'Aggressive' is not a dirty word for women rainmakers (podcast with transcript)
Stephanie Francis Ward: How assertive is too assertive for women lawyers in private practice?
Janice Brown: If you are a woman who desires success, one of the challenges is some people may perceive that desire as a negative for women. But if you want success, you have to learn to be much more self-defining, and be able to create something much more self-defining.
Stephanie Francis Ward: I’m Stephanie Francis Ward, and when we return, my guests will tell you how they’ve seen women become successful rainmakers.
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Stephanie Francis Ward: I’m here with Karen Kaplowitz, a former law firm partner who now advises lawyers on business development; and Janice Brown, a trial lawyer who also does consultant work regarding business development.
I read that women lawyers are less likely to inherit business from men. Do you think that’s true, and if so, why?
Karen Kaplowitz: Well, perhaps I’ll start on that. I think that historically that may have been true, because you know there weren’t as many women in line to inherit books of business from more senior men in their firm. I think it’s less true now, in part because of pressure from the client side. The Leadership Council on Legal Diversity, for example, has major corporations which are requiring firms to be more inclusive with respect to women and minorities. So I think that the prior tendency for women to have less likelihood of inheriting is diminishing.
Janice Brown: Yeah, and let me say I guess my–I have, I guess, an issue with the question to some degree in this way. The idea of inheriting a book of business is both a good thing and it can be a bad thing. And it’s a good thing if you are the recipient of it and you’re able to maintain it and nothing changes within the corporate environment so that you have those relationships. But that’s not how the world is anymore, and so to some degree just the idea that you would inherit business is different than maintaining and creating your own opportunities.
And I think a lot of people who are in that sort of–men and women who have inherited business have a challenge when something changes within that corporation, and they lose that business and they haven’t developed the skills in order to create new. So I do think that it’s true, I think your premise is true, but I don’t necessarily think that that’s a detriment for women.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Well also, do you think it seems to be that if you focus on creating your own book of business you have more control over your work and your life?
Karen Kaplowitz: Absolutely. One of the issues that drives women to devote a lot of energy to rainmaking is the control factor. When it’s a client relationship you control, you control many aspects of it. You don’t get meetings scheduled on Saturday morning that conflict with your kids’ soccer games. Absolutely control is a huge issue and an important issue.
But to get back to Janice’s point, I think we would also find in large firms that there is a huge effort to institutionalize significant client relationships, so there is no one person who controls a significant client. And there isn’t one person to decide that there will be a particular person to inherit a book of business. So that’s another factor that plays with respect to this question.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Well, do you think, does that actually really happen though–that the client doesn’t have that one person who is their go-to lawyer, who they would absolutely trust?
Karen Kaplowitz: Well, in many large firms that really do a good job at building client teams there is often more than one go-to person, you know, so there may be a go-to corporate person or a go-to litigation person. But the client relationship is really deeply rooted and crosses lots of people.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Janice, what do you think?
Janice Brown: Well, I think a couple of things. First of all, I agree with that because the firms have gotten smarter in understanding that if they rely upon one lawyer for that business relationship, if that lawyer leaves so does the client. So firms have gotten smarter to cross sell and to have several lawyers represent those institutional clients. But in addition to going back to the second point about women lawyers who create their own client relationships and the control, I think the other part of it is not just scheduling but also having the idea of what kind of client you want.
Because since you’re making it up and you’re creating it, you know you may not want clients that are people that show up the Friday before with a TRO. You may want clients who you can work with, that you can help understand how to do preventative law issues and how to make things work in a more reasonable manner. Because there are some clients that are great because they pay your bills, but one thing you learn as you do this business long enough is all money isn’t good money. And so having the opportunity to create your own client and create your own ideal client list is a much more satisfying way to approach this business.
Stephanie Francis Ward: And let’s talk a bit about, say, that you did generate some business and you have to be assertive about it to get credit, do you think that sometimes in private practice with others it’s hard for women; maybe they get dinged for being assertive about it more than men? Do you guys have thoughts on that?
