Developing Business with Women and Men

By Andrew Cohn

I recently led a program for partners at an AmLaw 200 firm sponsored by its well-regarded Women’s Initiative. Significantly, a good number of men partners also chose to attend, which made the conversation more robust.

We talked about business development; what it means at its most basic level, namely developing relationships and adding value. We also discussed how big law firm clients are changing in terms of gender. Corporate clients don’t look like they once did in terms of who is in leadership roles. Increasingly, General Counsel are younger, more culturally diverse, and more likely to be women.  Indeed as recent surveys by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association report, “the number of women, and minority women, leading the law departments of Fortune 500 companies continues to increase.”   Even more generally, more of the people with whom lawyers will engage at their clients’ offices are likely to be women.  Notably, as a March 2014 report by Catalyst indicated, “women comprised over 51.5 percent of all management, professional and related positions in the U.S. labor force in 2012.

What is the impact of this changing gender balance on developing business?  I shared some research and some experiences about some of the typical differences between how men and women communicate, for example:

  1. How we behave at meetings
    Research from Dr. Pat Heim, a leading expert in gender differences in the workplace, shows that men and women often behave very differently in meetings. For example, men are more likely than women to interrupt others.  Women are more likely to smile and demonstrate a willingness to be influenced by others in conversation in meetings.  Men more often than women speak in a declaratory voice, while women often use a questioning tone. All of these differences can impact the ever-important perception of clients and potential clients.
  1. How we respond to hierarchy
    Much has been written about how men and women approach hierarchy differently. (See, e.g., “You Just Don’t Understand”, by Deborah Tannen, PhD.) For example, women are typically more comfortable than men in a “flat” hierarchical structure, with no designated leader. Men tend to be more comfortable knowing exactly who is in charge and what role they are expected to play in a given situation. These differences can play out in pitch meetings and other important client interactions.
  1. How we treat “friendliness” at work
    Research from Dr. Heim suggests that for women, friendship is a matter of relationship and is not controlled by time or place. Work conversations are more likely to carry over to social time, and social conversations are more welcome in work situations. Men, on the other hand, tend to separate work and social conversations, which can impact a client’s comfort level – especially a client who might be expecting something different from their legal partner.

The group shared some experiences with these differences and how they can manifest. For example, they talked about how men and women in the firm often socialize differently, and how those social interactions have been influenced by what happens at work. They observed that often women clients are less interested in “who is in charge” and more interested in those with whom they have the strongest relationships. And there was some buzz in the room when they acknowledged how the tone of conversation at meetings can be different depending upon the gender composition of the group. We then re-visited our business development principles and discussed the implication of gender differences on how we develop business, including:

  • How would we formulate a client service team for a woman general counsel we don’t know well?
  • What would we need to keep in mind in terms of social contact?
  • How might we be most successful in building relationships, so that we appropriately satisfy our clients’ expectations and build their levels of comfort with us?

Of course, neither women nor men can be neatly grouped into rules of conduct, but patterns of thinking and behavior are established by years of research {See, for example, Male and Female Brains Really are Build Differently, Olga Khazan, The Atlantic;  and “How Men And Women Differ/ Gender Differences in Communication Styles, Influence Tactics, and Leadership Styles,” Karima Merchant. CMC Senior Theses, Claremont Colleges]

More firms will likely have similar conversations about the impact of gender and gender differences on their business development, just as many firms are predictably talking about developing business in other countries and other national cultures. As Dr. Heim posits, the differences in how men and women work are akin to the genders operating in different cultures.  (Other research suggests that it’s our brains, not our socialization, that explains many gender differences. See “Matters of the Brain: Why Men and Women are So Different- Gender and Cognition,” Robin Nixon, on

These conversations are very important for law firms to undertake. The extent to which firms can bridge the cultural and biological differences between women and men, and work effectively across these bridges, will largely determine how well they can build the necessary relationships and develop sustainable business.


About the Author

Andrew Cohn, a former litigator, is the founder and principal of Lighthouse Consulting, LLC, a leadership consulting firm. He can be reached at

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