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The newsletter of the ISBA’s Young Lawyers Division

February 2011, vol. 55, no. 4

Networking Is a Contact Sport, by Joe Sweeney

Networking is a place you go to give, not to get. That is the fundamental theme of Networking is a Contact Sport, a new book by Joe Sweeney. Sweeney starts the book with this message, and he returns to it repeatedly in order to encourage the reader to look at networking from a different perspective. “When you truly give to others without any expectations or strings attached, you will receive much more than you ever could have expected,” Sweeney writes. “When you meet people, take the time to learn their stories. Look for ways that you can offer to help long before you ask for a favor.”

Throughout the book, Sweeney gives useful advice, insights, and techniques for effective networking. In the first chapter, “The Art of Networking,” he elaborates on many basic networking maxims. “Act like you belong, no matter where you are,” Sweeney explains, because people will be attracted to you and want to be part of your network if you go through life with self-confidence. Always look people in the eyes. Stay persistent. Never be afraid to introduce yourself first. Take time to cultivate relationships. Be a great listener and ask open-ended questions.

The author tells his secrets for “working a room” in the second chapter, “The Nuts and Bolts of Networking.” He explains that you should always keep your eye out for networking opportunities, whether at work or at play, but that it is important to understand the difference between networking at business events and making connections at social events. At business events, you are expected to “glad-hand,” but at social events, any overt attempts to hand out business cards will backfire and be met with disdain. “[N]etworking begins with the ability to start and carry on a good conversation,” Sweeney explains, so you must “engage in an intelligent conversation punctuated with give-and-take, back-and-forth dialogue.” Finally, Sweeney emphasizes the importance of remembering names, explaining that the time and energy you put into remembering people’s names will win you a lot of goodwill. If you have trouble with this, Sweeney suggests listening closely when the introduction is made and immediately repeating the name to verify it. Then, repeat the first name two or three times during the conversation, ask for a business card when you make your goodbyes, and read the name several times when you get back to the office.

Sweeney devotes an entire chapter to the recent economic downturn and dwindling jobs market, giving timely advice to those who are out of work or underemployed. Here, Sweeney emphasizes that “the difference between networking and not working is one letter.” He talks about how hiring is often a relationship-based arrangement and that most people get hired because they have a relationship with the person who hired them, a friend or acquaintance at the firm recommended them, a networking contact gave them a glowing recommendation, or they heard about the job opening from a business contact. It truly is a matter of who you know, not what you know. As a result, you should not stop networking when you become unemployed. You must realize that networking is your best chance to get hired again, so don’t be afraid to make phone calls, send e-mails, schedule meetings with people who do what you want to do, and volunteer. This is the time to tell everyone you know that you need a job.

The author also addresses the use of Facebook, LinkedIn, and other online social networking sites. Sweeney encourages the use of these social media for researching business contacts or business promotion, but he cautions against solely relying on them for building a professional network. While these sites can be a useful tool when used correctly, relationships in cyberspace will never trump face-to-face contact. Sweeney emphasizes that the quality of your network is more important than the quantity, and that there is no substitute for a personal touch. “A personal phone call, a written letter, or a handwritten note means a hundred times more than being on the recipient list of an impersonal e-mail blast or text message.”

As a businessman, entrepreneur, former sports agent, and investment banker, Sweeney is truly qualified to give advice on professional networking. Sweeney currently serves as managing director of a middle-market investment banking firm in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Prior to this position, he owned and operated four manufacturing companies, founded a sports marketing agency that specializes in assisting and representing coaches and athletes, and served as president of the Wisconsin Sports Authority. For 28 years, Sweeney has built a career by combining his love of business with his passion for sports. With a networking database of over 3,000 names, numbers, and addresses, Sweeney has the contacts to prove it.

Sweeney makes the often-mundane world of professional networking come alive for the reader by peppering the pages with stories from his personal life and career. He regularly touches on the impact of growing up as one of the youngest in an Irish-Catholic family of nine boys and one girl. One of his best stories involves the first time he tried networking. At age 8, Sweeney walked into Ara Parseghian’s office unannounced and asked the legendary coach to give his older brother a football scholarship at Notre Dame. His brother, a walk-on at the time, was awarded a football scholarship for the following year.

Sweeney also recounts the innovative networking measures he took to secure Bob Costas as the keynote speaker for the Wisconsin Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1995. At the time, Sweeney didn’t know Costas at all. Over the course of several months, Sweeney worked his contacts, made multiple phone calls, sent many letters, and got the governor involved on his behalf. In an effort to think of a new approach, Sweeney even shipped a package of Brewers bratwursts and Secret Stadium Sauce to Costas, a self-proclaimed fanatic of the ballpark food at Milwaukee’s County Stadium. Costas finally agreed to speak at the event, and it turned out to be an enormous success. “If my experience with Bob Costas proved anything, it’s that networking is a contact sport. Sometimes you get pushed aside or knocked down, but if you persevere, remain focused and look for ways to engage people—ways that are fresh, clever and persistent—networking will make things happen and take you where you want to go in life.”

These are just a couple of the vivid examples that Sweeney uses to bring perspective to his ideas. The stories are important because they enable the reader to envision how the strategies might work in the real world, once the book gets stacked on the shelf and you find yourself with sweaty palms in the middle of an important professional function.

Even though Sweeney’s qualifications and illustrations stem from business and sports, his book illuminates the core fundamentals of networking that apply to all professions. His advice is easily transferable to the legal field, and the information is timely. Sweeney’s conversational tone and positive outlook will leave the reader motivated and ready to get in the game. This book is a must-read for anyone in the legal profession who is looking for a new position, considering a career change, or just needs basic tips for developing and maintaining a professional network. For more information, visit <>. ■