Resources Articles Rainmaking for Women Trial Lawyers

Rainmaking for Women Trial Lawyers

The Bill of Particulars
(a publication of the New York State Trial Lawyers Institute)
Winter 2005

This article was based on Ellen’s presentation at the NYSTLA Women’s Forum program, “How to Brand and Market Yourself: Crafting Your Personal Business Plan” November 30, 2004.

As a woman trial attorney, unless you are quite unusual, the thought of business development is likely to evoke unpleasant images and associations. Typically, words like “selling,” “cold calls,” “begging for business,” and “bragging” come to mind. It’s likely that, while advocating for others is something you do comfortably and well, advocating for yourself is another story.

This may make me sound naïve, but I actually believe that if you approach business development in the ways that work best for you, it can be fun. Forget your hand-me-down definitions of marketing — it’s really about listening to people, understanding their problems and offering to help. These are the skills at which you already excel. The trick is to transfer them to the business-development context.

I thought it might be useful to begin with a story which illustrates the points I’m trying to make. A couple of years ago, I was contacted by a woman attorney working in a personal injury firm in another state. She’d established a good relationship with a male mentor who’d been the source of most of her work. But when he retired, he work supply dried up.

Two additional things had happened which prompted her to decide to work with a coach. First, some powerful new members of the firm’s executive committee were pushing to shift the criteria for promotion and compensation from service to business development. Secondly, an older male colleague whom she’d always admired, had taken to staying in his office, brooding at his desk, apparently waiting either to retire or to be asked to leave. The woman attorney’s perception was that none of the up-and-coming rainmakers wanted to give him any of the word they brought into the firm. Her greatest fear was of finding herself in his situation and she was certain this was inevitable, since she believed herself to be completely incapable of bringing in business.

My coaching client absolutely insisted that marketing herself and her services was out of the question. “I hate chit chat. You want me to go out to lunch with people I don’t know and try to make small talk with strangers at networking events. It’s all so phony. I can’t sand it!” Given her definition of business development, her despair about her future at the firm was understandable.

As her coach, the first thing I asked was, “What do you really love doing?” Answering this question is crucial for effective business development. It’s much easier to tell others about your work if you’re genuinely passionate about it. Your enthusiasm and commitment will come across effortlessly when you’re being authentic. You won’t feel like a “salesman” and listeners won’t feel like they’re getting a sales pitch.

My coaching client had been doing whatever work her mentor brought in. But it turned out that she was really interested in product liability work, especially chemicals. She loved to depose scientists. Now she was crystal clear about what she wanted to do.

Then we talked about who needed to know. It’s essential to be competent, but if you’re the only one who knows, you’re just going to sit at your desk. We discussed her target market — the kinds of conferences and programs they attended, the publications they read. She mentioned that, as much as she hated “chit chat,” she loved public speaking.

So we developed a plan: She would go to all kinds of industry meetings and give presentations about new developments in the law. She wouldn’t have to “chit chat” with anyone. Of course she ended up chatting with people who approached her with questions after her speech. But she experienced this in an entirely different way than the “chit chat” she avoided.

The plan was a success — her practice boomed. Since that time, she was made partner while raising her two children. (We’d constructed her plan to maintain the quality of her life and to protect her family time.) Recently she was elected to the executive committee at her firm. She looks back now and laughs, recalling how certain she’d been about what was required to develop business and that marketing was something she could never do.

This story illustrates several important points:

1) In order to be effective at marketing, you need to know enough about yourself to know what you want to be doing and what your strengths are. You’re going to need to articulate a concise message about who you are and what you can do for whomever you’re going to serve.

And so, the first thing to do is to look inward. If your practice is defined by someone else because they supply your work, this can be intimidating. But you will be 10 times more successful if you do work you love and which really fits you.

You need to identify very clearly whom you’re trying to serve — your target market. You can’t be all things to all people. Defining a niche makes a lot of people nervous — they worry about all of the business they might lose. But I’m certain that defining your focus will bring you more of the kind of work you want to do — and other business as well. If you have a focus, it’s much easier to have a specific business development plan, to determine the likely points of contact between you and your target market, and to clarify what prospects will need to hear from you in order for them to choose you as their attorney.

2) Marketing your services is no longer optional. You have to do business development. Even if you’re in a firm that says they’re happy to have service partners forever — as long as you’re dependent upon the kindness of others, you’re in a very vulnerable position.

I’d advise you to be planning your career from its beginning. Think about what you’re trying to accomplish in your practice, how you want to define yourself, and how you’re going to make that happen. Think of it as developing your own business within a larger business, if you happen to work at a firm.

In her book on marketing and women lawyers, Deborah Graham discourages women from relying on the “field of dreams” approach to business development. I agree — If you build it they won’t come — unless they know you’re there and how you can help them. Because for most of its history law was a men’s profession with stereotypically male behaviors used as standards, women attorneys are still faced with greater scrutiny, less of a presumption of competence, and questionable commitment because legal workplaces are not structured to allow for pregnancy and family care. It’s no wonder that so many worry about proving themselves. There’s a tendency to keep your nose to your documents, not leave the office, try to do perfect work all the time and to overemphasize pleasing people. If you do that, people will be very pleased with your work products, but except for the people who see them, and know you produced them, and are willing to give you credit — no one will know about you.

You need to be promoting yourself both internally and externally. Keep in mind that there are no witnesses to most of your actions. Your colleagues need to know about your work and you need to inform them. Share news of your successes with others in your firm — it will encourage cross-selling.

Of course, you’ll be faced with a double bind: Either promote yourself and risk being criticized like Margaret Thatcher was when people referred to her as the Iron Lady, or be invisible. Given the choice, I’d prefer the former. Use your emotional intelligence; pay attention to how people react to you. Promote yourself to people who stand to benefit from your success and you’re more likely to receive a positive response. Again, if you lead with your enthusiasm, you’re less likely to meet with backlash.

3) You have to change your mindset about marketing so that it’s not something you do — but rather, more the way you look at the world. When you go to a social gathering where not everyone is an attorney, don’t people come up to you and ask you what you do? Tell them. Everyone you meet, whether it’s at your kid’s school or your house of worship, is a potential client or referral source. The people you tell, or someone they know, will be grateful to know there’s a resource to turn to when they need legal help.

4) Make a business plan. Don’t try to tackle it all at once. A business plan is helpful because it enables you to break down the amorphous “I’ve got to bring in business” into small action steps. You can plan to engage in some specific business development activity systematically, for 15 minutes/day.

As a woman, you are likely to have more roles and responsibilities in your life than your male colleagues. You have to be systematic and choose activities that not only have the greatest return on your investment, but also fit who you are. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to give speeches if you hate to do that. There is no one right way. The right way is your way.

5) Remember, business development is fundamentally about three things:

1. You have to be credible. Be good at what you do.

2. You have to be visible. People need to know that you’re there and available.

3. Credibility and visibility are not enough to bring in business. Relationships are what bring in business. As women, your relationship-building skills are likely to be finely honed — it’s what we’ve been socialized to do. Don’t buy into the idea that your relational skills aren’t relevant to business. Beyond your technical competence, nothing could be more important.


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