardness is sometimes a necessary evil in order to achieve growth, and that if I can do it, so can you. If you are a new legal professional... if you are an experienced but shy legal professional... if you are in a non-legal profession, just get out there. Be awkward, be friendly, and most importantly, be there.


  1. I very much agree with your conclusion. I went to a CLE for Paralegals by the VTLA (Virginia Trial Lawyers Ass'n) 100 miles south of my place and didn't know anyone there. I started talking to some of the folks on my table, and it turned out to be mostly enjoyable. But I've also been to law school events after hours where I also didn't know anyone, and had no common ground with anyone, and i left shortly after I got there. It's hit-and-miss.

    The problem with the paralegal associations in my area seems to be that its membership is predominantly female and predominantly of age 45+. Not that this is bad in any way, but unless I want to only talk shop after hours (Do I really? - No.) there's not that much to talk about that interests both them and me.

    What can be done about that? I don't know yet. For myself, I place much hope in the young lawyers section of the local Bar Ass'n. We shall see how that works out (and if I get there).

    You can find me on Twitter as @shoeges.

  2. Oh, girl, here's a big old virtual hug and some real-time sympathy from another would-be social butterfly stuck in a coccoon. I do not do well in crowds, but have a tried and true ice breaker - whipping out my cell phone to show people pictures of my dawg. (Or human kids if that seems more appropriate.) Having 20 years on you, I can only say, it gets easier. Just start shaking hands, and saying, "Hi, I'm Melissa" and "Where are you from?"...and then keeping an eye out for the dessert table will work every time! :D

  3. I can relate. My first instinct is to avoid gatherings as much as possible if I don't know anyone. But I'm trying to force myself to get out of that habit. Not successful at the moment. But I'll probably try harder when school is over (paralegal studies) and I'll have more of a reason to for a job.

  4. Why is it that the people who appear to be the most outgoing are really the most shy and inhibited? I'm talking about myself. I can totally relate to this column.

    I find that I can speak in front of 500 people without hesitation but get me at a party or gathering and I'm the event's wallflower.

    What I find helpful is an opening line that would get people talking about themselves. That way, I am less bumbling. After the exchange of names and yes, I'm a paralegal, etc., I might ask what someone does in their spare time or for fun. This usually gets them talking about their passion in life and everyone likes to talk about that. That way, I'm not fumbling for something to say.

  5. Networking is a near heart stopper! I attended a local paralegal association's seminar in May-my first-and I knew absolutely no one! I kinda sorta made small talk with the person I was seated next to. I went alone for lunch but while standing in line at a fast food restaurant, I recognized someone from the seminar. After asking her if she was attending the seminar (I knew she was), we chatted while standing in line, had lunch together and chatted some more. She is a student at a community college. Now when we see each other at meetings, we chit chat. I've met at least one person I can chit chat with whenever we see each other...woo-hoo!
    I've also volunteered as a member of a couple committees. Hopefully that will provide an opportunity to meet a few other members of the paralegal association. We have yet to have a committee meeting :)
    My next effort at networking may be at a state paralegal association's mid-year seminar in September. My heart is nearly jumping out my chest at the thought of attending another seminar and knowing absolutely no one!!!
    Melissa, I can definately relate!

  6. It's heartwarming to know so many of us are in the same boat. Thank you for the comments and helpful tips, dear readers. Keep 'em coming!

  7. It is not surprising that you feel the way you do. I think almost everyone does when they start networking, even those who seem and claim to be otherwise. You've undertaken quite a challenge in attending four meetings in two weeks, especially when one or more are with organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce.

    I suggest that new networkers take on networking like one would take on eating an elephant - one bite at a time - or like the character in "What About Bob?" - baby steps. Meet another paralegal from another firm for lunch. Then the two of you go to a meeting or seminar for paralegals together. There at least you have the common bond of being paralegals. After you begin to get your networking legs under you branch out to larger groups and groups where you are less likely to have the common bond.

    I agree that you need to learn to self-introduce, but again it may not be best to start there. Your boss should have been aware enough to have volunteered to introduce you, but since he was not it would be best to communicate this need to him directly. Don't make him guess what is going on inside your head. In a way making the request to your boss can be introducing a part of yourself to him and the first baby step towards eating the introduction elephant. (I love mixing metaphors!)

    In the meantime, I admire you commitment to move forward. I hope you keep us all posted on your progress.

  8. I, also, have to force myself to speak to people I don't know at large gatherings. Fortunately, usually my attorney and our office's other paralegal do things together. The attorney and I went to a dinner/fundraiser just the other night, and it was quite awkward when she was pulled aside to talk to people- which was often- and I was left alone to make small talk. But we get through it!!! It's a challenge!