The following piece was authored by Patricia Gillette* for the Ark Group publication Business Development for Women Lawyers
Pat addresses the ability to build reputation and relationships and she explores the techniques and behaviors that allow women to effectively build their reputation and visibility, both within their firms and externally.
Business development begins for all lawyers with building a great reputation. So, let’s start there. A reputation that will win and keep clients means demonstrated excellence in legal analysis, writing, communicating, and servicing clients. The definition of “the client”, however, evolves during your legal career, starting with your colleagues in your firm and then moving to the more traditional notion of clients – companies and individuals outside of your firm.
Women lawyers sometimes must work harder than their male counterparts in their attempts to build their reputations, in part due to implicit biases that still infiltrate our firms and, in part, because women are sometimes less likely to ask for the kinds of opportunities that might enhance and grow their reputations. The former problem – implicit biases – needs to be addressed by the firm through training and critical reviews of systemic issues that perpetuate these biases.
The latter problem – failure to ask – is something women lawyers can recognize and address themselves and, in doing so, enhance their reputations and opportunities to build their reputations within their firms and outside organizations.
Building a reputation in your first few years
Attorneys in law firms build their reputations initially by doing excellent work for the senior associates and partners for whom they work. Those are your initial “clients” as a new associate, and studies show that within weeks of your start date, your competence and abilities will be assessed and cemented in the minds of many with whom you work. For women, these first assignments are particularly critical to building reputation, as any mistakes may reinforce implicit biases that women lawyers are inherently less competent than their male counterparts.
To build your reputation internally you must meet deadlines, provide value, answer the questions you are asked succinctly and coherently, and look for other ways to add value to the problem or issue you are evaluating. For example, if you were asked as a first-year associate to research the statute of limitations for fi ling a particular claim, you should, of course, answer that question.
But you might consider going further: defining the circumstances in which the statute may be tolled or citing exceptions to the application of the statute. Showing that you can think beyond the issue presented to you indicates that you understand that the role of an attorney is to think both broadly and specifically and to find creative solutions to problems presented by clients. Going the “extra mile” in an assigned task creates a positive impression. For example, in the days before electronic documents, I remember an incident where a first-year associate was preparing the documents for an upcoming deposition. He gave them to me in a binder that was tabbed and had an index.
He had ordered them by subject and then chronologically. I expected that. But he also put them in a box, with a yellow legal pad and several pencils, and sent them to my home. This may sound ridiculous, but what it said to me is that he recognized his job was to make my preparation as easy as possible, both in terms of substance and the practical matter of getting a deposition outline done – in those days by paper and pencil. Another example that stands out is a new associate who missed a fi ling deadline. She acknowledged the mistake, and provided me – without being asked – several alternative ways to ask for relief from the missed deadline. And she didn’t bill an hour of time for doing so. We were able to obtain relief for her error, and instead of thinking of this young woman as someone who had screwed up, I thought of her as someone who was mature, responsible, and a problem solver.
“[I always did] excellent work… I was extremely responsive regardless of whether I was dealing with clients, partners, or senior associates. I came through on my promises. I tried to be creative, thoughtful and proactive…”
Joan Haratani, Partner, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP
Your reputation internally is also built by how you present yourself to your superiors and colleagues. You are a lawyer, so look like one and act like one. What does that mean? It means you should present yourself as a professional at work and at work-sponsored outside events. That goes for how you dress, how you communicate, how you react to criticism, and how you relate to your colleagues.
Women lawyers need to be aware of the fact that their colleagues, judges, and adversaries may judge them more harshly than their male counterparts based on their appearance. While this is a sensitive topic that is often criticized as being generational, the fact remains that women have more choices than men in terms of how they present themselves in court and at client meetings.
You have to decide for yourself how to handle this issue – should you dress in the latest trend, should you tailor the way you dress to suit your audience and so on. There is much to be said for being your “authentic self” and that may impact how you dress. But there is also an expectation that the people in power (partners in firms, business people in corporations, and judges), most of whom are still white men, may have about how a lawyers “should” dress. So make an informed and intentional decision on this issue. As you seek to build your reputation, you need to volunteer for assignments that might be outside of your safety zone. You should take on challenges, and you should express an interest in the business of the firm and in your progression within the fi rm.
