A Mother's Path to the Law Firm Peak: 8 Strategies

Posted on 04-14-2014 by
Tags: networking , woman lawyers , career advancement , Upgrading Your Skills , rainmakers , career management

Kudos to the female rainmakers who have shared their core strategies to keep themselves, and their firms, at the top of their game, and who provide their winning ways to others who are trying to forge ahead. So often, we forget to help others in our profession, but as Madelieine Albright said during her 2006 keynote speech at Celebrating Inspiration luncheon with the WNBA’s All-Decade Team, “There is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women."

An excerpt is below or read the complete article via Working Mother.

Things are getting better for women at many law firms, but there’s more work to be done to bring them to the top business development ranks, even at our 50 best firms. “To improve the status of women as rainmakers, firms need to focus on law firm infrastructure,” says Deborah Epstein Henry, founder and president of Flex-Time Lawyers.

1. Networking “I built a lot of business through staying in touch with clients and colleagues, even when they move around,” says McGarry. She landed one major client after calling to congratulate him on a new job. Another was someone she’d worked with when both were young attorneys. She also stays in touch by sending clients updates about changes in the law that could affect their business. Women-specific groups, including mommy networks and other social interactions, can be cultivated for future business, adds Timi Hallem, a real estate transactional partner at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips in Los Angeles, another winning firm. “One thing women can do is look on the people they meet at the soccer field as opportunities for business development.”

2. Individuality For Liz Fries, who chairs the hedge fund practice at winning firm Goodwin Procter in Boston, sending practice-area updates has proven to be a strong client-development strategy. Keeping clients in the loop about changes in the law helps them do business more effectively. It also reminds them that Fries knows the law and keeps her at the forefront of her clients’ minds. This kind of strategy plays to her personal strengths: Rather than having to create and maintain relationships with a lot of cold-calling, she can do it through client advocacy and legal knowledge. “The firm’s culture and structure have been helpful to me because it’s a flexible place. Management doesn’t say ‘You belong in this box’ or ‘You must do these things,’ ” Fries explains. “If I were trying to build a business that was dependent on soliciting strangers, it wouldn’t work for me. Instead, I have the flexibility to build business in a manner that works for my practice and personality.”

3. Team Play Women at several winning firms note the benefits of a culture that emphasizes collaboration and sharing credit. Laura Hodges Taylor, Fries’s partner at Goodwin Procter, says the firm’s approach to clients—collaborative rather than competitive—helped her succeed as a corporate transactional partner and later as part of the firm’s management. “We’re never discouraged to go meet with a prospect as a team,” she says. “When you’re a young partner developing your practice, it’s a little less intimidating to go to meetings with others. A team orientation also encourages people to bring others along who can contribute to the relationship.” Kim Cacheris, a labor and employment litigator in the Charlotte, NC, office of McGuire-Woods, has made a conscious effort to connect internally with other attorneys in her age group. As she and her colleagues began to develop their own clients, those friends and colleagues became an informal network of people who call one another when clients need someone in another practice area. The result for her: “Nine times out of ten, if we’ve got a pitch coming and employment is a piece of that, colleagues are going to include me.”

4. Flexibility Terri Combs, a commercial and securities litigator who also runs Faegre & Benson’s Des Moines office, didn’t set out to build a big book of business. But when she moved to Des Moines from New York City, she did make an effort to retain her Wall Street clients. That was easy with clients who were personal friends, but Combs also worked to meet with people she didn’t know as well. She credits this winning firm for giving her the financial and organizational flexibility to make that kind of trip. “If I wanted to take a trip back to New York and see people, or go to a conference or trade association meeting, the firm paid for that,” she says. “I think that was really critical in helping me keep those contacts, and also convincing those contacts on the East Coast that my firm was a player.”

5. Role Models Female rainmakers agree that having women in law firm management is an extremely important part of encouraging younger female attorneys. McGarry is one of three women on Skadden’s policy committee and chairs the global business development committee. She feels that seeing women in management is crucial to the success of younger women at a firm. Hallem adds that for role models to be effective, they should be people that younger women can really relate to. “Seeing women who’ve never been married and never had kids be successful is not necessarily going to inspire someone who is struggling with two kids under the age of three,” she says. “Whereas when you see women who overcame the same challenges you’re facing and went on to be successful, that’s affirming.”

6. Mentoring When Cacheris joined McGuireWoods, mentoring was a first step for her. She entered the firm as a midlevel associate, she says, and the older male colleagues in her department took her under their wing. But women may lack opportunities for informal mentorships because the majority of rainmakers are still men, says Hallem. “For reasons that are not generally tied to sexism, men tend to mentor and bring along other men rather than women, because they see somebody who was like them at that age. So women need to be more assertive. You can’t just sit at your desk and wait for someone to come along and introduce you. You have to work the room in the law firm as well.”

7. Affinity Groups Hallem didn’t have an informal mentor early in her career. When she became the first woman to make partner at her former firm, and it asked her to structure its policy on work life balance, she found information and support through outside networking in a local women lawyers group. Hallem remembers being told outright that she couldn’t get certain assignments because she was a mother. While she says Manatt does not have that attitude, she thinks it still exists in the larger world—though now it’s more subtle. Many of the NAFE/Flex-Time Lawyers Best Law Firms have women in high places, including management and compensation committees, practice areas and office heads. And almost all have women’s affinity groups running programs aimed at helping younger women attorneys get to those spots.

8. Training Women Regina M. Pisa has served as the chairman and managing partner of Goodwin Procter since 1998. Her firm proactively trains female rainmakers, which she asserts is good for business as well as their careers. “Serving clients well is the most important thing anyone—man or woman—can do at our firm,” she says. Hallem chairs Manatt’s Women’s Initiative, which includes programming aimed at helping women develop their business. Among its activities is a series of speakers aimed at teaching women to approach business development in their own ways. Similarly, as national chair of the Women’s Leadership Forum at McGuireWoods, Cacheris is focusing the group’s 2011 work on business development through a multitiered program.

Are there any other lessons you would include that weren't listed in the above? 

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