Small Talk Is a Big Opportunity: How to Work a Room

Do you rank attending law firm social events right down there on the popularity scale below having a root canal? If so, you’ll identify with a young lawyer in one of my seminars. He’d been told to attend a cocktail party being given by his practice group. Here’s how the evening went: “I had to work late, so when I rushed up to the boardroom, it was full of people at least 20 years older than me. I knew no one, and everyone else seemed to know everyone.” Another lawyer shot back: “Think yourself lucky. At our client event, I was the youngest, I knew no one—and I was the only woman in the room.”

First things first: law is a business of relationships. It follows that to develop business, you have to develop relationships. Much of this relationship-building takes place at events where you’re expected to start up conversations with people you don’t know.

Young lawyers are expected to “work the room” at firm events—but no one teaches them how. If they consequently avoid events like the plague, they become senior lawyers who find themselves tongue-tied at firm events. That’s a great example to the younger lawyers in the room!

The first thing is to remember that working a room is exactly that…work. It may be a social event, but you’re not there to kick up your heels and let down your hair. You’re there to work. So, just as you wouldn’t dream of going to a client meeting unprepared, you should never go unprepared to a work-related event.

Probably the most important information you need is who will be there. Who do you want/need to meet? What can you find out about them beforehand? What do you want to ask them? If your firm has a marketing department, they can help you with this. If not, a quick Google search should turn up major facts and possibly recent news.

Ideally, there should be a strategy meeting of the lawyers attending the event. If you have a marketing department, they should set up this meeting and bring any information on the guests. The lawyers should then strategize about who should meet whom, who should be introduced to whom, and what questions to ask whom. It’s more effective to work in teams of older/younger lawyers or lawyers from Practice Area A and Practice Area B.

Above all, lawyers attending the event should understand what the firm’s interest is in inviting the guests on the list. Relationship-building consists of making connections, deepening existing relationships, and maintaining long-standing relationships. At a minimum, you should know who on the guest list is a client and who is not—yet. Your marketing department can help by creating differently coloured nametags for clients.
The other thing to understand is that your goal is not necessarily to come away from the event with a piece of business; it’s to make contacts and have a reason to follow up with them. Since relationships are long-term, this event is part of a continuum that needs to be kept going.

Small, practical details make a big difference in overcoming that sinking feeling as you enter the room. Arrive early so you can start up conversations with people entering the room after you, rather than walking into a full room where everyone is already talking. Act like a host; it makes it easier to circulate and be at ease yourself when you’re trying to make other people comfortable. As you circulate, join groups of three to five people, or someone who’s alone. Two people are more likely to be having a conversation where an interruption would be intrusive. Put your nametag on your right side so that people shaking your hand can see it clearly.

Starting up the first conversation is a lot like delivering your first line onstage. If you can remember your first line, you’re off. Nametags can often give you your first topic of conversation. Maybe you know someone else in their organization, or maybe your research turned up some information about the organization. Keeping up with the news is important for anyone who regularly attends events: you’ll be very glad you invested the time when you meet someone whose company or parent just purchased another, or was purchased.

Whatever the topic of conversation, listen twice as much as you talk. The more opportunity you give the other person to talk, the greater an impression you’ll make. You develop a relationship by listening to the other person until you’ve found a point where you think you can help.

Once you’re into a conversation, if it didn’t begin with business you need to steer it in that direction. Ask about the type of business and their role. Ask about any changes, issues or problems that affect their business: what could they be headed for, and what might they need from you as a result? Find the problem—even when clients don’t know they have one. You aren’t looking to solve the problem right now; you’re looking for a reason to follow up.

In the final analysis, what people will remember is not what was said—after all, less than 20 percent of information is transmitted through words—but how it felt to be talking to you, the emotional imprint of the conversation. As long as you keep the spotlight on others and make them feel like stars, the emotional imprint of your conversation is immense.

Opening a conversation is only half of the skill needed for working a room; the other half is closing a conversation gracefully so that you can move on. I’ll talk about that in my next column.


  1. Good advice for any networking opportunity, formal or informal. If you’ve rushed to get there, take a few moments to settle yourself, then enter the room calm and collected. Be positive – people respond to and open up to positive energy. And be specific: aim to connect with a specific number of people you have identified as relevant to your sector, target markets or clients.

  2. Some fantastic advice. I am naturally quite shy, but find playing the host to be the easiest entree into talking with people. Helping someone get a drink in hand, find some food, explaining the schedule of events for the evening, and introducing him or her to someone else of interest, are easier than standing around trying to make small talk.

    Now that I consult, I have found that over time at 2 or 3 events with the same group of people, I gradually get to know more and more people, and somehow find myself amongst the people who seem to know everyone else. It is getting started that is the most difficult part. And then I am sure to welcome the newcomers and introduce them around.