In this article Tim Hyman, a director of the annual ByLegalForLegal event and Head of IT at Taylor Wessing argues that it's not what you know – it's who you know

Networking in legal IT is arguably more important than ever. Keeping up with changing and developing technologies and solutions has always been a challenge -which publications do you read? And which articles are no more than cleverly drafted marketing campaigns by software vendors? There is no question the immense value of discussing plans and issues with your peers. The sharing of war stories, experiences (good and bad) and generally ‘lifting the bonnet’ on claims made by vendors can save you time, money, pain and ultimately your career! For some people, networking is only important when a need arises (such as a new job or a product to sell). Whilst this is a valid approach, it is my view that these people could be missing a trick as effective networking is a process that matures over time and if correctly carried out takes a little effort and with much reward.

Enter VRM (vendor relationship management)
OK that may be another cheap shot at slipping in an acronym, but there are those that think events are really about people trying to sell you things. The simple fact is all good events need sponsorship but having vendor sponsors at networking events does not necessarily mean you are in for the hard sell.  Whilst it is true that you will inevitably meet people at networking events who are trying to sell you a product or service the trick is to make it about you. Yes a vendor may be desperately keen to talk about release 9.5 of “does what it says on the tin” available to you at an amazing discount due to your standing in the legal community but… its amazing how quickly this type of bore will disappear when you make it clear you are not interested/no budget/prefer their rivals product (delete as applicable).

Fortunately vendors who only try to sell to others at events are becoming a rarity. Increasingly, vendors are seeing good quality networking events more as account management opportunities and the smart guys have realised that the hard sell is completely missing the point of networking – relationship building is the way forward. Staying in touch, hearing about successes, recognising issues and above all understanding our challenges ahead are the business intelligence that a good vendor will take away with them and turn into future profitable relationships.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that a good relationship with a vendor is often equally as important as those with your peers. How many times have you wished you’d known who to call when your Exchange server has corrupted on Saturday afternoon and the Partners Conference is on Monday? And even if you’d called, how many would pull out all the stops to get you a resource on a Sunday? Believe it or not a relationship like this is achievable and I guarantee one day you will need it.

Same old same old
It may appear that all events are the same because the basic premise is that people gather in a room to suffer ‘death by generic slide presentation software’. In fact, many events exist and these have different focuses in terms of format, attendees, and ultimate purpose. Because each event has a different focus or agenda, and assuming you have neither the time, budget or drinking capacity to attend them all, it is essential you choose carefully. Not all events have networking as the main focus although almost all provide networking opportunities of varying degree. For some, learning from the programmes available is the most important use of time, for others it is learning from others who have experienced similar challenges to those that you currently face. If you get it right you will take away different ideas and new contacts. If you get it wrong you will be mindlessly bored, have a massive bar bill and 2000 emails waiting in your inbox.

Networking is only for extroverts
It is a common misconception that you need to be a certain personality type to network with others. Whilst talking with others may be easier for outgoing individuals, a good event will provide an atmosphere designed for like minded individuals to meet each other, share experiences and generally discuss legal IT issues and developments in a relaxed and social environment.

Like most things in life, you will meet both introverted and extroverted people but all it takes is a good conversation, (perhaps a drink or two)  and the willingness to participate to start building relationships. People have a variety of reasons for attending events and you will meet individuals who are looking for jobs (in the US 70% of jobs are found through networking events) seeking advice, bragging about their latest achievement and simply making new contacts.

Closing thought
I can’t stress enough the importance of networking in legal IT. You will find an openness and willingness to share second to no other industry, you will improve your relationships, which can ultimately help you in life professionally and personally. Ultimately you will save yourself considerable grief and save your firm a lot of money. I would even go as far as to say that the IT Director of the future will be measured not only by what you know but by who you know and the downside? Well there isn’t one.