You must ask for opportunities to work on matters, to go on outings with clients and partners, and to be included in meetings and events with lawyers internally and externally, because that builds your reputation as someone who is interested in growing and moving to the next level. So, kudos to the associate who asks a partner out to lunch to get to know him or her. High marks to the associate who hears about a project that is interesting and asks how she can help. Praise to the associate who raises her hand with an idea for an article or speech on a new issue in her practice area.
These are things that make you stand out from the crowd and begin to build your reputation internally, and, as set forth below, these kinds of things involve risk taking and networking skills. For some women, however, asking for opportunities, particularly those that might require them to step out of their comfort zone, is a challenge. This is partly due to the “perfect” syndrome – women who have been “trained” to think they have to be perfect at everything they do. Thus, taking on an assignment that requires doing something at which they are not “perfect” is daunting and the default is simply to not do it. That is harmful to building your reputation because you will miss chances to grow and enhance your skill sets.
You have to challenge yourself to go to the next level when the opportunity is presented. Then ask for guidance, if necessary. But when you do so, approach it with a plan: “This is what I was thinking and I wanted to see what you thought about this approach”. Showing a willingness to learn and expand your skill set builds your reputation as someone who is eager to learn and advance. Another critical part of building your reputation internally is asking for feedback after every significant project. That tells the person with whom you are working that you care about the value and quality of the work you have done. It also shows that you are looking to grow from each experience. And because most partners often don’t take the time for (or try to avoid) giving feedback, you have to ask for it.
That is not how it should be, but that is how it is in many fi rms. So, take the initiative and ask for information about your performance from the people with whom you work. There are studies showing that women – and particularly women of color – are less likely to get feedback than white men. There are several reasons offered for this, but those reasons don’t matter. Because if you don’t get feedback, you can’t improve. Therefore, it may be up to you to ask for feedback and express a willingness to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly. When you do ask for feedback, be prepared to accept what you are told. Don’t expect praise, but accept it when it is given.
Take criticism constructively and ask for opportunities to show improvement. This is especially important for first years who often feel crushed by criticism. Don’t let that happen to you. Being a lawyer is a hard job. You worked hard to get here. Give yourself time to grow into the job, which means accepting both compliments and criticisms and always striving to do your best. In your first years as an associate, you have to be careful about offering excuses for mistakes or criticisms from a partner or senior associate. Statements like, “I was trying to meet your deadline but I took so long drafting this, I just didn’t have time to proofread” may be more damaging to your reputation than the typos you are trying to explain. As a partner, that makes me think that you didn’t manage your time well or that you procrastinated, or that you simply weren’t willing to go that extra step to finish the job professionally. That is not the message you want to convey.
On the other hand, there will be times when you think the senior person you are working with has leveled unjustified criticism toward you. Rather than responding on the spot, give it some time. Talk to a mentor about how to address it, consider how to best approach the senior person, and then do so in a manner and tone that is calibrated to the magnitude of the issue and the personality of the senior person.
Building your reputation as you advance in your career
While your first few years will be focused primarily on building your reputation with your immediate colleagues and members of your firm, by your third or fourth year you should be focusing your energy externally as well. The first rule of encounters with persons outside of the firm is this: treat everyone you meet as a potential client. You never know who will advance in an organization. So, whether you are working with a low-level business person or the head of litigation, you should treat everyone the same – with respect, deference, and humility.
You may think you are more accomplished, smarter, or more savvy, but that doesn’t matter. You are in a service industry and your job is to serve your clients. Why is this important? Because many of the people you meet at lower levels within their organizations, or even in other law firms, will advance into positions of power. Most of the clients with whom I had the longest relationships as their employment lawyer started out as lowerlevel human resources people. As they assumed higher-level positions in their organizations, or went to other corporations, they continued to look to me as their trusted advisor.
