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by Kaitlin McManus | May 21, 2019


J. Kelly Hoey is a networking professional, speaker, and author of the book Build Your Dream Network: Forging Powerful Relationships in a Hyper-Connected World. After earning her law degree at the University of British Columbia and working in bankruptcy and securities, she moved on to firm management, building out attorney training, affinity group, and alumni initiatives before leaving to lead a global network for women professionals. Now a sought-out speaker and writer on all things networking, Kelly sat down with us to chat about her amazing career path, why networking isn’t what you (probably) think it is, and how being genuine is the best way to forge professional relationships.

Vault: What initially drew you to law school?

Kelly: Quite simply, it was expected of me. Coming from a family that presumed an advanced degree—my mother has her masters, and my father is a veterinarian—there was always the expectation that I would get my bachelor’s, then immediately get a professional degree. I didn’t do a gap year between high school and university, though I did do a legislative internship between undergrad and law school. But in my little bubble where I grew up, the expectations were: medical school, an MBA, or a law degree. Not a lot of ideas entered my professional imagination—sometimes it’s the community you surround yourself with that dictates your choices. I went to the University of British Columbia, and my decision of where to practice was solely determined by salary—so I moved to Toronto in 1991, which had a higher salary and equivalent cost of living to Vancouver. At first I did banking and insolvency. Then I moved to New York in 1998 and jumped into mortgage-backed securities. It’s not a glamorous area of law, but I really liked my clients and the collegiality of my colleagues, and I loved the predictability of my schedule: Once a deal started, I knew precisely when it closed. I recognized the four to six weeks of heinousness my life would be when a deal was on—unlike M&A where things can suddenly collapse, or litigation, which can go on for years—so it became a manageable work rhythm for four years.

Vault: So then what made you decide to leave your law practice?

Kelly: A piece of my career life was missing. I often say this to people—decide what you need in your “professional diet.” Some people just need great quality work, or maybe great quality work and great colleagues. My firm was fantastic, I loved them, but everything I needed in my professional diet wasn’t there—there wasn’t as much client development, not as much “firm life.” So I sat down in 2001 and asked myself, “What is it that gives me joy at work? What makes me excited?” I zeroed in on how much I enjoyed mentoring and guiding the careers of others—and the rest is history. My career was in attorney training and development and marketing. I’ll confess, I did interview at other firms and for in-house positions, but ended up not pursuing either of those options. It wasn’t the challenge or quality of the legal work that made me decide to leave the practice of law, it was the other stuff that I was missing.

Vault: How did you get from there to here—an author/speaker/influencer? What does your day-to-day look like now?

Kelly: From finishing practicing to now was a journey I could never have imagined or crafted out in a hypothetical ten-year career plan. Once I decided to leave the practice of law in 2002, I went on to build out professional development programs and the women’s initiative and alumni program at a global law firm. I landed that role after a lot of networking—18 months of targeted, intentional networking, to be precise. As a result of that agonizing career switch, I made a very conscious decision that I would never allow my career to be vulnerable by not having a diverse network.

How I go about networking has not changed radically since I graduated law school in 1991 and entered the practice of law. Back “in the day” the focus for law firm marketing was old-school client service. So when I think about networking (or network building) I’m asking myself: How do I build my expertise, my reputation? How do I deliver work product in such a way that someone recommends me? How do I take exceptional care of the challenges for the person in front of me? That thought process is ingrained in my DNA. Jump forward after 2004, I was intentionally expanding my network, and making sure everyone knew my expertise and skill set. Because of that approach, all of these other opportunities presented themselves. I was asked to be the first president of a global women’s network, then approached to cofound a startup accelerator. All of these things happened because of my reputation—and it’s continuing to pay dividends in all these unexpected ways.

As for my workday, a typical day now looks a heck of a lot different than it used it, but in some ways it’s still the same as before. I work really damn hard! I’m focused on building relationships and sharing my knowledge. I’m always following up with or reaching out to people I’ve worked with before or creating content—but instead of a perspective on a legal issue, it’s a blog post or podcast. It’s different, but very much the same “marketing” muscle.

Vault: When I heard you described by a colleague as a “networking professional,” I thought to myself, “That sounds like my worst nightmare.” Despite my cynicism on the subject, can you speak to the importance of networking—particularly at the start of one’s career when, for the most part, you probably don’t know many people in your desired field?

