Making it Rain—Practical Tips From Those Who Do: Mary Sue Henifin

Mary Sue Henifin is a shareholder with Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney PC in Princeton, NJ. Clients rely on her significant experience to handle complex business disputes in state and federal courts, including contract, intellectual property, employment, health care, tax, real estate, environmental, and white-collar matters. Her work and experience include internal investigations, regulatory matters, mediations, arbitrations, and due diligence.

Sylvia Coulter (SC): You’ve had a great career so far. Give us a bit of background—I know you have experience in both small and large firms as a partner.

Mary Sue Henifin (MSH): After starting out as an associate at a large international law firm, I worked as a criminal prosecutor, gaining trial and investigative experience. Returning to private practice at a boutique, I worked on both litigation and transactional matters—an increasingly rare opportunity in this age of specialization. After making partner at the boutique, I transitioned as a partner to an AmLaw 100 firm—Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney. My experience at the boutique was invaluable—we were all expected to develop clients from day one—writing articles, speaking on panels, going on road shows to visit clients and prospects—all great training.

SC: As a successful lawyer and business developer, what are some of the most important characteristics to focus on when building a practice?  

MSH: I enjoy practicing law—this is the foundation for all the hard work it takes to succeed and develop business. Early on I understood that you have to do more than be good at the practice of law—you have to work hard on business development too. You also have to remain true to yourself—who you are as a person, making time for pro bono, community and family activities that are meaningful. It is challenging!

The best place to start is where we work—cross referrals are the number one source of business, and the best way to grow clients is to grow the types of legal services you provide and coordinate for your clients. I always say yes to client development efforts—participating in team pitches, workshops, and coaching opportunities. But the bottom line is that there is no magic bullet for success. It takes sustained effort and investment of time. There’s no point in getting discouraged—the research shows it takes many touches to bring in work. I focus on what will benefit a client, not “selling” myself. And along the way I try to make sure to include client development activities I particularly enjoy to retain enthusiasm.

SC: Technology plays an ever-greater role in how we attract, retain, and grow client relationships. What are your best practices and what advice do you have for other women lawyers both from a small firm or a large firm?

MSH: I use a number of technology tools in my practice—I asked for help in setting up news alerts that follow legal and business news and legislation of interest to my clients and prospects.  If there is an important development, I will pick up the phone to discuss it with my contacts. The analytics we have at our disposal are amazing. The opportunities are totally driven by our ability to tap into those resources and use them in real time. The level at which you have to be informed has completely changed. We have to refresh our content in real time—not just learn it once.

SC: Like working out, creating good habits is important to see long-term success and results. Are there any tools you use to help you stay focused? And along these lines, how important is it to have a business development plan? 

MSH: I’m a big believer in the targeted business plan, and a tracking system to monitor progress. By focusing on updating my business plan at the end of each year, I evaluate my activities and plan for the upcoming year. A business tracker focuses each step of business development—so I continue making the calls and arranging for face to face meetings throughout the year.

Just like exercise, it is sustained effort that pays off, and holds me accountable to investing the needed time. Without the discipline of a tracking system, it is easy to get busy and put off client development, leading to the feast and famine syndrome that is so stressful for lawyers. Without consistent attention to client development, there is too much “down time” between matters.

Let’s break this down. Some best practices for…

Attracting new business:

I ask my clients to introduce me to decision makers like them. I also speak and write on topics of current interest and when I meet people at networking events I take the next step to meet with them after I have learned about their business and can present a value proposition for my work. When I speak at an event or attend an event, I invite clients or prospects to attend as my guest; it is a fun way to participate, and get to know each other better. I also value board service to get to know and be known in the community.

Retaining existing clients:

I stay in touch even when we are not working on matters together. Whenever possible I refer business to my clients, or an opportunity for them to be recognized as an industry leader. I value face to face meetings, and try to schedule more than one a year, even if I have to travel to the meeting. As a sounding board for my clients, they know they can always discuss matters with me confidentially.

Growing existing clients:

I focus on building other areas of business. For example, if I have been hired to handle a litigation matter, I try to see if they need help in labor and employment, government affairs, intellectual property or tax. I also provide risk management services on contracts, licenses or other areas where preventative measures may help avoid litigation down the road or make their business more competitive. I understand their budgeting processes, and provide and stick to legal budgets. Most importantly I work to their business imperatives, and position legal strategy to meet their business needs.

SC: Collaboration is key to helping your firm grow and for helping clients with their breadth of legal needs. What are some tips for being proactive about collaborating with one’s partners and therefore, also staying in touch with your internal referral sources? 

MSH: Picking up the phone and finding out what my partners are working on and telling them about my work is the best way to cross market our services. I also invite my partners to speak before the business groups that I am a member of, and to participate in client pitches. Sometimes I will ask my colleagues to participate in client training—for example on how to hire and fire—and that leads to more work. We are all busy, so I try to be creative and flexible with my partners—I don’t wait for them to come to me, I will go to them if I see an opportunity.

SC: The issue of “my client” and getting all the credit can cloud otherwise good business development opportunities. What’s your advice for making sure we all receive credit for participating in pitches where it’s important to have a woman or diverse lawyer involved?   

MSH: Open discussion about credit sharing has worked best for me. No firm is perfect in this area, but we have to take responsibility for working out credit sharing, and not expect someone else to do it for us. My rule of thumb is if the other attorney helps bring in the work, or if the work couldn’t be done without them, then they should get some of the credit. How much credit is negotiable depending on their role. Most clients expect diverse legal teams with women and diverse attorneys having substantive roles in their legal work, and receiving credit for that work.

It may help to talk to someone who has been around a while to help you navigate the system. What goes around comes around—if I am invested in sharing credit with women and diverse lawyers and supporting their practice development efforts, as well as sharing with my partners and juniors, they will be more invested in sharing with me. A few attorneys will never share credit—I have always taken on their work anyway, and I have strengthened my reputation and helped my firm by doing so, whatever the credit. Bottom line:  the only way to be assured of credit is to work hard to bring in and build your own quality clients.


Some key takeaways include…

Game plan:

Having some tools—an annual plan, a way to track “touches” to contacts and clients and manage your activities can be very helpful for staying on track and reaching your goals. Keeping in touch with active and inactive clients will also help you to reach your goals.

Hard work: 

Work as hard on business developing, including the activities I mentioned above, as you do on legal work. The work will pay off. Good legal work keeps clients and focused efforts on client relationships will help you receive referrals from good clients—also a plus.

Team work: 

Working as a team with your colleagues will pay off in the long run. Sometimes it takes discussion for sharing credit.  In the long run, it pays to let colleagues know what you are doing and ask them for times to meet to discuss what they are doing so they get to know you better.

Client Management:

Regular meetings with clients about open matters is key and we all know that. Keeping in touch about what is going on with the client’s business is just as important and allows you to discuss other ways in which you or your firm may help them to reach their goals and to help their business.

About the Author

Silvia Coulter is a principal with LawVision Group and may be reached at or 978-526-8316.

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