One of my clients started out as an entry-level human resources person. I, at the time, was a new associate. We bonded over our career goals, our family situations, our professional interests and our personal interests. As she progressed in her career she took me with her, as her outside counsel. She displaced other firms to bring me into each new company she went to; she persuaded the legal departments in her organizations to use me, even with my firm’s higher rates. Over her career and mine, the business she sent me generated millions of dollars for my fi rms. Woman are particularly good at building relationships. The stereotype that women are less hierarchical than men works to our advantage. Use that to make the people you work with feel respected and recognized for their own professionalism and expertise, despite their “rank” in the company. The same rule applies to other lawyers with whom you work, even as a junior associate. They too can move into positions of power and a source of business.
“In the late 80s, early 90s, I worked on a big class action with lots of lawyers from around the country. One of them later went in-house at Sprint, and because she knew me well from the previous case, sent me the business.”
Meryl Macklin, Partner, Bryan Cave LLP
Building your external reputation also requires that you find a way to differentiate yourself from other lawyers. That means you must think out of the box and show people outside of your firm that you are creative and strategic. Often you can do that by writing articles or giving speeches to groups of lawyers and groups of business people. But writing or speaking on the “same old, same old” take on an issue or problem is not an effective use of your time. If you are going to invest time in an article or speech, then find a different angle on the issue, a new way of approaching it, a creative way of describing or presenting it. You want to stand out; you want to be the one they remember.
When you are presenting a speech, for example, think about 1) whether to use PowerPoint and 2) how to use it. My advice? Use PowerPoint for emphasis, not content. The mistake so many people make is putting too much information on their PowerPoint slides. Then, instead of facing the audience when they present, they read from the screen, which is usually behind them. Or, the audience reads the screen and only half listens to the presentation. That impacts the value of your speech.
If you use PowerPoint, bullet point the important concepts and use your interesting and effective presentation to explain the bullet points. If you want to offer more detail, write a paper as well and include that in the materials that accompany your presentation and, of course, prominently include your contact information. When I was trying to build my reputation, I took any speaking engagement that came along. I would speak to the Rotary Club, the local merchants’ associations, industry conferences, and bar association events. How did I get those gigs? I asked for them. I went to friends and family and made cold calls to organizations offering to be their lunchtime speaker and offering a topic that was relevant to their group. At those events, I would do whatever it took to make my presentation memorable and relevant to the audience.
For example, while other lawyers were explaining to these groups of business people the esoteric reasons why one court’s opinion on X issue was different from another court’s opinion, I would talk about the top 10 ways businesses could avoid litigation in employment cases. In that discussion, I might reference uncertainty within the courts on a certain point, but because I was talking to business people, I didn’t talk about the intricacies of those conflicts. Instead, I focused on the impact that uncertainty might have on choices they made regarding their employees.
That resonated with these audiences. In-depth discussions of the law, for the most part, did not. But if I were speaking to a group of employment lawyers about new developments in the law, my presentation would be filled with “lawyer talk” – although I would find a way to make it interesting to keep with my goal of being the “creative and out-of-the-box” thinker.
Building your brand
I have been a frequent speaker at conferences that attracted high-level employment lawyers from across the country. I always made sure my presentations were different from other presenters. For example, I sometimes opened with a few phrases from a relevant song (“Take this job and shove it” when talking about constructive discharge cases; “Stand by your man” when talking about sex harassment cases where consent appeared to be an issue).
I may not have a great voice, but people remembered my speeches. Just to be clear, however. I am not suggesting this as a tactic everyone (or anyone else) should use. But it was consistent with my brand and my personality and to this day there are people who will say, “Oh yeah, you are the one who sings”. Peppering speeches and articles with personal examples of cases or deals on which you have worked – particularly if you talk about things that distinguish you from other lawyers – also builds your reputation. Readers and listeners love to hear relevant war stories and if you can present those in a big-picture, succinct (be careful of giving too many details), engaging way to your audiences, they will remember you for the stories you have told. And that builds reputation.
For example, when talking about trial tactics I often relay a situation where I used an advertising agency, instead of trial consultants, to assist with trial themes and opening statements. That is an unusual approach and very different from what clients generally hear from lawyers. Some fi nd it shocking; others find it amazing. But all of them remember it and so they remember me, and that builds my reputation as someone who thinks differently from most lawyers. But remember: articles and speaking engagements don’t necessarily yield clients directly. They build reputation because your name begins to become a household word so, when asked about you, people say, “I have heard of her”. These kinds of activities are part of branding yourself and raising your visibility.
