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Resources Articles The One Activity You Can’t Afford to Pass Up: Building Social Capital

The One Activity You Can’t Afford to Pass Up: Building Social Capital

Wisconsin Lawyer
Vol. 82, No. 4
April 2009

“Especially in a slow economy, staying connected with people
and building social capital is a low-cost way to invest
in your future by contributing to the success of other people.”

Changes in the legal industry combined with widespread uncertainty about our economic future make developing effective solutions to keeping jobs, getting enough work, or finding new employment difficult. Although paralysis is the least effective way to cope, you’d be in good company if you found yourself responding this way. So many lawyers feel like they just don’t know what to do. The old rules don’t seem to apply. Recruiters have little to offer associates. Partners struggle to get work from businesses that are loathe to spend money or have declared bankruptcy. In the absence of a clear path, it’s easy to freeze in place.

Social Capital
 
However, there is one activity in which you can engage that provides as close to a guarantee as possible that you will reap benefit from your efforts: building your social capital.
 
Social capital consists of the resources – information, ideas, influence, power, mentoring, sponsorship, job leads, assistance, business opportunities, referrals, trust, loyalty, goodwill, cooperation, advice, and emotional support – that reside within the relationships you develop as you create and maintain your personal and business networks. These are not personal resources; you can never own them. They exist only in the context of authentic relationships with other people, both within and outside your workplace.
 
If individualism is a uniquely American value, then law firms are particularly American. Law firm culture places singular emphasis on individual abilities and effort. You are rewarded for the hours you bill; typically partners are compensated for the business they originate. The mythology that success is forged by heroic solo feats remains largely unquestioned.
 
The fact is that no one succeeds without the help of others. You could not have achieved your accomplishments to date without the contributions of parents, teachers, mentors, and friends. We all stand on the shoulders of others. Associates in firms can’t develop their skills without partners to provide challenging assignments and guidance in developing the requisite technical expertise. No attorney ever became a law firm partner without a sponsor willing to spend political capital on her advancement. Rainmakers need connections to other people, which members of their networks provide. However much resumés matter for finding jobs, access to opportunities is still largely a function of the ties you’ve forged with other people. Even luck is social: The luckiest people build a web of relationships and thereby increase their chances of favorable encounters. The one thing you cannot afford to pass up right now, regardless of your circumstances, is building your social capital.
 
Research consistently demonstrates that the advantages of rich social capital include faster promotions, better compensation, greater influence, better paying and more satisfying jobs, access to more information, more new and repeat business, and better mental and physical health.
 
Social capital is similar to financial capital in that both are productive. Social capital enables us to achieve goals that would not be possible in its absence. Unlike financial capital, social capital is potentially abundant even in a recession. In fact, difficult times provide ample opportunities for building a big relational bank account. This is because building social capital is fundamentally about generosity – and who doesn’t need some bigheartedness these days?
 
Social capital is the byproduct of your efforts to contribute to the success of other people. The paradox of social capital is that you will only reap its benefits if your networking efforts are driven by generosity. To the extent you develop relationships to get something for yourself, you will fail.
 
Reciprocity is what makes networking beneficial to you. Reciprocity begins with an act of generosity without the expectation of a return. Helping others without regard to how they will help you is the best way to make sure that you will benefit from the network relationships you create. Once you embrace this seeming contradiction, you’re ready to begin working toward developing business, securing your current position, or finding a job.
 
Business Development
 
Here is a great example of the ways in which rich social capital can help a lawyer become a rainmaker. An attorney, a client of mine, was concerned about the impending loss of a large client in the financial services industry. The attorney and her client had a long-standing relationship that provided a significant proportion of her book of business. Now the client’s company was folding, and he didn’t have another job. The attorney stayed in close contact with him, providing support and ideas and connecting him to a variety of other people in her network. As a result he landed a high-level position in another company. Not long afterward he called the attorney and asked if she could handle an important matter. It didn’t fall within her area of expertise, but she was happy to introduce him to other lawyers in her firm who could provide the counsel he needed. Recently, he asked her to handle a very large matter – one that could easily replace the lost business from his prior company. Then he followed up by referring her to a colleague in another company who has asked her to take on several significant matters. My client never expected this to happen – in fact I’d had to challenge her to call her client to offer emotional support because she viewed this as inappropriate and intrusive. She was surprised that he not only welcomed her support, he was grateful for it.
 
