How to be a successful rainmaker

October 11, 2013

Last night I found myself sitting in a grand, high-ceilinged room at the New York City Bar Association, attending a panel for female lawyers called Women Who Ask: How Successful Women Rainmakers Ask for and Bring in Business. As I reported in my piece about female lawyers that aired on Marketplace this summer, the number of women lawyers, particularly at big firms, dwindles sharply as the years go by. Only about 15 percent of equity partners at firms are female. My interviewee Marla Perksy told me a major reason women's status tends to stall is that they rarely bring in business for their firms - they're not rainmakers. Last night's panel featured two top lawyers who have made plenty of rain on a regular basis, Sheila Birnbaum and Nina Gussack. The panel was moderated by Vivia Chen of The Careerist and The American Lawyer.

Vivia Chen, Sheila Birnbaum and Nina Gussack at the NY Bar Association

Here are a few takeaways I think are just as relevant to everyone else as they are to lawyers.

  • Landing business is not easy or straightforward, and it doesn't generally come from a single interaction. "The first bit of significant business is like getting the first pickle out of the jar," said Nina Gussack. "A wide swath of people" needs to find you impressive and admire your work in order to want to trust you with their business. "The entire fabric of [your] effort leads to opportunities," said Gussack. Each woman emphasised that the business of landing business comes from building relationships, listening hard to clients and being incredibly responsive to their needs.
  • On the subject of listening, they said some stereotypes are true: women are better at listening to clients, in general, than men are. Gussack said men tend to respond to a client's problem with a valedictory tale of some case they won last month or last week, whereas women are better at actually paying heed to what the client is saying, taking in what their needs are, and responding appropriately.
  • Gussack made the point that "fear of rejection is women's biggest's the biggest reason they don't put themselves out there" and don't attempt to bring in business in the first place. But when you do get rejected, only allow yourself a brief wallow - no more than a week. Both Birnbaum and Gussack said it was important to try to find out why you didn't land the business (also true for writers/journalists sending pitches and getting rejected) so you can plug any gaps and be closer to getting it next time. They talked about 'needling' the firm that hadn't awarded you the business every three months or so, just to check in and find out how well (or not) the firm that did win is handling the case.
  • Sheila Birnbaum made an important point I don't think we hear enough: being friendly and decent to people further down the ladder than you is good business. "People want to give business to people they like. Be nice to people lower down in the company – they’ll remember that." You never know who's going to be a decision-maker in five years when you may be somewhere else. 
  • Neither woman pretended it had been easy to get where they both are. Birnbaum said she'd never had kids because she knew she couldn't have had the career she'd had if she'd opted to become a mother. But she was very happy with the choices she'd made. Gussack does have kids, a professor husband with a more flexible schedule, and has had the same nanny/housekeeper for 22 years. She emphasised the collosal importance of having a good support network. Both loved their careers and found what they did incredibly worthwile. "There is nothing more energizing and motivating than doing hard work for someone," said Gussack. "It's really important to be powerful in your space," particularly, she said, when you have teenagers at home who are unlikely to thank you for anything you do. There is something highly rewarding and empowering, both women emphasized, about doing complicated, problem-solving work and getting paid for it.
  • As for how not to become one of the many women who drop out of the profession during the childbearing and rearing years, Birnbaum and Gussack said women should try to stay focused on the long haul. "It's not a short race," to success, "it's a marathon, and you need to pace yourself," Gussack said. She was sorry so many women quit before they'd "had a chance to taste the success Sheila and I have". Her advice was to "get in the game and stay in the game as long as you find it satisfying." If you genuinely love what you do, they advised that you keep focused on the bigger picture and "power through the hard times" knowing they will not last forever.

My next show will focus on women lawyers and will be out on October 21st.