Biglaw partners sell their time and attention to clients who want legal help. Partners devote plenty of thought and attention to the mechanics of selling — the how, the what, and even the why regarding client’s selection of counsel. Biglaw firms rightfully obsess about these issues, spending untold sums on robust marketing departments, consultants, and the like, in the hopes that their partners will magically all become rainmakers (or at least adept “cross-sellers”).
But while the how, what, and why of rainmaking get a lot of attention, there is a glaring lack of attention and discussion of the “who” — as in, who are the people making the decisions to purchase the gold-plated services offered by Biglaw. You would think determining the profiles of your target customers, and targeting sales approaches accordingly, would be an important endeavor for a professional-services outfit. You would also think that Biglaw firms would discuss with their current and future rainmakers strategies for appealing to various types of purchasers of Biglaw services. Neither of the Biglaw firms I have been a partner at have done so — at least when it comes to adopting different approaches to pitching female in-house counsel. I would bet my experience is typical.
What does this have to do with “Biglaw Lady Issues”? Easy. While the statistics tell us that women — in part because of the challenges posed by the timeline I discussed last week, among other factors — are not really moving the needle much in terms of becoming Biglaw equity partners, there is no doubt that they are entering Biglaw in substantial numbers, and leaving to take in-house positions — again in substantial numbers. As Old School Partner reminded us, Biglaw is within a lifetime of being a “men’s only” club. Those days are over, as are the days when someone like Old School Partner could build a firm of men selling to male-run businesses with exclusively-male in-house counsel. But nobody really talks about the impact that the increasing number of female in-house counsel do (and should) have on Biglaw marketing efforts and client retention. Seems crazy that this is the case….
There is at least one exception. Many Biglaw firms, in a worthy effort to increase the likelihood of having female equity partners, invest in women’s initiatives — often in the form of female-specific mentoring for female associates, and targeted client development assistance for female lawyers. I don’t know how the return on such investments is measured, but I am sure that if they were super successful, we would hear about it.
What we do hear about, and those of us in Biglaw see, is that female lawyers sign up in droves, leave in droves, and frequently take up residence at former or prospective clients of their Biglaw firms. And they know the Biglaw game, and are rightfully skeptical about the traditional excesses like overstaffing, general overbilling, and other profit-maximizing measures that Biglaw has employed over the years. So they are less likely to pay for them, in a significant departure from the gentlemen’s agreements upon which many Biglaw client relationships were previously based.
What contribution have the increasing numbers of female in-house counsel made to the cost pressure affecting many Biglaw firms? And what about the fact that none of my former female colleagues that have gone in-house have anything good to say about our former firm, other than how it helped them get their current job in-house? I would like to see some real data on, and analysis of, these issues. It seems important, and everyone can see that the dynamics of the in-house counsel/Biglaw relationship are changing for the poorer — and that both gender and dissatisfaction with Biglaw experiences are a factor.
Think about this issue for a minute. I am one young partner, at just one Biglaw firm, and I have at least a half-dozen former female colleagues who are now in-house — all of them at companies both I and my firm would be very happy to represent. And they all disparage our former firm as a horrible and unfair place to have worked. Even worse, they consider our former firm as symptomatic of Biglaw in general. But they are Biglaw’s current and future customers! These women are generally excellent lawyers, who benefited from basically the same training and exposure to work as I received. But unlike me, someone who is very invested both in the continued success of my former firm and Biglaw in general, they have a very negative view of Biglaw from their time there. Multiply this animus across the industry, and you start to have a problem.
In my case, the fact that I lateraled helps with my former colleagues. We bond over barbs at our former shop (a practice which I engage in reluctantly, but I would get nowhere with them if I wanted to defend the place as being good to me when it was obviously not good to them), in addition to the standard family talk and general catching-up. Now, I don’t recommend lateraling just for the purpose of commiserating with former female colleagues over your mean old Biglaw firm, but in my case, it has been a welcome side benefit. Especially when I have more former female colleagues that have gone in-house than male, by quite a measure, and they are already much more likely to consider me for work than my former male colleagues seem to be. (And especially when it is rarer for me to pitch to a male in-house counsel at all nowadays. I wonder if others are living a similar reality.)
(One thing I know for certain: none of the women I know who work in-house want to be patronized or treated with any less seriousness than the (typically male) lawyer who preceded them in their job. So chintzy rebranding of Biglaw services to appeal to women won’t cut it. A more serious effort is called for. And what an opportunity for Biglaw partners who can actually get this right.)
What is the consequence? For me, it is simple. My client base is thankfully diverse gender-wise, but for the foreseeable future my best chance for significant engagements is from existing and prospective clients with female in-house counsel. And I am sure that I am not the only one in my firm, and especially not in Biglaw, who is in a similar situation. But no one is teaching me how to “sell” to female in-house counsel, or effectively manage existing relationships with them. So I am learning on the fly, and while it is fun and rewarding, the willful blindness of Biglaw to its shifting customer base is a bad omen.
“Know your customer” is still a viable maxim, but at least in my experience, Biglaw still wants to pretend that your best client is the company where your frat buddy has become the GC. And Biglaw still tailors its marketing efforts and rainmaking instruction to that old model. Unlikely to work for me, and unlikely to work for my fellow Biglaw partners, male or female. Maybe some attention on this issue will lead to better information as to what female in-house counsel really think of Biglaw — how it sells to them, and how it services the work they entrust to it. And then we can start on fixing what is broken, and strengthening what is working.
In the next installment, I’ll discuss some of my experiences in dealing with female in-house counsel, and in the meantime, I am very interested in other perspectives on this issue — so feel free to comment below or shoot me an email with your thoughts….
Anonymous Partner is a partner at a major law firm. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.