Karen Kaplowitz: I think our culture still has some differentiation about men and women being aggressive and whether that’s appropriate or valuable. But the truth of the matter is that many of the most successful women lawyers–both in terms of rainmaking and otherwise–are very aggressive. I mean, and I use the word “aggressive,” not just “assertive,” which is kind of the more politically correct term. But I mean just straight-out aggressive, and just a lot of the people that one thinks of in terms of those business development and good lawyering are aggressive, assertive, terrific women.
Stephanie Francis Ward: And do you think part of their success is they don’t care if people think they’re too assertive?
Karen Kaplowitz: Well, they’ve managed to be successful despite any of those stereotypes, and they’re often very very adept. So for example, one person who comes to mind who’s kind of one of the gold standards in terms of rainmaking is Amy Schulman, who is now the General Counsel of Pfizer. When she was at DLA Piper, she just had an enormous book of business which she controlled. And she did it, she was certainly very aggressive–assertive–but also just a spectacular team builder. So I don’t know that the women have been successful because they’re aggressive. I think they’ve been successful because they have a whole range of skills that really work.
Janice Brown: Yeah, and let me say, I just finished a trial in Orange County and one of the things that I observed–and I had a great judge who was the judge in that case, really respected her–I felt that I would get an objection about being argumentative that was so dialed down and different than my opposing counsel. And he was a very aggressive male. So it was just interesting observation for me at the time. And I do think that there are still stereotypes about what is appropriate behavior for women and appropriate behavior for men in every aspect of our lives.
But with respect to taking credit for business, I think it’s actually been a way to minimize women’s desire to get credit, because women still get their feelings hurt and that matters to them in the workplace. And I think when you said, “Well, if women do this does it not matter to them what people think about them,” and I think actually the women who are the most effective understand that there are those differences, and to some degree don’t care if they get labeled in a way that someone would call them being assertive or aggressive or some other worse words.
I think they don’t really care about that, because if you do care about that, it would modify your behavior in a way that would be inconsistent with your goals. And so women, that’s a real challenge for women. I think to be characterized as being too aggressive, people sometimes feel that that’s not a good thing. But I agree with Karen that it can be a very successful route for women to become big rainmakers within their environment.
Karen Kaplowitz: I want to add one thing, Stephanie, which is I wrote a piece about this issue called “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick.”
Stephanie Francis Ward: I read it.
Karen Kaplowitz: Which is about the question about women having to deal with bullies; women–and men too–having to deal with bullies, with respect to credit for business generation. And one of the things that I talk about in that article “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick” is the whole idea of kind of being prepared to deal with people who might have a strategy of characterizing you as too aggressive or whatever, or otherwise being bullying. And you know, the idea is to be prepared and to kind of make a record, create allies, and just deal with it in a way that anticipates that it may be a problem, but just move on.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Okay. Let’s see here. I want to get back to this issue of not caring if other people might perceive you as being too aggressive–you know, that’s their problem not yours. I think that’s true to a certain extent, but also I think if you’re seen as someone who’s very aggressive, unless you’re really bringing in money, I think there’s a chance you still may not be made partner.
Janice Brown: Well, that’s true.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Yeah, I mean, I do think that there is still this chance that perhaps women have to deal with some firms about being aggressive enough but not too off-putting. What’s your advice on that?
Janice Brown: Well, I think that’s a reality. If you are a woman that desires success, then one of the challenges is that some people may perceive that desire to be a negative for women. But if you want success, you have to learn to be much more self-defining, because you are creating something outside of the box. And so to be limited by other people’s points of view about that, it is a challenge, but it may be because there’s more than one law firm in the world, then if some firm perceives that aggression to be something that is negative, you may need to go someplace else. Because somebody else’s aggression is somebody else’s assertiveness or somebody else’s negativity about how women are bold may be considered to be an advantage in other places.
So you’re not stuck at any firm, because as far as I know slavery has been outlawed, so you can go someplace else. And one of the things I remember reading some time ago is this book written by a woman, and I think she was like a spiritual person. But the name of her book is What Someone Thinks About You is None of Your Business. And I really think that happens with a lot of women, is we are really highly intuitive and we believe we can assess what other people think about us. And I think sometimes that hinders our success.
