In 2007, I joined McKee Nelson, a young, entrepreneurial firm. In two short years there I learned more than I ever could have imagined. The market was booming and the firm was thriving. The marketing team was small so I had the opportunity to take on a lot of responsibility.

Then the market crashed and everything changed.

The firm had to make some tough but necessary decisions, but it did so in the most compassionate way. We were all in it together. They did the right thing for their people. McKee Nelson wound up merging with Bingham McCutchen and later became part of Morgan Lewis during another merger. I left before the first merger because I was craving stability, and what better place to find stability than the most stable firm in the world, Sullivan & Cromwell?

My experience at McKee was very rewarding because I made lifelong relationships with some of the smartest, kindest and honorable people in the industry, and it helped me to grow and learn what kind of professional I wanted to be.

I learned a few key lessons though this experience (as well as a few other tips) to build your alumni network:

  • It’s imperative to keep in touch with former colleagues. These relationships can help you down the line in your career in immeasurable ways – referrals, references, mentoring, friendship and so much more. Don’t just sit behind your desk churning out documents day after day and then run home – actively cultivate your network both in-person and online.
  • While social media is a great way to connect with former colleagues, and you absolutely should use online networking (meaning LinkedIn) to help you build your brand and network, there is no substitute for relationship building through in-person contact. So, make plans for breakfast, lunch, coffee, drinks or dinner with key individuals with whom you’ve been meaning to reconnect. Remember, as the title of the famous networking bible by Keith Ferrazzi says, you should Never Eat Alone!
  • You don’t need to wait for an organized alumni event from your former law school or past firm to meet up with former colleagues. Why not organize a get together yourself, which gives you the ability to pick and choose who you invite in a more personal way? Hold a dinner or go for cocktails with 10 to 15 alums or host a happy hour at a conveniently located bar and invite several class years (note: you can do this by groups – such as young alumni, diverse alumni, women alumnae and even by choosing five class years that are in close age proximity because they will likely have ties to each other). Smaller-scale events can often be more effective for relationship building due to their intimate nature.
  • When you go to a large-scale alumni event organized by your prior law firm or educational institution, create a networking plan in advance. Commit to meeting three new people and spending no more than 10 minutes talking to each of them. Remember to listen versus talk and ask a lot of questions about them. Make sure you get their business card at the end of the conversation and send them a LinkedIn request afterwards to extend the relationship and make a plan for getting together.
  • One of the top questions I get from lawyers about alumni events is “should I still go to my former firm’s alumni event if I was asked to leave/fired?” The answer is YES! Here’s why – many people at other firms are in the same exact boat. It’s part of attrition or the natural evolution of law firms. But you received an invite, so do not worry one bit if you left a firm on so-so terms or were asked to leave. You should still go to the alumni event if you were invited and proudly network! In addition, you should go to alumni events if you were only at a firm for a short period of time – any period of time counts and if you are looking to network, you can meet new connections in addition to former colleagues at these types of events.
  • Check out the alumni section of the main firm web sites at which you worked to find long-lost friends from former firms. Many large and mid-size firms have online alumni portals with searchable directories – these are treasure troves of useful contact information (although oftentimes it’s not updated there, but you can use that info as a starting point and type in their names on LinkedIn to find their current employer). You can search for alumni from defunct firms as well – many of them still have employees who list those firms in their work history section on LinkedIn, which you can then sort.
  • Expanding on the point above, the online directories of your law school and colleges are great resources for reconnecting with former classmates. For both alumni at your former firms and alumni at past educational institutions, make a spreadsheet with the names of the individuals with whom you want to connect and then make an action plan.
  • Promote your successes with alumni organizations. Oftentimes your former educational institution or place of employment will have a “class notes” section in its alumni newsletter or online alumni portal to promote the successes of their former students/employees. Don’t be shy about submitting content for this area. I’ve seen many people rekindle important relationships and even obtain new business from a class notes section. If you don’t stay top of mind and tout your accomplishments, no one else will, and worse, someone else will take advantage of it for themselves.
  • Always cast a wide net when you think of alumni – what I mean by this is that alumni can also be people with whom you shared a bonding experience such as those individuals with whom you attended summer camp, a study abroad program, a conference or a religious study program – you catch my drift. These experiences can also build strong relationships and why not keep in touch and extend these relationships into the future?
  • When I recently met up for drinks with the group mentioned above, it was a last-minute thing, so be open to spontaneous invites!
  • And by the way, say yes and follow through. It’s so easy to blow off plans because you’re too busy or too tired, but you simply have to make the effort to stay connected.
  • You really see who people (and organizations) are when you go through a tough time like layoffs and a merger. Eventually everyone does wind up okay – and the shared experience bonds you forever. Be as kind, calm and helpful as you can be if you should ever find yourself in this situation. It’s just the right thing to do and you know, it’s good karma.

I am so thankful to have had my professional experience at McKee Nelson. It really helped to shape who I am today, and I always make a point to stay in touch with former colleagues because having a strong professional network is just never a bad idea. I hope this article inspires you to reconnect with a former colleague! It’s never too early or late to build a strong network.