Resources Articles Women Lawyers & Business Development

Women Lawyers & Business Development

The Complete Lawyer
Volume 1, Number 3
January 2006

Recently I held a free teleconference call for women lawyers interested in my "Making Rain Without Pain" coaching group. Participants called in from across the U.S. Their practices were diverse -- medical malpractice defense, trusts and estates, employment defense, commercial litigation, tax, biomedical patent law, bankruptcy, internet trademark law, and child neglect and abuse. The practice settings from which they came were equally wide-ranging -- from solo practices to mega-firms -- and everything in between.

As I listened, I was struck by how articulately these women described their expertise, competence, strengths and talents. All of the participants were able to clearly communicate their job qualifications.

Yet many of the women on the call, particularly those from medium and large firms, described their frustration at being passed over, again and again when new cases came into the firm. Despite years of experience, successful outcomes and great client relationships, when new work came into their firm it was consistently given to men. Just what does it take, they wondered, to get on the radar of decision-makers?

Women And Attorneys Of Color Are Not Afforded The Same Presumption Of Competence As Their White Male Colleagues

In order to bring in business, it's necessary to establish your credibility, be visible to people in a position to hire or refer work to you, and develop strong relationships with decision-makers.

Unfortunately, women and attorneys of color face significant obstacles to accomplishing these very objectives. Status is a signifier of competence.  After all, in a just world the cream would rise to the top. *1

Power in the legal profession continues to be held primarily by white males.  Therefore, women and attorneys of color are not afforded the same presumption of competence that their white male colleagues take for granted.
If you're a woman lawyer, particularly an attorney of color, I'm not telling you anything you haven't already experienced countless times. It is human to seek evidence consistent with our assumptions, so we all tend to be skeptical of those whose competence we don't presuppose. We remember their errors more easily and are less inclined to notice their accomplishments.

In order to be successful at business development, women lawyers need to prove their competence -- both to their colleagues and to their potential clients. This requirement can create considerable anxiety in a woman attorney. Expecting to be held to a higher standard than your male peers, you naturally triple check your work.
However this "nose to the grindstone" will not help you bring in business. The fact is that the majority of our acts are known only to ourselves. If we want others to be aware of them, it's up to us to bring them to their attention.  And particularly when many of the people around you are set to notice your failures rather than your successes, you have to take responsibility for directing their attention to the evidence which violates their assumptions.

Hard Work Alone Will Never Suffice. You Need To Take An Active Role In Marketing Yourself To The Right People

At a women's bar program in which I participated a couple of years ago, a panel of three distinguished women lawyers shared their career experiences to serve as role models for the younger women in attendance. A judge, a general counsel and a successful corporate lawyer respectively, they described their good fortune in receiving opportunities to  succeed. As I listened, I tried to imagine what I'd be learning had I been a young woman attorney. The lesson seemed to be that I needed to work hard and hope for good fortune.  Surely, I thought, the presenters could not intend to advocate this as the route to achievement for their charges in the audience.
So, I raised my hand and asked, "Didn't you need to promote yourselves to get those great opportunities?" The three women looked alarmed and one spoke for all: "Oh no! We would never engage in self-promotion."
I was disheartened.   thought I'd fed them the perfect line to allow them to tell these women the "real" secret of their success. Instead, they shunned the very idea that they might have played a more active role in their accomplishments than merely working hard.

Speaking individually, each acknowledged specific actions that had helped move her career forward. But from their perspectives, these did not fall within the categories of marketing or self-promotion.

I didn't really care about the labels they used. What I did care about was having the younger women in attendance realize that hard work alone would never suffice to accomplish their goals. They would need to take an active role in seeing to it that the right people knew about the expertise and experience they had to offer.
But "marketing phobia" is not uncommon among women in the profession. Without exception, every participant on the "Making Rain" coaching call expressed the fear of being perceived as pushy, aggressive, "smarmy," arrogant or intrusive. Like the eminent women at the bar presentation, the idea of marketing automatically raised the specter of coming across this way.  The reaction this evoked was visceral; in fact it so disgusted them that they worked to shake it off like dogs would muddy water.

Women Have An Implicit ?Non-Compete Clause? With Men

I have a vivid memory of standing in the driveway of my parents' home some time during my high school years, engaged in a conversation with a male friend about the relative merits of single vs. two-handed backhands in tennis. As I was arguing my case, my father called to me from an upstairs window; he wanted to speak to me immediately. I excused myself and came into the house.  My father looked troubled. "Don't you understand," he asked that you have to boost a guy’s ego?" Stop being such a 'know-it-all.' If Jeff wants to tell you how to play tennis, let him."

