Making It Rain With Lisa Watts & Michèle Penzer

Lisa Watts, a tax partner and a member of Latham’s Executive Committee, advises clients on corporate and partnership taxation. She regularly serves private equity firms, US-based and foreign public and private companies, REITs and UPREITs, partnerships and limited liability companies, as well as investment banks.

 

 

Michèle Penzer is the managing partner of the firm’s largest office. As a finance partner, she represents banks, alternative lenders and borrowers in leveraged finance transactions, including acquisition financings, project financings, other senior secured lending transactions, and restructurings in a broad range of industries.

 

The deeply collaborative mindset of Lisa Watts and Michèle Penzer was evident from the start in their desire to give two sides of the same marketing story and their support of each other, both great things to remember in rainmaking. In addition, the issue of saying yes, of volunteering, of putting yourself forward in word and deed, and of paying it forward to the next generation came through as well.

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Rachelle J. Canter (RJC): What are the top 3 tips that you would give to a lawyer who wants to be a successful rainmaker today?

Lisa Watts (LW): Let me start by saying how nice it is to be here. Michèle and I have known each other for a long time and work together on firm matters. We have very different practice profiles—I’m a transactional tax attorney and she’s a bank finance attorney—so our efforts around business development are different, illustrating that you need to consider the best way to market your expertise.

For me, client development and being a rainmaker are both very tactical propositions. My clients are either long-term clients of mine who expect me to be working on their deals or come to me through other transactional lawyers at our firm. Deals cannot be done without top-notch tax expertise, so I am either brought in to help pitch the firm’s capability or at the beginning of a new mandate. My main tips are to be responsive, to strive to solve problems your client might not even be aware of and to help your client look good. I tell my clients, “Here’s how I handled X, Y, and Z. Now let’s talk about A, B, and C, which you might not have considered yet.” Provide forward-thinking solutions to challenges.

Michèle Penzer (MP): We are problem solvers as much as we are legal advisors. And most of my business, from a very early stage, has come from always doing my best work for my clients. Our clients are smart, and they value responsiveness and excellent, business-minded service. They want lawyers who not only know how to identify issues, but how to solve them.

It is important to stay in front of your clients. You can do so by calling clients who you haven’t spoken with for a while, asking clients to a meal or a ballgame, or offering to do training presentations on current legal topics or market trends. The key is to never be out of sight and out of mind.

Finally, as Lisa noted, never forget the importance of internal marketing and cross-selling your services to others at your firm.

RJC: What is (or was) different, either about you, or your firm, or anything else, that has allowed or enabled you to become a successful rainmaker?

MP: I joined Latham immediately upon graduating from Yale Law School. From day one, I was lucky to have mentors who actively involved me with their clients and who encouraged me to speak up and find my own voice. They also pushed me to get out of my comfort zone and do things that didn’t come naturally (like public speaking).

The firm entrusted me with leadership roles beginning when I was a third-year associate. That year, I joined our Associates Committee, which, among other things, recommends to the partners each year which associates should be promoted to the partnership. My work on that committee taught me a tremendous amount about the firm and its practices. And the opportunity to participate in the promotion process helped give me the confidence I needed to build my own practice at the firm.

LW: I agree that our firm’s emphasis on mentoring is crucial to business development success. In addition to an official Mentoring Committee, the firm encourages informal mentoring with an “open door” policy.

I was very fortunate to be mentored early in my career by an extremely successful Latham partner. He took me to client meetings, he introduced me to people inside and outside of the firm, and he championed me. His mentoring was an invaluable boost. I try to do the same with junior associates, through both longstanding mentoring relationships and more informal relationships.

RJC: Describe your typical marketing year. What types of activities are you engaged in?

MP: One of the things that make my job so interesting is that I am not only a legal advisor but also a business partner to my clients. I need to stay ahead of what’s happening in the industry and anticipate what my clients’ needs will be. What are their potential areas of growth? What are the threats to their businesses? And what more can we do to deliver creative and innovative solutions that meet those needs? Answering these questions helps drive my marketing efforts, because it helps me be both strategic and specific as I do presentations and pitches, attend closing dinners and other events, and network.

LW: I love the idea that, as lawyers, we need to develop an entrepreneurial mindset. We need to be well-versed in our clients’ industries and concerns, which means staying informed.

My marketing efforts always involve a mix of different activities, from attending pitches to staying up-to-date on the latest tax legislation and proposed legislation to writing or speaking on tax matters to calling clients when there is a law or market change that is relevant to them or just to catch up if we haven’t worked on a transaction in some time. I also concentrate on helping my tax clients communicate with their business colleagues, conducting client roundtables, and attending internal and external events.

Given the kind of practice I have, my colleagues are some of my best marketing assets. Internal marketing matters more than people think. People naturally tend to focus on external marketing, but your colleagues also need to know what you do. In every interaction—whether that’s working on a deal or meeting with my fellow members of Latham’s Executive Committee—I strive to present myself as someone who can be relied on.

RJC: Can you share some “war storiesand the lessons you learned from them?

MP: One of the first deals I worked on as a young associate was a project financing for a liquefied natural gas project in the Middle East. Many people assumed that I would be reluctant to join a deal team that consisted almost exclusively of men or to travel for meetings.

Far from being reluctant, I was thrilled to be part of the team and found that as soon as the clients figured out that I knew what I was doing, they treated me with the utmost respect and didn’t hesitate to call on me to answer their questions and provide advice. Among other things, this deal taught me the importance of speaking up: the clients needed to hear me confidently command the table in our meetings to respect my ability as a lawyer.

LW: One of my clients has been my client since I was a third-year associate when I handled a very small deal for them. Everyone at the client was smart and motivated, and our team was a great fit. The tiny deal blossomed, we advise the client on a tremendous number of deals in various jurisdictions, and now this client has become one of our biggest—not just my biggest, but one of the biggest clients at the firm.

So don’t be afraid to say “yes” to whatever opportunities come your way, and treat every matter with the importance and respect that your clients deserve regardless of how big or small. It’s the right thing to do, and you never know what that “yes” could lead to.

RJC: Knowing what you know now, if you were starting over as a lawyer today, what would you do differently?

MP: I would slow down a little more, and worry a little less. Everyone needs to find a work-life balance that works for them personally and professionally. When we are too busy at work, we worry about not having enough time for our families; when we are not busy enough at work, we worry about where the next deal will come from. I would have told my younger self that everything comes in waves: being busy at work, needed at home, upturns, downturns. It is easy to be anxious in this business. I would urge anyone starting out to take the long view.

RJC: Final thoughts?

LW: When deciding where to start your career, consider where your clients are. I’ve got my elevator pitch down, so when I meet a new neighbor or fellow parent at my kids’ school, I can market myself and Latham. Not everyone wants to live in a huge city like New York, but it’s helped my career. That said, don’t be afraid to move where opportunity is. Geography isn’t destiny, particularly given today’s communications technology.

MP: I love all these interviews with rainmakers—and talking with Lisa—in part because they show that rainmaking looks different, depending on the person or the practice. Success comes in many forms; it’s not linear or one-size-fits-all. How one person defines a successful career may be different from the way a colleague does, and each may ultimately achieve her goals in different ways.

And a person’s definition of success might change over time, as she moves into a new stage of her career. As we accomplish our goals, our ambitions can, and should, change. It is important to come up with your own definition of success and to keep revising that definition over time.

About the Author

Rachelle J. Canter is the founder and principal of RJC Associates, which provides executive coaching and training to lawyers, law firms and other professional organizations. Contact her at rjc@rjcassociates.net.

 

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