It may be years before they yield a client. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do them, it just means you should be patient. It is possible, however, that something you say or do in a speech or article will yield immediate results. The case on which I billed more fees than any other single case in my career came from a speech I gave at an employment law conference in which I talked about how I would handle a particular type of claim. The approach I suggested was quite unique, it caught the attention of one of the lawyers in a large legal department, and that led to meeting with the general counsel, where my firm was retained to handle the case. Building your reputation externally and internally also requires self-promotion.
This means you have to be willing to talk about your victories, your creativity, your strengths, and your skills in a way that enhances your reputation. It means that when you win something, you accept credit for it. When someone compliments you, you say “Thank you”. When you want something, you ask for it, instead of waiting to be asked. It means that you don’t have “group therapy” with your boss. Promoting yourself means just that – taking credit for achieving results. Don’t waste those opportunities by being coy or self-deprecating. For example, there are two ways of reporting back from a difficult hearing:
“I was so nervous at the hearing. The judge was mean and asked really tough questions. I luckily had read a case he focused on the night before so I was able to respond to his questions, but my voice was shaking and I thought I was going to throw up. But, he finally ruled in our favor, thank God.”
“I went to the hearing. We won.”
Which do you think is more effective with the partner who asked you to argue the motion? Being able to talk about yourself with confidence and conviction – but without arrogance or smugness – is an essential skill for building your reputation. Implicit biases about gender compliant behavior still abound in the business and legal world. This means that self-promotion that is viewed positively for men can be regarded as negative when done by a woman. This doesn’t mean you don’t self-promote if you are a woman. It simply means you should take this into account and decide how you want to handle it. Perhaps you calibrate your comments to your audience, perhaps you don’t.
Women sometimes have a harder time self-promoting than men. This is in part due to the fact that women who talk about themselves confidently are often labeled as “too ambitious” or “cocky”. That reflects the implicit bias that women should be more demure than their male colleagues and that women should not brag. Clearly those notions are outdated and offensive. You should talk about your accomplishments, whether you are a man or a woman, in a way that is authentic to you. Social media provides amazing opportunities for you to build and expand your reputation. It allows you to brand yourself on a regular basis and increases the number of people you can reach. Most firms have recognized the value of these tools and have experts in the firm who can assist you with promoting yourself and your fi rm. Take advantage of those opportunities.
Learn how to use those sites to build your brand and reputation. But, whether it is posting something or commenting on Linked In, Facebook, or Twitter or posting an article on a firm sponsored blog, keep in mind that you are always trying to differentiate yourself from your competitors. And keep your message consistent and cohesive. Note, also, that no one likes those who constantly talk only about themselves or who tout their successes in a way that is offensive.
So, let common sense and emotional IQ guide you. Work your accomplishments into conversations in a way that seems natural. For example, when courting a client, you can ask him or her about the most difficult legal issues their organization is facing. If one of those is something with which you have had experience, you can say something like, “I have an idea of what you are up against. I handled a similar matter for another client and it was really tough.” Let the client then ask you how you handled the situation – which allows you to show your expertise and knowledge on the particular issue. Finally, you have to determine what type of reputation you want – outside of being an excellent lawyer. Are you the lawyer’s lawyer? Are you the creative, out-of-the-box thinker? Are you a strategic genius who can figure a way out of any problem? Are you a bombastic trial lawyer or a quiet methodical trial lawyer? Are you the dealmaker for big corporate matters or the person who brings new businesses into the market?
Or are you some combination of these? Once you determine the reputation you want to develop, you focus your reputation-building efforts (part of “branding” yourself) in that direction – so that you are always working toward creating a reputation that matches your passion and that is true to who you are. But, beware. If you aren’t comfortable with the reputation you are trying to build, clients will recognize that and be put off. So, be yourself and promote the real you – not the person you think you should be.
*Patricia will be the conference chair for WOMEN LEGAL 2019 - taking place in San Francisco, February 7th.