Women Lawyers and Business Development: The “Sex Thing,” Golf and Other Challenges

When I think about challenges that women face in bringing new clients into their firms, I think of subtle things. For example, women and confidence – the confidence to initiate a business relationship and ask for work. Sheryl Sandberg (Lean In) asserts that women have more self-doubt than men. In a recent article in The Atlantic, The Confidence Gap, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman analyze the roots of the lower confidence level of women. Related issues are the relative hesitancy of women (vs. men) to “toot their own horns,” apply “hard sale” tactics, or ask friends for work. Lots of women are very successful in sales. But selling one’s own expertise is different from promoting an employer’s products.

At a much more fundamental level, though, is the question of what women do to build the kinds of business relationships that lead to new work. Do women use the same kinds of social events as men to get to know prospects and become rainmakers? Is the repertoire different or more limited for women? Does gender matter when, as in many specialty areas, there are more male than female prospects?

Let’s face it: men make up a disproportionate number of rainmakers. Bringing in a certain (substantial) dollar figure of business is often a prerequisite for being an equity partner. According to NAWL’s 2013 report, women represent only 17 percent of equity partners in the top 200 law firms — compared to 47 percent of associates. The report says that, “Firms view women’s perceived lack of business development . . . as [one of]two primary reasons why the number of women equity partners has not been increasing.” (The other is attrition.) Could some of the basic challenges – taking prospects to dinner or drinks or sharing an interest in a sport – be a part of why women as a whole are not as successful at business development?

The pressure to build a big “book of business” is much greater today than when I practiced law. I am a Baby Boomer who started practicing law in the late 1970s. I would never have thought of inviting a client out for a drink or dinner alone. Inviting a prospective male client I barely knew was even less likely. When I worked in-house, some of the top executives (then all men) would not be seen having lunch with a woman employee unless she were part of a group. When my C-level peers played golf with our boss, the CEO, sometimes I went to the spa with other women (junior to me). I wasn’t comfortable inviting men to a sporting event, because I didn’t feel I knew enough about the rules of the game.

I wasn’t concerned about not being able to go out with male prospects in one-on-one settings; I found other ways to get to know them. I did feel disadvantaged at the corporate C-level about developing career-advancing relationships. I did not have the comfort the other senior officers had with each other and the CEO. In retrospect, going to the spa was short-sighted in terms of building those relationships.

I wondered if the social settings available for women lawyers today for business development are less constrained than when I was a young lawyer. To find out, I interviewed five successful women rainmakers.* I asked them about the “sex thing,” golf and other challenges. I learned that: (1) it is still awkward for senior-level women to invite a man out alone, (2) it gets easier the more senior one gets, and (3) women of younger generations worry much less about this – so long as their prospect is of their own generation.

Carole Osborne declares herself an introvert; she prefers one-on-one meetings to large events. Because of the potential for sexual innuendo, she prefers lunch or breakfast to dinner. Most of the women I interviewed did, too. Dinner (which most still find awkward for building new business relationships) is reserved for developing deeper connections after they know the person pretty well. One acknowledged that she’d rather have evenings at home with her husband and children. Some recognized that prospects don’t have time for dinner with a lawyer they may or may not hire. “Dinners are too long,” said one rainmaker.

Pat Gillette has a mission of teaching women the skills of rainmaking, including relationship building.  She thinks the awkwardness of inviting a man to have a drink may be more in “women’s heads” than a reality. But she agrees that asking a male prospect to dinner could “look like something else” and is simply less business-oriented.

Of the younger rainmakers I interviewed, one felt that we are “over the hump” on this issue. Sarah Tune understands the issue when she tries to build a relationship with an older male prospect (in his 50s or 60s) but is perfectly comfortable asking a prospect of her own generation to drinks, dinner or a ballgame.

If dinner or drinks is uncomfortable, what can women do? First, even over lunch, most of the women I interviewed often bring along others. In part, it helps assure the invitation can’t be mistaken for a come-on. It helps keep the conversation going. Most important, it is a good sales strategy. One said, “Hunting in packs is more effective.” You get to show off more than yourself and indicate greater depth of talent at the firm. And it enables women to do something that is more comfortable for most of us – brag about someone else rather than ourselves.

Second, if a woman does choose dinner or other evening outing, she can invite her spouse (if she has one) and his. (Men do this when they are trying to build rapport with a woman general counsel or other executive.) And other tactics work. I knew one woman who, even at lunch, spread work papers on the table to broadcast that the occasion was a business meeting. One powerful rainmaker I interviewed has dealt with any social awkwardness of asking a man to lunch by inviting him to a club where she is a member; it is clear who is hosting and will pick up the check. And you can find a different kind of event – like golf or a sporting event.


What about sports as a tool for women rainmakers? The women I interviewed all noted that it is critical to find ways to get to know prospects that are authentic and comfortable. Some stressed that both the lawyer and the prospective client need to enjoy the type of outing. Are women as likely to enjoy golf (a popular participative sport) or a spectator sport like a baseball or hockey game?

Is playing golf an advantage? Those who play think so. Carol Osborne has urged younger women to take up the game. She believes relationships get built and important business conversations occur on the golf course. She learned to play and points out that women who choose to go to the spa (sometimes with the lawyers’ wives) are much less likely to be having such conversations. Carol says “I am terrible, but I know the rules and I pick up my ball” when I am slowing down the game.

Some of the rainmakers with whom I talked recognize that business “gets done” on the golf course. Some just don’t enjoy sports. (I am not the only one who has opted for the spa!) One said she “hates golf”; another finds sporting events “painful” and so not a good way to develop relationships. The more senior women are more likely to invite someone to the theater or opera than to a ballgame – if they know the prospect will enjoy what they enjoy.

Sarah Tune doesn’t like golf but finds a day of snow skiing or surfing a great bonding activity. Note she said “day skiing”; she recognized it would be more comfortable for a man to invite another man for a ski weekend. Here the “sports issue” can intersect the “innuendo” issue. Osborne notes that, if the firm provided two tickets to a sporting event, “it would feel awkward – like a personal vs. professional outing – like a date.”

These successful rainmakers recognize the “sex thing,” golf and other challenges. But they have clearly not seen them as obstacles. Or they have stepped around them, and found other ways to build relationships and land new clients. They also have clearly done well with those more subtle issues, which we’ll explore in my sessions at the ABA Women Rainmakers Mid-Career Workshop in November. One interviewee reflected on the value of talking about these issues – so younger women can learn from those who are already rainmakers. That’s my hope!

*Thanks to Carol Osborne, partner and office manager, London office, Bryan Cave LLP; Lynn Loacker, partner, New York City office, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP; Pat Gillette, partner, San Francisco office, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe; Sarah Tune, partner, Seattle office, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP; and Courtney Nowell, partner, Washington D.C. office, Squire Patton Boggs.


About the Author

Caroline Turner is principal of DifferenceWORKS, LLC, and author of “Difference Works: Improving Retention, Productivity and Profitability through Inclusion.”


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