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Are Your Own Gender Biases Holding You Back? (March 2007)

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Are Your Own Gender Biases Holding You Back?

Issue #47
March 2007


At least once every year I offer a coaching group for women lawyers on rainmaking. During the first call, each participant explains what she hopes to accomplish through the group and describes the obstacles currently impeding her marketing success.

A Gendered View of Marketing

The "universal" and primary obstacle is invariably some variation on this theme: marketing requires exaggeration of one's skills, shameless self-promotion and aggressiveness. Because of this, it is something that comes easily to men but is offensive to women.

Given these beliefs, it's not surprising that these women are not out making rain. But these convictions are actually gender stereotypes. Although many women lawyers recognize the influence of gender stereotypes on the behavior of men, they often fail to see the extent to which they hold similar beliefs - or how these stereotypes become an internal glass ceiling.

To the extent to which we hold stereotyped beliefs about men and women, these beliefs lead us not only to expect gender-related differences in how people will behave, but also can cause us to perceive sex differences even when they are not present. Perceptions of a task as stereotypically masculine can affect people's assessment of their own skills and potential for success. Could it be that your perception of marketing as a "male" activity is causing you to underestimate your own skill and potential?

This is a crucial issue to address since marketing is among the biggest stumbling blocks to career advancement for women lawyers. Every lawyer, whether in private practice, in-house, or in government needs to find work that needs doing and adds value. There are only two bases for job security in today's economy, both of which are central to marketing: 1) your social capital; and 2) your ability to add value to your client or organization.

Certainly in law firms, the ticket to power and leadership is your book of business. Successful marketing is not sufficient to attain leadership in a firm, but it is absolutely necessary.

Most efforts to explain the relative paucity of women rainmakers attribute this to:

  • The exclusion of women from informal "old boys" networks which deprives them of connections to clients
  • Work/life conflict which is difficult enough without the additional time (many experts say 400+ hours/year required for marketing)
  • Lack of role models and mentors
  • Discomfort with being perceived as pushy or self- promoting

This discomfort is an outgrowth of gender stereotypes combined with the absence of role models and mentors. What many women lawyers perceive as marketing is really the exclusive practice of roughly 10 percent of lawyers. These "natural" rainmakers are particularly visible because they frequently bring in a disproportionately large amount of a firm's business. Furthermore, the same extroverted, charismatic personalities that have made them effective marketers, also make them especially visible internally. They are in the spotlight and therefore, without advisors to indicate otherwise, are perceived to be models of how marketing should be done.

In fact, not only is it the case that perhaps 90 percent of lawyers are not "natural" rainmakers, it is also true that the ways many rainmakers historically brought in business are rarely effective anymore. The personal loyalty (otherwise known as the "Good Old Boys" network) these rainmakers cultivated years ago plays a much smaller role in outside counsel selection today.

A Realistic View of Marketing Through a Non-Gendered Lens

If you suspend all of your beliefs about what effective marketing looks like you can create a space in your mind for a very different picture. Of course, you already know that your prospect or client has many attorneys from which to choose. It can't just be great legal work that makes the difference, since there are many brilliant attorneys. So what do you have to do in order to have someone choose you to be their lawyer?

Most fundamentally, you must demonstrate that you understand the client's goals and needs and that you can help them succeed in accomplishing their objectives.

Become the CEO of Your Own Career

William Bridges* points out that in today's free agent economy, each of us must think of ourselves as the CEO of our own career. He suggests that you imagine how your client might answer the following questions after you've delivered your service:

  1. How have I or my situation improved since You & Co. came in the door?
  2. What do I have to show for the money I paid You & Co.?
  3. How can I measure the benefit of You & Co.?
  4. To whom would I recommend You & Co. and why?

Laurie, a Washington, D. C. attorney in a large firm, is an exceptional model of adding value. Long before becoming an equity partner in her firm she began establishing relationships with women in-house counsel. As an active member of the Women's Bar Association she had regular contact with women lawyers working in a variety of settings and she developed and maintained relationships with people she liked.

