I recently gave a TED-Style talk at the Legal Marketing Association’s Northeast Regional Conference titled Fueling Business Development Success: How Rainmaking Differs for Women Lawyers. The subject sparked quite a bit of conversation both in person and online!
So… IS Business Development Different for Women?
NO!! The principles of business development are the same regardless of gender.
While there are obstacles to business development success for all attorneys (not the least of which is that no one taught us how to do it), there is an added layer of challenges for women, including:
Continued Exclusion from Influential Circles
I recently spoke with the female managing partner of a law firm with 175 lawyers (let’s call her Kyra). She started as an associate, successfully took on leadership roles over the years, and was enthusiastically elevated to managing partner after her colleagues, largely male, strenuously advocated for her election.
Kyra noticed that her male partners arranged get-togethers outside the office but didn’t invite her. Although the events were social, a lot of business conversations took place. When Kyra asked one of her closest confidantes why she was being excluded, he said, “It’s just the guys, so we assumed you wouldn’t want to come!” He seemed genuinely surprised that she was interested in participating.
Even when done unintentionally, the exclusion of women from halls of power – rooms in which relationships are forged and deals are made – negatively impacts the ability of women to make connections, grow their books of business, and help their firms succeed.
Fewer Role Models
We all know the statistics: There are far fewer women than men in leadership and rainmaking roles in law firms, even though law school classes and incoming associate classes have been 50/50 for many years. Research demonstrates that role models matter and that they matter even more for women. As Dr. Nina Ansary wrote in Anonymous Is a Woman, “It’s hard to be what we cannot see.”
The negative effect of not having female role models aligns with my own experience. As a young lawyer in the 1990s, I had wonderful role models and sponsors, all of whom were men with stay-at-home wives.
I was and still am grateful for their guidance, but there were literally no women to emulate, or talk to, or get advice from. When my husband (also a Biglaw lawyer) and I had a baby, and I was faced with consistent 70-hour workweeks, I looked around and realized that not only were there almost no female partners, but there were also exactly zero who were moms. I concluded that the whole mom/lawyer thing wouldn’t work…and I opted out.
According to Herminia Ibarria, an author and the Charles Handy Professor Organisational Behavior at London Business School, women have limited access to sponsors because “human nature creates an uneven playing field: People’s tendency to gravitate to those who are like them on salient dimensions such as gender increases the likelihood that powerful men will sponsor and advocate for other men when leadership opportunities arise.”
Why does that matter? Because sponsors, who have influence or “juice,” open the door to opportunity, visibility, client relationships, and higher-paying roles.
Fewer women at the top echelons of law firms means fewer women with influence to put you in front of clients, laud you to senior leaders, and open doors to rainmaking success.
Differences in How Men and Women are Socialized to Think and Behave
According to Reshma Saujani, author of Brave, Not Perfect, girls are socialized to be polite, play it safe, and get all A’s (in short, to be perfect), while boys are taught to get dirty, take risks, and be brave.
Perfectionism works for a while, but leadership and business development require a vastly different mindset and a different set of skills, neither of which most women have been practicing. It’s a huge challenge to undo years of socialization, give up what has worked for you thus far, and suddenly adopt a mindset that allows you to take the risks required for those pursuits.
How Can Your Firm Drive Business Development Success for Women?
- Emphasize the importance of rainmaking for earning increased compensation and having access to leadership roles. Don’t hide the ball by acting like it’s not important.
- Raise awareness for both male and female leaders about societal programming that disproportionately impacts women. Limiting beliefs are learned and can be unlearned, and unconscious bias can be minimized when understood.
- Don’t exclusively expect or permit women to overcommit to volunteering for committees that are not highly valued by the firm.
- Invest in business development training and coaching that focuses in part on topics unique to women lawyers. The occasional seminar will not drive confidence and habit formation, but a longer-term commitment to training, coaching, and community will do just that!
Looking for more ways to support your women lawyers?
Learn how to sponsor your firm’s lawyers for the Ignite’s 2024 Women’s Business Development Accelerator Cohort.