Karen Kaplowitz: And I think that people may be more concerned about this issue of being perceived as too aggressive as in reality. So for example, I would say I was a very aggressive young lawyer, and appeared before a wonderful judge in Los Angeles who I saw maybe 20 years later, and he’d become a very well-known, well-regarded appellate judge. And I said to him among other thing when I saw him, “You know, you’d probably be interested to know that I’ve mellowed a lot.” And his response to me was, “That’s too bad.”
In other words, he remembered me as being aggressive and bold and that was a good thing. It wasn’t necessarily a positive thing that I was less aggressive 20 years down the road. So I don’t know that we have to be all that worried about this issue anymore. I think we shouldn’t be worried as women about being aggressive. I think we need to be, we need to stand up. We need to advocate for ourselves and make our way, without a whole lot of worry on that issue.
Stephanie Francis Ward: What do you think also for this generation of lawyers that’s coming up now in their 20s and 30s? I mean, it seems to me that women in that generation are very blessed of not maybe worrying about it as much as those of us who are older did at the time, because times are changing. And I think the issue perhaps being raised by women who had careers as well as a father that maybe that helped. I don’t know, I think that the women coming up now, they are a little bit better about not being concerned about issues like that. Would you guys agree?
Janice Brown: I think yes, because there are more of them. When we started–when you’re by yourself in an environment or there’s few of you, then it’s a different environment. You know, law schools are at least half–if not more–women, and so I think that there are more women especially at the lower ranks. I still think it’s a challenge at the upper ranks but I do think that they have more options, because women have more options. So it’s more of a societal issue than necessarily a legal one.
I think our challenge, though, is having women understand at a younger age that it is worth the effort and the self-examination and the training and all the kind of things that you have to do to become successful in the law. And I think this whole notion of the “lean in” written in that book, and all of those kinds of talk, is really what is the biggest challenge, I think. Because I think there’s more options, but I think a lot of women are opting out. So I do think that it’s better for the younger people because there are more of them. But I do think that we still have a challenge about having it be acceptable to be authentic at the top.
Stephanie Francis Ward: What do you mean to be authentic at the top? Can you elaborate a bit?
Janice Brown: Sure. I mean not have to take on a persona of somebody who you’re not. Because it’s not about trying to replicate how men do it, but to do it how women do it and to be comfortable as a woman doing whatever you do, your leadership, your business development, whatever opportunities, do it the way you do it as opposed to try to replicate doing it like a man does it. And I think that that’s what’s happening different in the profession, that there’s more opportunity for women to be themselves, because I’ve always believed that a frightened lawyer is not a very effective lawyer.
Stephanie Francis Ward: No.
Janice Brown: And if you’re in an environment where you don’t feel comfortable about being yourself, no matter where you are–whether you’re the top, the middle or the bottom–you’re not going to be as good as if you had confidence in being who you are. First of all, it’s a lot easier to remember. You don’t have to have a script. So that’s the point I mean, I mean it’s not like just being at the top and then trying to be a suitable male. It’s being at the top and being you.
Karen Kaplowitz: Well, one thing I would say about women is that women are very good at building relationships. So women start out as lawyers on a very good path toward becoming rainmakers, because they often are very good at building and sustaining relationships. And the heart of business development is just that.
So I’ve heard women, for example, explain that even though they were a fairly junior part of some client team, they ended up having a central role in the client-relationships management, because they liked and enjoyed the relationship building part of it. So you know, to your point, it’s good for women to be authentic and to get comfortable with where their strengths are, because their strengths are exactly in the right place.
Stephanie Francis Ward: And I’m guessing both of you probably think that if you try to do business development in a persona that’s not yours, it’s not going to be as successful as if you be yourself and focus on the strength that you have. Is that correct?
Janice Brown: Absolutely. Plus authenticity is magnetic. People like people who are–I mean Oprah Winfrey is one example–people like people who are authentic. And so it’s easier to make relationships, maintain relationships, if you’re being yourself. I think you’re absolutely right, Karen, about women being good at relationship building and maintenance of relationships. I think the challenge for women–and this is I think a cultural challenge–is that sometimes we feel that if somebody is our friend, we shouldn’t do business with them or we shouldn’t ask for business from them. Like somehow the friendship is a boundary, you can’t mix friendship and business.
And so that’s what I see with women sometimes, where sometimes women are afraid to ask their friend for business, because “I don’t want to infringe upon our friendship.” And men don’t have that challenge; I mean, men do business with their friends all the time. And I think with women, we just need to make that shift to understand that that’s okay.
