I recently met a young-ish female in-house counsel. She was a Biglaw refugee, married with an eye to starting a family, who had jumped at the chance to go in-house rather than submit to the particular pleasures of the partnership push. We got to talking, and while my instinct told me to go into sell mode, I decided to play things more coolly. A lot of active listening on my part ensued, as I was subjected to various and sundry complaints about life as a female Biglaw associate, followed by a discourse on how much better in-house life was. I kept the conversation light, injecting some shots at Biglaw (these met with laughter and approval), while letting her do most of the talking. I was consciously avoiding acting like a Biglaw partner, or showing any interest in her because of her status as potential client.
Things became interesting when she started discussing her dissatisfaction with her current outside counsel. Various and sundry became a litany, as she complained about the male partner’s inattention to her, the sloppy work of the female associate she was dealing with, and the size of the bills. Most importantly, she complained of feeling unappreciated by the Biglaw firm she was using — and suspected that the lawyers working for her actually hated her. She did not want to feel hated. I can’t blame her — nor would I be shocked if she switched firms in the near future.
We eventually parted ways, but like a good Biglaw partner, I followed up with an email and my contact info. The email differed from what I would send a male in-house counsel after an introductory meeting. My email to the in-house lawyer was much less formal, and was actually jokey — but I wanted to stick with what was apparently working in terms of getting her to open up to me. It worked, as she replied right away with a joke of her own, and warm acknowledgement of how it was good to meet. Looking good — until I decided to experiment with something….
I replied back, right away, and with a more serious and direct request for consideration for work from her. Confirming my expectation, she replied with an icy thanks, and we have not spoken or emailed since. If I get a chance to rehabilitate I will, but for now I’m happy to have learned something from our exchange.
So what did I learn from this interaction? Confirmation of something I knew from my experiences with other women in-house counsel. First of all, that they are different than their male counterparts, and that remembering those differences can have a major effect on the Biglaw bottom line. Second, that Biglaw is not doing a good job of nurturing relationships with female in-house counsel, as demonstrated by what my erstwhile new friend communicated to me. And she worked for a client that any Biglaw firm would love to have. You would think her current outside counsel would be motivated to keep her happy — and realize that, as a Biglaw refugee, she knows how the game is played.
As she put it, she knows that things can take time, and that Biglaw lawyers work hard, but at the same time she can’t countenance sloppiness as a result of partners looking to keep work profitable by pushing it down the chain, or overbilling by partners looking to keep their working hours up by “reviewing” briefs. She is not the first in-house counsel that I have heard such sentiments from, and in my experience female in-house counsel are more vocal about expressing their tolerance limits. They are also more outwardly expressive about the need to stick to budgets, and accordingly more likely to directly challenge bills they feel are too high. Just my experience, but I doubt that I am alone.
(I don’t think that female in-house counsel are harder to deal with than male in-house counsel by any measure. It is just a different dynamic. For example, while male in-house counsel in my experience are outwardly more forgiving and committed to an existing relationship, they are also more likely to cut ties once a matter wraps up with little or no explanation as to why or what could have been done to salvage the relationship. As mentioned above, when you do something female in-house counsel don’t appreciate, my experience is that you will hear about it right away. I have also seen women in-house counsel be much more open to give work to younger partners, especially those they consider of the up-and-coming variety. They also gravitate to the senior leadership when things get tough. I have yet to see a middle-age service partner received as kindly.)
Along the line of budgets, I have also found that pitching to female in-house counsel involves different sensitivities. For example, while I have seen no evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, that female in-house counsel look to assign work to female Biglaw partners (if they did, we would probably have more Biglaw women as equity partners), I have also been involved in numerous pitches where a female partner was brought along as the token female on the team. And on those pitches, I would hear the female in-house counsel give lip service to the importance of having a female lawyer on the team, only to hear nary a peep from her for the rest of the case while male lawyers handled 99 percent of the work. I’ve seen this firsthand, just as I’ve seen female in-house counsel vociferously criticize the female partners they used to work for, and female Biglaw partners in general. So being a Biglaw female partner is not necessarily an effective tactic for getting work from female in-house counsel. It just isn’t that easy.
Now I am in this Biglaw game to make a living and support my family. So if my customers are increasingly female, I am going to do what I can to make my services attractive to them. At a minimum, that means maintaining my physical appearance to look as best as I can (no male client has ever commented on how I look in something, but female clients have). It means not taking direct positions on issues but being more circumspect and offering options (this works on both pitches and in regular interactions with clients — try it.) And it means being sensitive to giving your female client an opportunity to look authoritative to her superiors, even if it means countering your natural inclination to boast and show off your genius legal mind. Do all of these things, while remaining witty and not needy in the process, and you may end up with a loyal client. Fail, and you may find yourself quickly replaced or not getting the work in the first place.
I have a long way to go in terms of being perfect on this front, but I am trying. It behooves my fellow Biglaw partners, male and female, to try as well. If you don’t, then I don’t want to hear you whine about how clients are not loyal anymore. For increasing numbers of clients, the purchaser of your services are changing, and you are not starting off on favorable footing because of their prior experience with you and your ilk. Adapt.
I am curious to see if others have noticed differences in selling to, or sustaining relationships with, women in-house counsel. 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.