The psychological literature bears out this experience.

Deborah Tannen's  research indicates that the conversational rituals of girls serve the goal of creating harmony by bolstering or restoring the status of others.*2  In contrast, boys' conversational rituals have as their goal the establishment of one's status and dominance in the group. It's no wonder that women in legal workplaces often complain that ideas they've expressed at the meeting table go unrecognized until repeated by a man.

But listening to the women on my coaching call describe their abilities was an important reminder that the situation is more complicated. The research literature suggests that women's tendency to be modest and self-effacing varies according to the social context. Specifically, women alter their behavior in the presence of men. *3
Women avoid competing with men for recognition. However, it's not just that women tend not to bid for recognition in the presence of men. Their performance on academic and other tasks actually deteriorates; they reduce their assessment of their own skills and lower their self-expectations.

How Origination Credit Works Against Women In Many Law Firms

Admonitions against competition become especially thorny for women in law firms where origination credit figures significantly into compensation. Women working in such firms regularly tell me about their fear of retaliation.
As firms have become increasingly focused on the bottom line, productivity- in the form of client development- is financially rewarded. More importantly, many firms reserve this incentive for bringing in new clients -- getting new or repeat business from firm clients is less valued. Certainly the economics of this are puzzling. Repeat business -- or even business referred from former clients -- offers the greatest ROI of any sort of business development effort.  It costs far less to provide great client service and be re-hired or receive a referral than it does to woo a new prospect.

Besides being fiscally wrong-headed, this approach to measuring and compensating business development systematically disadvantages women. If origination credit continues to go to the attorney who initially brought in the client, odds are that attorney will be a man -- men have been there longer.  In addition, much of the "care and feeding" of clients is delegated to women -- often junior partners. But when that client calls back and asks directly for service from that woman attorney, origination credit still goes to the man who brought in the client years before - even though that attorney may have had little or no contact with the client since.

Given the profitability of repeat business, I typically coach my clients to put a significant amount of their business development time and energy toward this goal.  But many of these women have come back with stories of senior partners summoning them to their offices to warn them that the client still "belongs" to them.  A recent study of Denver firms found this situation to figure prominently in the overall discrepancy between men and women attorneys' compensation as well as in women's decisions to leave their firms.*4 Among the women I coach, some work in firms where they cannot receive business development credit unless they are retained by a client who was not referred by any former firm client - if the new client ever heard of the firm from a former client, origination credit goes to the senior male partner who brought in the long-gone, third-hand recommender of the firm. This seems to go beyond a "non-compete clause" to "restraint of trade."

Your Success Is A Balance of Lawyering Skills And Relationship Skills

Professional success requires the accumulation of two kinds of capital.  Human capital consists of the lawyering skills you acquire through education and practice. Your human capital qualifies you as a credible candidate for acquiring business.
Your social capital is your ability to draw on a network of relationships - including your firm colleagues, other professionals in the community, former clients and other contacts which lead to successful client development. This is why mentoring and informal networks figure so prominently in the success of one's legal career - and why women lawyers often face greater difficulties grasping the brass rings of partnership and equal compensation. Typically a young male lawyer's mentor will introduce him to his clients. Although the younger partner is still expected to develop new business, the road to direct client contact has already been paved by his mentor. Assuming he does a good-enough job, his mentor's clients are inclined to continue doing business with him as well as to refer him to others.

Since people are naturally more attracted to similar others, it stands to reason that senior male partners are more inclined to mentor young men - and male clients are often more comfortable being represented by men. The paucity of senior women partners in firms decreases the likelihood that a young woman in a firm will find a mentor outside of any formal pairing arranged by the firm. More often than not, these "arranged marriages" fail to work - many of the women I coach say they had lunch with their mentor once after entering the firm and have not met with him since.

Increasing Numbers Of Male Attorneys Are Willing To Be Persuaded Of The Competence Of Their Female Colleagues

Of course there are many male partners who go to great lengths to introduce the women lawyers with whom they work to their clients. Increasing numbers of male attorneys are willing to be persuaded of the competence of their female colleagues and eager to add to their social capital and facilitate their success. They understand that doing so benefits not just the woman attorney, but the firm as well.

After all, in the context of a global economy and an increasingly diverse workforce, the legal marketplace is changing. Although I'd been warning a senior male coaching client to anticipate such a change, he was stunned when a long-standing institutional client told him he'd have to consider taking his business elsewhere due to the lack of diversity in his firm. "Since when does diversity mean women," he challenged me.