Karen Kaplowitz: I would comment in one way about that which is that I think the idea of being able to ask for business is grossly overrated in the business development front. And the friend issue puts that in really good perspective. I think it’s really a bad idea to expect friends to send lawyers business, unless it is in the interest of the friend and the friend’s business to do so. So I think the core resource that most people need to have, to be really effective rainmakers, is the ability to discover who needs help and then to connect the dots between what people need and what you or your law firm can provide.
So, it’s not so much about just asking random friends for their work, it’s about having friendships that allow you to uncover what your friends and their businesses need that you can do.
Janice Brown: Absolutely. I totally agree with that. I totally agree. They have to have a need and it has to be mutually beneficial to both sides.
Karen Kaplowitz: Right.
Stephanie Francis Ward: And let’s go back a bit. You were talking, Janice, about young women leaving their profession in such high numbers. Do you think that if more women maybe focused more on bringing in their own business and being themselves to do it–not having to be a certain way, I mean–do you think they would stay? I think they probably would. I don’t think it would necessarily be easy; you’re still going to have to make some sacrifices if you have children, or otherwise, even if you don’t have children there’s still going to be sacrifices to be made. But it seems like it would be a more enjoyable process than if you’re just working for someone else a lot all the time.
Janice Brown: Oh no, absolutely. I think that it feels good to have more control over your future. I mean, it just feels more empowering to have options. And so by developing business and developing relationships and learning the skill sets necessary to be better at business development, there’s no downside to that, no matter what happens. Because law firms are business and economics drive them.
And so, if you can participate in economic development of that firm, you have much more control and more options available for you. And that’s really simple, that’s not complicated. The issue is, how do you make it happen. But you know, having more power by having more control is a very fulfilling feeling. I mean, it feels good no matter who you are, to have that kind of power and that kind of control.
Karen Kaplowitz: And it’s the only way for women or men lawyers to be secure in the profession today. There is no room in most law firms for especially older lawyers. I mean, you hit age 45 and you don’t control any business, you have a very insecure future in most firms in America. So the only way to have a secure future to accommodate your family needs or otherwise is to control business.
Janice Brown: I couldn’t agree more. I could not agree more.
Stephanie Francis Ward: On that note that is everything I have for you. Do either of you want to add anything else?
Karen Kaplowitz: Well, you know, there were some issues that I thought you’d get to; for example, relating to the question of how you deal with the politics of business development inside a law firm. And that is an area that I think is of critical importance to people, which people often don’t pay a lot of attention to. I see, for example, many lawyers making lateral moves who are really clueless about how the compensation system works in their new firm, how credit is given for business generation, what the firm values about teamwork, for example.
So you know, I think one of the critical things for lawyers in general, women in particular, is really understanding the rules of the game and the culture of the firm as it relates to compensation and rainmaking.
Stephanie Francis Ward: All right. Did you want to add anything, Janice?
Janice Brown: All I can say is I’m really happy you’re doing this topic. It’s really important, and it’s becoming more and more important for women and for lawyers in general. And so I really appreciate the opportunity to share thoughts with you, and getting to know Karen over the phone. And I really think that it’s critical that you continue to do this, because I think that lawyers need it and they want it.
Stephanie Francis Ward: All right. And that’s everything we have, so I thank you all so much for your time.
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Updated at 2:49 p.m. to fix some transcript attributions.
Should women lawyers be as aggressive–if not more aggressive–as men when it comes to business development? It depends, and much of the answer should be based on what women believe in for themselves, guest tell the ABA Journal’s Stephanie Francis Ward.
In This Podcast:
Janice P. Brown
Janice P. Brown, a San Diego trial lawyer, leads the Brown Law Firm. A former U.S. Department of Justice lawyer in the agency’s tax department, Brown is also the founder of Beyond Law, a consultant group that advises lawyers on long-term business growth.
Karen Kaplowitz, president of New Ellis group, specializes in business development strategy, training and coaching for lawyers and other professional service providers. She was the third woman lawyer hired by O’Melveny & Myers, in 1971, and later was a partner with Alschuler, Grossman & Pines.