Kelly: When most people think of networking, they think about approaching strangers when they are in need of something (such as a new job or client) —that’s not what I think of as networking. I run from that stuff screaming. Networking for me is based on what you already know and on personal relationships; it’s not “spray and pray,” rather it’s helping people you now solve their problems so they come back to you. Your worst networking nightmare isn’t productive networking—it’s the equivalent of ambulance chasing (or buying a lottery ticket). I’m focused on long-term relationships building. It is an activity you start in law school—building relationships with your classmates. From there, it all depends on your level of experience—as an associate, my job was to build relationships with the client contacts at my level. The idea being that, in seven years, I’d be partner, and my client contacts would have progressed to be in a position to give business—and they’d go to someone they’d had a career journey with. Networking is long term, it’s not immediate, instantaneous gains. Focus on people around you —help them out and, at some point in the future, they can send work to you or pass your name on to someone else. That’s relationship building—and that’s productive, meaningful networking. It’s a human-centered alternative to schmoozing at parties and making idle small-talk with people you have no interest in knowing.

The big question always is: How do you fit networking in given the demanding requirements and limitations of your job? With lawyers, the billable hour is a great excuse not to network. But if you think of networking as relationship building, there’s a whole lot you can do from your desk—from your email signature to setting up a Google Alert on a client. You can go down to someone’s office and speak to them instead of putting them on speaker phone, meet in person instead of over Skype. “Micro-networking,” as I call it, can pay bigger dividends than showing up at a cocktail party with the right number of business cards and a well-rehearsed elevator pitch.

For those just starting out in their careers, I will say you have to do everything: bar association, professional organizations, alumni—you name it. The point is to explore and find the community where you should invest your time building social capital.

Vault: How does one go about maintaining their connections? Much of the anxiety I see around networking comes from meeting people, but keeping up with them always seems to be the more challenging aspect, in my experience.

Kelly: The beauty of the era we live in now is that some of the ways we stayed in touch in the old days, we can magnify that now. We live in busy, distracted times. The last thing we need is someone trying to fill our calendars with coffee dates and stuff like that, which feels like a throwaway line anyway. It’s more sincere to remember things about people’s personal lives. Networking can be sending someone a great article, or a “happy birthday” text. Holiday cards are another great tool—people don’t get paper cards anymore. I respond to every holiday card I get. As for social media, you should go on there to listen as much as to share or broadcast. Most of your clients are probably using social platforms—so what are they talking about? Being a good listener and observer is a critical skill we learn in law school. Use those skills in your networking. You don’t need to always suggest coffee or lunch or drinks, you just need to remember people.

I live my own advice! Annual get-togethers can be enough to keep a relationship warm. Fourteen years after I left the active practice of law, I was at dinner with a former client whom I make the point of catching up with once or twice a year. The night of our dinner coincided with a book deadline (selection of the cover art). I slid my phone over and asked which cover he liked for my book—and he selected the one I went with. A year ago, I told that story to some other old coworkers at a book event, and they were shocked the two of us were still in touch.

Take some networking pressure off yourself. The reason we don’t do these things is because our calendar is busy—so is the other person’s. All you have to do is reach out with an article or reminder or whatever. It doesn’t have to be time consuming, just thoughtful.

Vault: Finally, any advice for law students or associates who are wondering if the BigLaw path might not be for them?

Kelly: BigLaw isn’t for everyone, but there are reasons to go there. There are experiences and contacts and, in some cases, the gravitas available at a big firm. Remember, you take those experience and contacts with you when you walk out the door along with all you’ve learned. BigLaw pays well—so rather than focusing on a lifetime in a big firm, consider setting up your two-year plan for learning, saving money (or paying down student loan debt), and making a tremendous amount of contacts. Make a roadmap—along the way you may discover that you like BigLaw, but you may find your next thing: a not-for-profit, a smaller firm, government work, a corporation.

When I moved into working with the alumni network at a global BigLaw firm, it was right at the time of the Lehman Brothers collapse. Alumni were coming back looking for help, and associates that I’d onboarded and did performance reviews for—I was like their den mother—had been laid off. So many of them said to me, “Kelly, we should’ve listened to you. We should have focused on our network and not just on what was right in front of us.” They landed, but they had to go through a lot more career pain because they hadn’t focused on their network.

If you’re going into BigLaw with an eye to a different career future than making partner, be sure to keep your eyes on that future career while you’re at the big firm. Take every opportunity offered to you—know that you’re banking experience and introductions, and stay sane by keeping in mind that you’re investing in yourself and all those efforts are to get you to that next big thing. Don’t get frustrated or angry or disappointed in your early legal career—change the lens you’re viewing it with. You’ll enjoy yourself more and be better prepared for that future if you focus on the bigger picture. It’s not disloyal to your employer—it’s loyalty to yourself and your success.

Learn more about J. Kelly Hoey (and her book) on her website.