His comment is an example of why I emphasize the "unconscious" aspect of bias. This is a client I admire and respect; I'm confident he would never intentionally discriminate against anyone. And I don't think he's that different from the in-house attorney who, after meeting with an extremely competent woman partner, called her male colleague to say that he "just wasn't comfortable" with her.

In that case, the partner agreed to have a male attorney handle the matter. Perhaps in the future the partner will see the value in encouraging the client to give the woman attorney a chance, will enthusiastically endorse her abilities and reassure the client that he'll be available should actual problems arise. And maybe the next call from an in-house attorney will be from a woman.

The Decision To Buy Legal Services Is An Emotional One. That Is One Reason Why Active Listening Is The Most Important Skill In Business Development

To whatever extent it is more difficult for women to convince their male colleagues that they're qualified for the job, and to gain direct access to clients in a position to make buying decisions, that final emotional decision may be where the playing field comes closest to finally being leveled.

No matter how expert the lawyer, there are always a few others on the short list with equal expertise. In the end, whether the client is an individual seeking someone to represent him in a divorce or to compensate her for an injury, or a large business trying to negotiate its way through a jumble of regulations in order to increase the value of its shares, the decision to purchase legal services is an emotional one.*5

Recently a woman attorney shared a story of a failed attempt at business development. She'd attended a client meeting along with a senior male attorney from her firm. As the meeting began, her colleague launched into a monologue about the importance of the ability to effectively depose experts - a skill he was certain he had honed to a much finer extent than the potential client's current counsel. Observing the in-house attorney's face, Catherine*, my coaching client, knew within seconds that the chance to win this business had been lost. Catherine had assumed that this first meeting would focus on listening to and understanding the potential client's business, needs and concerns. And since her colleague was senior to her, she did not think it was her place to challenge his strategy.

Active listening is the most important skill in business development. Marketing gurus like David Maister *6 and Andrew Sobel *7 are constantly admonishing lawyers to avoid trying to "sell" a single thing until they've listened to prospective clients describe the challenges in their industries, their goals, concerns, obstacles and needs.
Although women as a group are socialized to be good listeners, there's something about the idea of business development that leads many of them to forget the importance of this skill.   Recently I was coaching a woman attorney to network with other professionals who also service her target market.   She became very tense.  "I hate doing this," she told me.  "What am I supposed to say?"

Quit Trying To Sell. Just Do What You Know How To Do: Listen, Be Interested, Show That You Understand And Care

I've found that the easiest way to extinguish the fires of this panic is to remind women lawyers that they're in the business of helping. If you're doing work you believe is important, care about helping your clients accomplish their goals, and are genuinely interested in what your clients do and the problems they face, then you'll want to listen.
You can take the trouble out of networking if you simply allow your curiosity and interest to lead you. A divorce lawyer I coached found it fascinating to talk to the financial planners who worked with women in the process of embarking on asset building without their spouses. In the course of listening she managed to forge strategic alliances that led to a steady stream of referrals.

In-house lawyers need to trust that you understand the pressures they face.  People setting up businesses need to trust that you fully appreciate the kinds of relationships they want with their partners and what they seek to protect.

Stop working so hard to sell and just do what you know how to do: listen, be interested, demonstrate that you understand and care.

People Form Work Alliances With Those They See As Sharing Their Goals

I offer similar counsel to women trying to get on the radar of their colleagues giving those plum assignments to men. As Socrates noted in Plato's Phaedo, you need to talk to others in terms of their own experience. In order to be seen and heard, you must know what the recipient of your message expects to see and hear.

If you think of your colleagues as your clients, then you'll want to consider their assumptions in your efforts to build your credibility. For example, if it appears that the assigning partner has concerns about a woman's ability to handle litigation with particularly tough opposing counsel, or assumes that the client will get nervous if a woman is assigned to the case and take his business elsewhere, you'll need to address this. Recently I coached a woman attorney who'd discovered that the partner for whom she worked assumed she wasn't equipped to handle the financial complexities of the tasks he was delegating. In a non-adversarial manner, she asked if he'd be willing to give her the opportunity to demonstrate her competence. He agreed to give her a project he considered a low-risk experiment. She produced such a stellar result that the client called the partner to sing her praises. Now the senior partner is not only happy to give her good assignments; he also proudly introduces her to his clients.

This exemplifies an important qualifier to the risks of self-promotion in women: the threat of backlash is significantly reduced if the listener perceives that he stands to benefit as well. People form work alliances with those they see as sharing their goals. If you want help from others at your firm, you'll need to show them how they can benefit from helping you. And you can't accomplish this without listening to the goals, needs and assumptions of your colleagues.

