Kelly spent almost 12 years practicing law at one of the top BigLaw firms, four of those years as a partner. She is dedicated, committed, and focused on her work and her clients. She is well respected in her field, and clients love her. So it came as a complete shock to Kelly when she was de-equitized and given a year by her firm to improve her BD results or she’d be asked to leave. Kelly felt blindsided, hurt, and angry. She’s been trying to grow her book of business – she was doing all the networking and the schmoozing – but never got the results she wanted. She felt that she was doomed and began contemplating leaving the law completely.

This real client story (though we changed the name to protect our client’s privacy) is something we see all the time in our coaching and consulting work. For any law firm partner, business development is one of the critical elements to achieving equity status, reaching high income potential, and acquiring internal influence to step into leadership. However, developing and implementing successful business development strategies in a traditionally male-dominated profession remains a challenge for many women lawyers.

In a poll of BigLaw women partners our company conducted in March-April of 2019, 73.2% of the participants reported having some or no business of their own, and 74.8% reported not feeling that they were adequately prepared by their law firms for their transition to partnership.

In 2007, a study conducted by Harry Keshet, PhD identified that new female partners reported “obstacles to business development because they lack training, mentoring, and business development resources.” A whole decade later, during the 2017 Summit of the ABA Presidential Initiative on Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law at Harvard Law School, one of the key solutions to retaining women lawyers in law firms, identified by the participants, was the need for women lawyers to “be given early and consistent business-development training and coaching.”

Many law firms have incorporated business development training (and some did coaching) into their lawyer professional development curriculum. While any business development training is better than none, research suggests that there are gender differences in how women approach business development versus men. Studies have shown that when women do try to use strategies that have worked well for men, they often experience gender backlash for stepping outside of their gender roles.

So where many senior male partners have developed business by taking their clients out for a round of golf, women are hard pressed to find a different way to develop business by understanding the challenges and gender stereotypes they still face and basing it upon their own innate strengths and personal interests.

The Impact of Gender Ideologies

Our upbringing as children has a lot to do with how we behave as adults later in life and at work. More specifically, our parents’ gender ideologies (defined as “the system of values, beliefs and attitudes a person holds about the meaning of biological sex and gender”) and how our parents act impacts our views on gender roles and gender-appropriate behavior.

Traditionally in the US and in much of the world, women have been brought up to seek consensus, establish good relationships, be amenable, and play nice to make sure that no one was negatively impacted. In childhood, girls tend to be praised more than boys for being nice to others, while boys tend to be praised more than girls for performing well and winning. Kids learn from stories and fairy tales, where traditionally the female characters waited to be rescued, while the male characters did the rescuing.

Now, what does that have to do with rainmaking? Here is how this early conditioning and the societal gender role standards impact women lawyers’ business development success:

  • In meetings: women tend to smile more, not speak up or interrupt others, use questioning or apologetic tones, or use words that connote permission-seeking (like the word “just,” identified by Ellen Leanse, a former Google executive, in her blog post “Just” Say No).
  • In pitches: women may be more concerned about not making the prospect feel uncomfortable and, as a result, avoid asking probing questions, which are critical to uncovering the depth of the client’s problem and their willingness to pay for the solution.
  • In fee negotiations: women may be more likely to offer rate discounts, even where the prospect would accept a full rate, or do work for free. This is due to many women feeling uncomfortable with negotiating for themselves. In our poll of BigLaw women partners, when asked “Which is your biggest challenge when it comes to making an ‘ask’ for something that you want or negotiating for yourself?”, 51% of the respondents said that they felt “discomfort or concern about it.
  • In making the “ask”: women tend to be uncomfortable with sales as a whole. Women (more than men) tend to worry about appearing pushy, aggressive, opportunistic, salesy, or that they are using or taking advantage of someone (cue in childhood messages about “being nice” to others). This leads many women to avoid making the ask and instead focus on social aspects of the relationship. The thought goes something like this: “They know what I do; if they have a need, they’ll call me. I don’t need to push myself on them.”

The Missing Ingredient 

As a group, lawyers tend to emphasize and prioritize knowledge, information, and expertise. But in business development, simply knowing how to do it does not guarantee success.  When it comes to business development success, surprisingly, proven strategies play a secondary role to the type of mindset a lawyer possesses about business development in general and about herself or himself as a business developer.

Mindset is defined as a mental attitude or inclination. Basically, it’s our beliefs and attitudes about the world, other people in it, and ourselves. The mindset that many women lawyers have about business development or sales in general is strongly influenced by the gender ideologies they grew up with as kids and by the female gender norms reinforced by society today.

For example, a key behavior demonstrated by successful rainmakers is persistence. But when women exhibit persistence, they can be judged as pushy or aggressive. What’s more, women can (and often do) judge themselves for it, and, as a result, avoid being persistent.

Case in point: one of our clients – a BigLaw female partner – was ready to give up on following up with a prospect after he failed to reply to her last two emails. She assumed that he was not interested. But after we helped her develop a different approach for her follow up, the prospective client did respond and ultimately ended up sending her new work. If she had given up when she first wanted to, she would not be serving this Fortune100 technology client now.

In Part 2 of this blog, I’ll share concrete strategies on how mindset-related training can be successfully incorporated into your firm’s business development programming. So stay tuned!