After spending nearly two decades working in law firms, I have witnessed and experienced enough discrimination and recrimination to know from the front row the many challenges women lawyers face in law firms today.
Still a Way to Go
Statistics convey to us that: (1) Caucasian males remain in the power seats; and (2) women lawyers must step it up if they are committed to making a measurable advancement in their careers and the quality of their work environments.
In Sheryl Sandberg's book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, she writes that we women are hindered by barriers erected by ourselves, as well as society (read: law firms). "We hold ourselves back in ways big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in," she says, pointing out that women tend to internalize lifelong negative messages that say it is wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. "We lower our expectations of what we can achieve," she says. "We compromise our career goals …. Compared to our male colleagues, fewer of us aspire to senior positions."
Compound these troubling realities with the well-known fact that the law school curriculum does not appropriately prepare law students in the business of law or how to build and grow a client base, and women lawyers have their work cut out for them.
Difficult, no doubt, but possible.
Recognizing that women must prove themselves to a far greater extent than men do (a 2011 Kinsey Report noted that men are promoted on potential, while women are promoted based on past accomplishments), I suggest women learn from this and advance in spite of it.
First, assess your mindset toward building a prosperous practice. Do you believe in what you are doing? Are you resentful that you are placed in "selling situations"? Do you begrudgingly attend networking events? And, when there, do you not use the time productively? You are not alone. What we see very often is that women lawyers frequently behave from a position of fear, not confidence. If I had a nickel for every time I've heard, "I'm not good at [fill in the blank]," I could buy an island in the Pacific somewhere. The question is not whether you are "good" or "bad" at any particular behavior or action, but whether you are willingto work at it.
This reminds me of a great quote byHenry Ford: "If you think you can do a thing or think you can't do a thing, you're right." It's all in the attitude.
Leverage Your Strengths
As a gender, women are hardwired to cultivate and nurture relationships. We are born for relationships. Leverage this strength to turn everyday contacts into powerful business and client connections.
In our everyday lives, we constantly encounter people who may be in a position or have a connection to help us. The only way we will know is to engage: ask open-ended questions, offer to help, to connect, to listen. It's really that simple. This is what we do every day for our partners, our children, our parents. Now is not too soon to take hold of this natural ability of connecting to propel your legal career.
From a traditional business development perspective, consider the state of your network. How, and how often, do you get and stay in touch? Is your contact database organized, categorized and current? Do you have systems to implement and support your continual connecting efforts? Anything short of an "absolutely," and we suggest seeking out resources to check this off the "must-do" list of critical business development initiatives.
In contrast to the old cliché that lawyers must "eat what they kill," I challenge you to adopt a "give to get" mentality. As you attack the crucial elements of building a prosperous practice with fervor, do so by discovering an attitude of abundance by sharing your skills and expertise. Be willing to "lift as you climb," to reference a favorite phrase. Women so often regard each other as rivals instead of colleagues on similar journeys. Those women lawyers who take the time to help out a junior associate as she is finding her sea legs will find much more pleasure in a sometimes otherwise mundane work day.
Make Your Network Work for You
As much as you cannot develop a prosperous practice without cultivating solid relationships, it is imperative that you define your network and craft an actionable plan to:
Get and stay connected with former classmates; co-workers (past and present); nonclient referral sources; clients (past and present); qualified prospects; professional contacts, etc.
Attend events with the intention of joining and becoming involved in targeted networking opportunities. Dependent upon your area of practice and the profile of your "perfect client," you want to get and stay in front of those individuals who are in a position to retain you. To truly gain a firm understanding of who these folks are may require some research and professional guidance (another topic for another day).
Raise your visibility and profile in front of the aforementioned "qualified target prospects."
Accept that networking is not an event, but a lifestyle. Clients may be right in front of you but if you are not looking for them, a successful practice may become elusive.
As my clients will attest, I continuously teach the imperative of developing a "marketing mindset" to pay attention to your environment, to others around you (even at your daughter's ballet class or son's little league practice) and to always have your radar on high alert for prospective opportunities. Not just client inquiry or retention opportunities, but strategic alliance and partnership opportunities. We do this by actively listening for business and legal problems in everyday conversations of ours and those around us. This is a skill that requires discipline to develop and perfect. Believe me when I say, opportunities abound if we are actively looking for them.
Design a Business Development Plan That Works for You
While women lawyers must work a bit smarter and harder than their male counterparts, the basics of business development apply to all. If you fail to plan, you are, in effect, planning to fail.
Craft your business development blueprint by capturing your specific action steps in a written plan. There is no magic formula for what this document should contain or look like, but, make no mistake, you will see a measurable difference in developing a strong practice by creating and effectively implementing a written business-development plan.
This exercise requires some thoughtful consideration, and gaining clarity on your career dreams and goals. There are a number of ways to accomplish this, but the quickest path would be to:
Define your target audience (outline a visual picture of whom you want to attract);
Find out where these targets go during and after work hours; and
Outline steps to get on these targets' radars and to achieve "top-of-mind" awareness.
One defining element that separates a business-development plan that "works" from one that does not is this your commitment to turning interactions into transactions. Commit yourself to:
Having a written plan;
Accessing your resources (all and often);
Concisely communicating your needs do not be reticent in voicing what you need professionally;
Executing your devised plan to help accomplish your career dreams and goals; and
Follow up, follow up, follow up with every person you encounter who may have a business need that you or someone in your network can help fulfill.
Too many times in my legal marketing career have I heard lawyers complain, "I tried public speaking, and it really does not 'work' for me," or, "Networking is not my cup of tea. I have better things to do than to attend an event at which I know so few people."
My reaction is usually the same: Building a prosperous practice is not a "one-hit wonder," meaning that no one action will win the day. In addition to being clear about what you are endeavoring to achieve, you also must you be committed to the process.
Anatomy of a Successful Business Development Plan
Essentially, there are two parallel tracks to a successful business development plan and attracting quality clients: through relationship- and reputation-enhancing marketing tactics. These tactics may include public speaking and targeted networking, but also will involve:
Building a robust online presence (website, social media);
Devising an aggressive public relations effort to raise your profile and visibility; and
Getting involved in a professional/community/government association, among others.
Actively allow others to help you, to connect you with others who may be useful in achieving your professional goals. Embrace and leverage your natural relationship builder; it is time to become the conductor of your business-development orchestra. Relax and enjoy the actual process of getting and staying connected, of learning more about your clients' industries, of being of service to others.
Relish in your unique ability to connect with others and your hard-earned legal skills to be the rocket boosters to your fulfilling and rewarding legal career. There is but one secret sauce to business development success and realizing your career dreams: consistent, persistent, massive amounts of action, over a prolonged period of time.
As women, we've always had to fight harder, be more resilient, and press more than some of our male counterparts. While the professional landscape is creeping forward slowly, let us forge on to meet our professional goals.
Rice is principal of KLA Marketing Associates (www.klamarketing.net), a business development advisory firm focusing on legal services. She also provides career management services to lawyers in transition.