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Legal Talent & Inclusion

Practice Innovations: About women, business development & collaboration

Silvia Coulter  Partner / LawVision Group

· 7 minute read

Silvia Coulter  Partner / LawVision Group

· 7 minute read

Women in the legal profession quickly learn that it is important to support one another and to collaborate to achieve their goals and advance their careers

In her summary of her research on women in the workplace, Renee Cullinan, CEO and co-founder of Stop Meeting Like This, concluded that women disproportionately carry the burden of collaboration within the workplace.

Today, women in the legal profession find that it is critical to support one another and to collaborate to achieve success. Cullinan’s article further states that her findings show “women are more likely to care for the collective”, and that “women are less likely to carve out time during the workday to focus on their top priorities, because they feel guilty or selfish for doing so. (Research that indicates guilt is typically a female trait supports this finding.) If women do carve out time, they tend to give it away if someone needs them.”

Not surprisingly for many women, law firms’ women’s initiatives have helped to facilitate collaboration and support for women seeking to advance their careers in legal.

Christy Crider, Chair of both the Women’s Initiative and the Healthcare Litigation Group at Baker Donelson as well as a member of the firm’s board of directors, notes the strategic importance Baker Donelson places on advancing women. “The Women’s Initiative has a robust strategic plan honed over the last 10 years and a Women’s Initiative Leadership Team made up of nearly 50 seasoned women and men attorneys and business professionals who are passionate about advancing women,” Crider says.

“In understanding that a large book of business is the quickest way to advance, we developed our groundbreaking and award-winning Women to Equity program six years ago,” she explains. “In the year-long program, we take a class of 14 women income-shareholders who are looking to make equity-shareholder in the next 3-4 years. Throughout the year, we have programming led by equity-shareholders, firm leaders, and coaches on topics related to building a book of business — such as identifying targets, collaborating, selling your expertise across the firm, and how to turn a single matter into a career-long client.”

Many law firms have women’s initiatives as well as diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI) initiatives; and leaders of these groups have discussed the many challenges still faced by individuals including:

      • compensation models not set up for sharing credit;
      • partners passing on their clients to favored young (and often white male) associates who have been groomed to take over the client;
      • lack of billable time allowance for managing women’s initiatives; and
      • lack of collaboration by those who have succeeded before them.

In other words, while the firm may have the best intentions with establishing these initiatives, until they become part of the strategic fabric of the firms and credit is given to those who spearhead and manage these initiatives, the emphasis will remain on billable time and origination. This dynamic unfortunately results in a loss of the opportunity to create a diverse, inclusive, and collaborative environment that ultimately benefits all members.

Encouraging camaraderie

Still, many firm members find camaraderie among their peers. Brownstein Hyatt Farber & Schreck’s Carrie Johnson, a shareholder and Chair of the firm’s Women’s Leadership Initiative, says that her “professional life is full of smart, dynamic, supportive women who want to see other women succeed. I know some women haven’t had the same experience, but I spend my days surrounded by women who do what they can to lift others up, and I am grateful for it.”

Is it easier to do business with women buyers of legal services? It may be, several suggest. “Women are very often oriented toward solving problems rather than approaching issues as a zero-sum game of winning or losing,” Johnson says.

Baker Donelson’s Crider adds that she’s experienced “no difference in the ease or difficulty of doing business with clients based on their gender. The key in either situation is to listen and continue to ask questions to ensure you are giving the client exactly what they need now and in the future.”

Cullinan’s article discusses other interesting findings. She writes:

Researcher, consultant, and author Pam Heim has studied gender differences and has published her findings in several books. Her research uncovers an important difference in the way men and women view collaboration. She found that women are more likely to agree with the statement ‘Being a good team player means helping all of my colleagues with what they need to get done.’ In contrast, men are more likely to agree with the statement ‘Being a good team player is knowing your position and playing it well.’ In organizations that get work done through informal project teams or that have overlapping accountabilities, this difference in perspective has implications for the way the men and women engage in collaboration.

Some of the challenges women today face with business development include time, of course, which is often everyone’s greatest challenge. “Balance is the goal that eludes women attorneys from the most junior attorney to the most seasoned rainmaker,” Crider says. “There are so many pulls on our time. With the encouragement of a great mentor, women, in my experience, can intuitively develop business.”

Finding the time

The challenge, of course, is finding the time to create those business development opportunities — too often other tasks will grab time jealously while forming business development strategy will not. For all lawyers, it takes intention and ruthless, consistent execution to be successful in developing business — and that can be very difficult with the competing time demands on all of us, she adds.

Other challenges we face, adds Brownstein Hyatt’s Johnson, stem from the fact that “most decision-makers are older men. While many are happy to hire women, there’s still fundamentally a headwind involved in not seeing people like me reflected in the client base.”

Today however, more corporations are aware of their demands of outside counsel for diverse teams and that they themselves need to follow their own advice. “We agree we need to do a better job of i) building our own diverse teams, and ii) hiring more outside counsel who are diverse,” explains a diverse member of Google’s in-house counsel. “We are all working toward collaborating outside the historic norms and being more inclusive of women and minority counsel.”

In fact, some law firms are holding in-house counsel responsible for following through on their often-lengthy RFPs which demand painstaking disclosure about staffing of women and minority counsel. “Change is happening, it’s just very slow,” the in-house team member adds.

And focusing on collaboration certainly helps guide the process. But in order to that, it’s important to recognize that success here is a two-way street. “It is important to seek out the perspectives of both women and men,” says Crider, adding that men have been equally great mentors throughout her career. “The most successful mentoring relationships I have had are reciprocal — in other words, we are in this to help one another. In the relationships where I am in more of a traditional mentoring role to a junior attorney, I appreciate the mentees who take the time to support me as well — those have star power.”

To realize the gains offered by collaboration across diverse teams, it takes leadership and commitment. Creating an environment where everyone matters, and everyone works to support each other’s success will certainly benefit law firms in the long run. And most certainly, those women who support other women will help drive this success.

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