If your practice is slow, staying chained to your desk will only increase your feelings of helplessness. Close ties to people within your organization will help you accomplish projects but will not connect you to sources of new business. For this, you need ties to a diverse range of people. Becoming a connector between different networks creates value for both groups of people. Try networking outside your firm by joining organizations whose missions are interesting and meaningful to you. Your active participation positions you to contribute to others and build social capital.
 
The benefits of social capital take time to accrue. You can’t expect to get work from people you’ve only just met. To quote David Maister, “Marketing is a conversation.” People all around you are worried. Why not ask them how they’re doing and how you can help? Not only are you planting seeds for the economic rebound, you’re also likely to experience the “helper’s high”: the rush of positive feeling that comes from genuine acts of altruism.
 
Securing Your Current Position 
 
Consider this situation: Two woman lawyers in the same firm are hoping to advance to equity partnership. They have been practicing for the same number of years, and their books of business are roughly equal in size. One has originated most of her own business. The second has brought in work from clients originated by the senior partner for whom she works. Only the second woman advances to partnership, although both attorneys’ practice groups seem to have more than enough work. Why would this happen?
 
Research studies indicate that social capital is crucial for the advancement of women to positions of leadership. Insufficient social capital blocks the career progress of women to a much greater extent than it does men.
 
If you’re concerned about holding on to your current job or status, you can’t afford not to spend time and energy building strong ties with powerful people within your organization. Understanding their needs and creating value for them is crucial.
 
Finding a Job
 
Especially given the contraction of the legal industry, submitting resumés in response to ads or to employers not advertising positions is the least effective way to find a job. As frantic as you may feel about finding a job now, you must keep in mind the paradoxical manner in which social capital is created. It’s fine to make requests of people to whom you have a history of being generous. However, if you are reactivating a dormant network or developing brand new relationships, you’ll need to put your worries aside and focus on listening, learning about other people’s needs and goals, and doing your best to meet them.
 
Even when you’re unemployed, it’s still easy to be generous. In particular, you can offer enormous value when you function as a “linchpin” in your network, connecting people to needed information, opportunities, and leads by introducing them to people you know but they don’t.
 
For example, a coaching client had been out of the workforce for several years while raising her children. During this time she kept in touch with friends from law school, her former employer, and a diverse group of people in her community, all of whom worked with her as volunteers on a nonprofit board. She already had created rich social capital when it came time to rejoin the workforce. Members of the nonprofit board were happy to introduce her to people they knew who could provide her with information about areas of practice and job opportunities. These relationships led her to paid consulting opportunities. Her work as a consultant brought her in contact with new connections, allowing her to establish an even broader, more diverse network. She became a linchpin, connecting people from the various circles within which she moved. Social capital in the form of information about career opportunities, job openings, and introductions to people she wanted to meet began to flow toward her.
 
Although she began this process feeling confused about her career goals, she now knows precisely what she wants to do and understands which credentials and experiences she needs to obtain to become marketable in that field. People now call her to offer her part-time and project work and to request her resumé. She has no doubt that she’ll soon resume a satisfying career.
 
Like other forms of capital, social capital doesn’t typically produce quick dividends. However, there simply is no other way to become rich with opportunities, leads, referrals, new business, help, support, and influence than by building your social capital. And you will experience immediate benefits: the high that comes from helping and the positive feelings that immediately ensue from developing authentic, mutual relationships with other people.
 
So stop worrying and get connected. You can’t afford not to.
 

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