The Diversity Imperative

One way in which your colleagues stand to benefit from providing you with direct access to clients is the increasing demand from corporate legal departments for diversity in the law firms they hire. As more women move up the ranks in corporate legal departments, law firms are held increasingly accountable for providing representation that reflects the demographics of a business's employees and clientele.
And since similarity tends to breed connection, many women attorneys have found success in business development by marketing to women. One particularly interesting example is the firm of  Kramer & Dunleavy in New York City. A plaintiff's personal injury firm, the principals have decided to focus their work on medical cases like hormone replacement therapy, breast cancer, birth control and surgical procedures. They've discovered that women feel more comfortable discussing these personal cases with other women. And Lenore Kramer has a long-standing passion and commitment to women's issues. She's volunteered in rape crisis centers and sat on boards of organizations dedicated to protecting women from violence. She's a wonderful example of how easy networking can be if you do work you love.

If Marketing Oneself Carries With It The Risk Of Being Seen As ?Unfeminine?, Then Women Who Want To Develop New Business Will Need To Take That Chance

Clearly, if women are to get on the radar of those making decisions about work assignments and purchasing legal services, they need to find a way to build awareness of what they have to offer - as well as to communicate it.

If maintaining an accurate self-assessment of accomplishments, abilities and potential carries with it the risk of being seen as "unfeminine," then women interested in developing business will need to take that chance. Certainly, articulating a less stereotypical definition of femininity, and surrounding oneself with like-minded others, can help keep self-esteem intact and provide a buffer against the effects of retaliation.

Karen,* a litigator I've known for many years, provides a wonderful example of a way to circumvent the implied "non-compete" rule. Voted one of the top divorce attorneys in the city where she practices, she is noticeable because of the degree to which she does not look the part. Slender, with big blue eyes and porcelain skin, she is the image of innocence.

Although I've never heard her "toot her horn,” she receives more referrals than she can handle. She's a wonderful example of an often overlooked business development strategy - show, don't tell. Her clients sing her praises. It's not only that she's an excellent attorney; she provides real value by expressing just the right amount of emotional support, offering mental health referrals when necessary, understanding her client's goals and never being more aggressive than required to accomplish them. When so many people in the midst of a divorce are faced with the additional ordeal of trying to get some help from an insensitive and unresponsive attorney, a lawyer like Karen becomes a godsend. Clearly, the service she "sells" is not a mere commodity.
A male attorney recently asked me for a referral to a divorce attorney. He specifically wanted someone who would not "be out for blood."  I was happy to refer him to my friend. But after meeting with her, he called me. "Can she really stand up to tough opposing counsel?" he asked.

I wasn't surprised by his question, and neither was Karen. "I love being underestimated by the other side because of how I look," I've heard her exclaim. Sitting in the courtroom watching male opposing counsel eye her with relief, she calmly waits her turn to speak. And when she does, the other side's lawyer is typically stunned by her power.

Did the referral hire Karen? Absolutely. He asked around and heard about her reputation. He interviewed other attorneys through whom he experienced the difference. And Karen invited him to share his concerns about her effectiveness in the courtroom.  She listened calmly, empathized, and earned his trust.

* Names and other details have been changed to protect client identities.
1. Lerner, M. J. (1980).  The belief in a just world: A fundamental delusion.    New York: Plenum Press.

2. Tannen, D. (1994).  Talking from 9 to 5 - Women and men in the workplace: Language, sex and power.  New York: Avon Books.

3. Fels, A. (2004).  Necessary dreams: Ambition in women's changing lives.  New York: Pantheon Books.

4. Sterling, J.S. & Reichman, N. J. (In press).  Re-casting the brass ring: Deconstructing and reconstructing workplace opportunities for women lawyers.  Capital University Law Review.

5. Dahut, H. (2004).  Marketing the legal mind: Turning new perspectives into powerful opportunities.  Studio City, CA: LMG Press.

6. Maister, D. H. (1997).  True professionalism:  The courage to care about your people, your clients, and your career.  New York:  The Free Press.

7. Sobel, A. (2003). Making rain:  The secrets of building lifelong client loyalty.  New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.


Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., is the founder of Lawyers Life Coach LLC, a firm providing professional development, career, business development and executive coaching services to attorneys and consultation to legal employers. Known for her expertise on issues of particular concern to women lawyers, her email newsletter, Beyond the Billable Hour ? has been reprinted by 25 different bar association publications and many other print and electronic legal publications. She has addressed the ABA, NAWL, NALP, the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and numerous state and women's bar associations. She earned her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Rochester, received her coach training from the MentorCoach ? program and currently serves on their faculty. To contact Dr. Ostrow visit or write to
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