Cold Networking and Comfort Zones: Lessons for Professional Development

  • March 29, 2020
  • Barbara De Dios

Cold Networking and Comfort Zones: Lessons for Professional Development

Several months ago, I attended a networking event by myself for the first time. Forgoing the buddy system, I intentionally decided it was time to make more connections in my legal community, ignoring the nagging thought that the circumstances (standing inelegantly with a wine glass in hand, on my own, knowing absolutely no one) were completely outside of my comfort zone.

Following that evening, my hopes for further conversation and mentorship with other counsel, beyond the confines of my in-house role, continued. And so, I continued beyond the limits of my comfort zone. I reached out through cold LinkedIn messages to in-house counsel throughout my city to suggest a (professional) coffee with me, a stranger.

It’s a strange path to career development, I’ll admit.

And yet, each instance of cold networking left me more mentored and encouraged about this chosen path. The opportunities for growth and learning that I have had from my cold networking efforts have been enough incentive to continue doing so—and, more importantly, the task has become less daunting and, dare I say, enjoyable.

Solo Networking: Connection with Intention

“You’re going to a networking event all by yourself? You won’t know anyone?” My colleague shook her head and chuckled, “That’s brave. I could never.”

I threw some business cards into my purse, grabbed an Uber, and brainstormed some safe conversation topics I could rely on that evening to avoid awkward silence while chatting with a stranger. Holiday shopping? The race to finish off CPD hours by year-end? Something easy, with the ability to connect but safe enough to stay professional.

As in-house counsel facing the same client and the same stakeholders everyday, getting plugged into our legal communities may be a very real aspiration for you. We are all looking to connect with other counsel to share best practices, have a sounding board and generally broaden our perspectives. The difficulty lies in knowing where to start: determining the where, when, who and how. Through my experiments, it has become apparent to me that all four of these elements can be fulfilled through our own acts of intentional connection in a professional context.

You may find yourself in a similar scenario as I did that evening, hanging out by the prosciutto platters, crunching on a breadstick. I had figured out the where, the when and even the who—a group nearby who just so happened to be chatting about the very same topics I had painstakingly brainstormed in my Uber earlier that evening.

At that moment, I faced the challenge of not knowing how. How do I interrupt a conversation with people who look like they have known each other for years? How do I interject and join the group? I took a deep breath, walked over and played out my safest introductory phrase, introducing myself and asking how they were enjoying the event. I was in.

I learned an incredibly useful and significant lesson for my career that night: solo networking was not as scary as it seemed. We often fall back on the comforts of familiarity, relying on the buddy system at networking events or waiting for an introduction from others to meet a colleague in the community. However, dependence on familiarity can potentially limit our career growth if we aren’t careful. Taking the chance to meet someone in a cold networking context, on the other hand, can create a multitude of opportunities: the chance to get involved in local organizations, contribute to local events, give an opinion on issues that impact the legal community today or simply build a professional friendship. 

I connected with some interesting colleagues from diverse backgrounds whom I would otherwise never have met if not for the simple (and, in my case, courageous) act of saying hello. 

Cold Coffees: Lessons for Lawyers

Following that first success, I realized that intentionally creating opportunities for conversation and mentorship was the practical next step in my quest for learning and future-proofing my career. I knew whom I wanted to speak with and learn from—counsel who I’ve often read about but never met, or those with in-house backgrounds like mine who have developed into senior roles I hoped to one day pursue.

The delicate, trickier step would be the act of reaching out in a cold context, having absolutely no introduction to bridge the gap of familiarity, and with the initial strangeness of sending a message to very brilliant people with no real introduction other than the few characters I could fit into a LinkedIn connection request.

But I did it. I carefully curated a pleasant, professional message with a brief introduction explaining my role as junior counsel, ending with the hopeful request for a coffee or lunch (on me, of course) to talk about their perspectives on career development, no strings attached.

The response was overwhelming. Truth be told, I didn’t expect to receive as many responses as I did. And further, I didn’t expect complete strangers to be so open to spending 30 minutes (or more) of their day with me to speak about the trajectory of their careers thus far.

In fact, Madeleine Tyber, Counsel at Lawyers' Professional Indemnity Company (LawPro), who I met at a local Starbucks on a cold, blustery day in December, told me, “I've found that coffee chats are my favourite type of networking. The conversations are more candid and there is greater opportunity to really connect."

I began to see that my approach wasn’t so revolutionary. Like-minded counsel, whether junior or senior, with similar goals of network building and connecting, often reciprocate the very same intentions and aspirations as you and are absolutely open to conversation, even going so far as creating unofficial mentorship contexts and opportunities for discussion about learning and growth.  

Cold Networking: The Element of Reciprocation

In the last several months, I have attended over half a dozen cold coffees with counsel from all over my city and attended solo networking events very similar to the one I described above. Through each engagement, building connections often followed a standard formula: purpose and intention followed by connection and reciprocation.

Treat these meetings with strangers like a regular, but professional, conversation with a friend. Be prepared with questions that are in line with your own personal purposes, goals and intentions. Build rapport and speak honestly about your thoughts and hopes for career growth—often, those conversations spark ideas and opportunities you can implement immediately and may lead to introductions to other counsel in your community who can further guide you. In my experience, the element of professional reciprocation is more common than one would think; a refusal to connect is more often an anomaly. 

Truth be told, solo networking and cold coffees are still not fully within my comfort zone but hearing from other counsel who are in similar roles or have developed into positions I aspire to has become a foundational support system for future-proofing my career. Ultimately, cold networking can be an incredibly valuable and effective tool if we intentionally choose to use it.

Barbara De Dios is Corporate Counsel at Canadian Dental Services Corporation, a dental services organization acquiring businesses in the dental industry across the country. She can be reached at