During her frequent lunches with these women, they would share their work challenges. One acquaintance was the only woman in senior management in her company and Laurie listened compassionately to her stories of exclusion, inequitable pay, and limited access to the CEO. Laurie's suggestions about possible approaches to changing situations were often very helpful to this in-house attorney. By the time this woman became the General Counsel, she felt she'd already benefited significantly from Laurie's counsel without ever having hired her as her lawyer. She'd come to know Laurie's incisiveness and good judgment; she'd experienced Laurie's genuine interest in understanding her goals and needs as well as her reliability and responsiveness. When faced with a significant problem likely to result in litigation, Laurie immediately came to mind. Besides, as a woman GC in a male-dominated industry, she preferred to give her business to a woman - as long as she believed that that woman was the best attorney to do the work.

Perhaps you're saying to yourself that you can see how you might demonstrate value, but how can you get access to decision-makers in order to market your services to them?

Eleanor, a lawyer in a small Southern firm asked me to coach her when she became panicked about her future at her firm. Her excellent work had always been recognized in her evaluations. But she'd gotten all of her work from one partner and he'd just left the firm. Her office was adjacent to that of a senior "service" partner who'd taken to sitting at his desk in darkness, doing nothing. He had no business of his own and as younger men entered the firm they had no interest in keeping him busy. Never having needed to market before, he saw himself as too old to start now. He'd simply given up.

Eleanor had become frightened of winding up like the partner next door. She believed that marketing meant going to networking events, handing out business cards and "chit-chatting" with strangers. There was nothing that she dreaded more than networking. If this was what was required to succeed, her career was doomed.

Social Capital

In my experience, Eleanor's misperception of networking is not unique to her. But it's worth re-considering why anyone would assume that handing out business cards to people with whom you briefly talk about nothing of substance would result in business.

Networking is about establishing and nurturing relationships for the purpose of mutually exchanging knowledge, support, recommendations, referrals, information and introductions.

Most fundamentally, networking is about generosity and thoughtfulness. If you maintain a marketing mindset, than any situation in which you meet people is a networking opportunity. When introduced to someone, your natural interest and curiosity should lead you. Your goal is to get to know someone well enough that you will be in a position to be helpful to them. Help need not be limited to legal assistance.

Once Eleanor's perception of networking changed, so did her behavior. She began arranging personal meetings with firm clients, listening to their concerns and demonstrating how they might benefit from her solutions. New matters increasingly came directly to her. Eleanor is now an equity partner at her firm - and a member of the management committee.

Since everyone is time-starved, you won't be trying to develop a relationship with everyone you meet. A clear picture of your target market will provide a focus for your networking. It's also important to genuinely enjoy interacting with a prospective network member since these are relationships that are cultivated with care over time. No "one night stands" here.

Your social capital is your ability to draw on a network of relationships, including colleagues, other professionals, former clients and other contacts. The more you unselfishly create and sustain relationships, the greater your social capital. As your network expands, the distance between you and prospective clients decreases. With patience and persistence, access to that decision-maker is just one or two connections away.

A Long Term Investment

The most realistic obstacle to marketing for many women lawyers is work/life conflict. Especially if you have young children and have not negotiated an equitable sharing of household responsibilities with your partner, you may not be able to imagine how you can find time for marketing.

However, there are reasons for optimism. One woman attorney I coached recognized that the school her child attends is filled with children whose parents are lawyers. Every school event was a marketing opportunity. A woman litigator I coached met a client on a grocery check-out line. You never know where you may meet a prospect - so try to always put your best foot forward.

Odds are many of your prospects are women struggling with similar work/life challenges. They don't want to go to client dinners any more than you do - but lunches might work. Why not invite a client and her family to attend a family-oriented event with you and your household?

There may be limits to how much time you can realistically devote to marketing. But if you consistently spend even five percent more time now than before in marketing activities, the seeds you plant will eventually bear fruit. Marketing is a long-term investment. Put aside your doubts and just try. Your efforts will be rewarded.


*Bridges, William (1997). Creating You & Co.: Learn to Think Like the CEO of Your Own Career. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books, p. 134.

This article was originally published in The Complete Lawyer, Volume 3, Number 1, available at;deptid=8

© 1998 — 2012 Ellen Ostrow.  All rights reserved.


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