Sandra L. Havrilak (SLH): Please tell us about yourself.
Susan Pesner (SP): I am a 69-year-old managing partner of a 10-person boutique law firm in Tysons, Virginia, about 10 miles from Washington, D.C. I attended The American University in Washington, D.C., starting in August 1969, which was a fantastic time in history. Richard Nixon was President, the Vietnam War was raging, and the Kent State massacre occurred. There were protest marches, a Civil Defense Unit circling campus and tear-gassing students. Earth Day was created. During this time, I pledged Alpha Chi Omega and rose to become sorority president. There I met some of the most amazing women I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, many of whom I remain close with to this day. I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in political science and a teaching certificate. After college, I spent a summer backpacking through Europe and started law school at The Washington College of Law at The American University and graduated in 1976.
Both my maternal and paternal families emigrated from Russia in the late 1890s and entered America at Ellis Island. My paternal grandmother was an entrepreneurial woman and the matriarch of the family. My parents raised their family in Spring Valley, New York. In 1939, my father and his older brother started a mink ranch in Rockland County, Virginia, which continued until 1959 when our mink were afflicted with a disease that ultimately caused my family to do a “friendly bankruptcy” with our creditors. My mother returned to secretarial work at a local law firm, and my two older brothers, one in high school and the other in junior high, sought after-school and weekend employment, all to provide support for the family. Meanwhile, my father re-invented himself and opened an insurance business. I began working a retail job at the age of 13 and I stayed there until I left for college.
SLH: What can you tell us about your career and how it led to you managing your own firm?
SP: I technically began my legal career as a legal secretary in 1972-73. Then, during law school, I worked as a volunteer at Lorton Reformatory, assisting prisoners with their civil matters. I also worked as a law clerk for an oil and gas law firm. Upon graduation, I secured a position with a small firm in Leesburg, Virginia and began honing my real estate skills under the tutelage of Anna Hendricks, a 1934 graduate of George Washington University’s law school. I remained in Leesburg searching and reading title documents, understanding title underwriting, learning to read surveys, and honing my skills at the settlement process. In 1978 I came to a Tysons Corner law firm, where I helped expand its real estate settlement department and where I ultimately became its first female associate attorney. In 1982, a senior partner invited me to join him and create a new firm. I stayed there for 10 years. I became an equity partner, I expanded the firm’s practice areas, and mentored young lawyers.
Since I left that firm in 1992, I have been expanding my client base and building a great new firm, which I am very proud of.
SLH: What are the top three tips you would give to a lawyer who wants to be a successful rainmaker today?
SP: First and foremost, successful rainmaking requires that you make an impression on your clients so that they speak about you often. You want them to never miss an opportunity to say that they know you and that they would be willing to make an introduction. Follow up and check on clients when significant milestones pass, like you would a friend (illness, death, marriage, graduation, moving, etc.). Real estate law affects most people’s largest investment. Be sure that your clients know that you recognize that. Make them feel like they are the most important matter you are handling at any given time.
Second, always keep the business cards of every connection you make. Always send handwritten thank-you notes when a contact is able to connect you with someone else.
Finally, set goals for yourself. Get your name known in those areas of law that you know best, and be a good referral source for those areas that you aren’t as familiar with.
SLH: Has it been competitive with the men in your field?
SP: Real estate was typically a “man’s practice” when I started. There were a few women breaking through and I was determined to be one of them. I worked harder, devoted longer hours, and dedicated myself to everything real estate. I joined the Fairfax Bar and the Virginia Bar Young Lawyers and real estate sections and never missed a meeting. I never turned down an assignment or opportunity I was given, and I volunteered to write articles or teach classes. I did anything and everything it took to become a notable female lawyer in the real estate sector.
SLH: How did you break the glass ceiling?
SP: I became a member of and ultimately chaired the Insurance Committee of the Virginia State Bar. I have been active in the real estate section of the Virginia State Bar and rose to become its second-ever female chair. I have served on the Virginia State Bar Council for four terms, and have just returned for my fifth term, after a brief hiatus. While on Bar Council, I also served on the Executive Committee for a number of terms. Being involved and making yourself known is how you break that ceiling and make it easier for the future generation of female lawyers.
SLH: Describe your typical marketing year.
SP: Marketing happens every single day. You make connections in the elevator, with people at your lunch stops, at the dry cleaner, through your friend’s parents, your friend’s children, your landlord, the grocery store clerk, your neighbors, your friends from college and law school, lawyers on the opposing side, lawyers on your side, your client’s the other side’s clients, and so on. Every person you meet is a potential resource capable of helping you market yourself and your firm.
SLH: What type of marketing does your firm engage in?
SP: My firm is committed to teaching. We are known as #theteachinglawyers. We teach clients, trade associations, bar associations, and even the coveted Virginia Continuing Legal Education. Our lawyers write materials, give lectures, do webinars, and travel to present seminars. We encourage attendees to contact us with questions or follow up. Our firm is made up of a variety of professionals, from our legal assistants, paralegals, and law clerks, to our associates and partners, both equity and non-equity. We generally have teams aligned by practice area, but we encourage cross-pollination in practices among staff and lawyers so that everyone in the firm is knowledgeable about the various workings of our firm.
SLH: How did you get your first client?
SP: I can honestly say that I do not remember who my first client was.
SLH: How did you get your most recent client?
SP: My most recent client is the daughter of an existing client.
SLH: How did you get your best client?
SP: My best client came to me as a result of my effective and professional representation of a client on the other side of a deal.
SLH: Describe how you have become successful.
SP: Clients can be very demanding. You must learn to control their needs by effective explanation of the business of selling personal services. I think by continuing to do this, you maintain old clients and gain new ones. Becoming successful is another part of marketing yourself. You have to put yourself out there and be the best you can be.
About the Author
Sandra Havrilak is the founder of the Havrilak Law Firm, PC in Fairfax VA, concentrating in family and children’s issues. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.