Susan Letterman White understands law firms, and their challenges, from the inside out. She’s been a managing partner of a law firm, and, more recently, she’s been a consultant to law firms for more than 10 years, helping them improve leadership, team performance, communication and business development. Speaking with Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law, Letterman White discusses how firms’ business models can make it difficult for women and others to excel at new business development.
Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law:What do you see firms doing well with business development and women lawyers?
Susan Letterman White: They’re thinking about diversity at the highest levels of their firms. They’re making a point to consider who is on client-facing teams. Some firms are talking at the partner-level about their values and their intentions and their culture, about who’s working with whom, about compensation policies, and about how they’re advancing people. That’s all positive.
TWLL:What mistakes do you see?
Susan Letterman White: I don’t see many firms talking about power, or about ethics, or about their business models.
TWLL:Why do they need to be talking about their business models?
Susan Letterman White: It’s tough to fix most of these diversity and talent-management problems without acknowledging that most larger firms have business models heavily focused on individual lawyers who control clients. That creates a lot of firm vulnerability and a lot of power in a few individuals.
TWLL:What are the obstacles to women becoming rainmakers?
Susan Letterman White: There’s no difference along gender lines. It’s a problem for anybody who doesn’t have a lot of power. It’s more difficult for anyone to become a rainmaker if the culture is inhospitable.
Let’s say everyone has to bring in their own business. Well, new work has to pass muster. The firm will ask if there are potential conflicts. Often there’s a powerful person, often a man, who has one client they like very much, and they don’t want anything to threaten that. They get to say, “No, I think there is a potential conflict.” Often the discussion never gets past that.
Or say, a firm has a long-standing client that doesn’t provide much business anymore. And the lawyers who are working on the account are no longer the people who brought the client in. Well, maybe that newer team are all fabulous lawyers, and maybe one of them is a woman. Things go super-well, and the client comes back to that woman with loads more work. Does she get the credit? Often, no. She gets, “Thank you so much,” and the person who had the client originally gets the credit.
TWLL:Are male lawyers aware of these obstacles?
Susan Letterman White: Yes. It’s great to say it’s a knowledge issue, and the men aren’t aware of what’s going on, but it’s not that. It’s a change issue.
TWLL:How can you tell that a firm is ready for change?
Susan Letterman White: There will be an empowered leader, or a group of them, saying this really matters to us.
There has to be extreme discomfort with the status quo. Maybe they’re hearing from clients that if you don’t fix things, we’ll leave. They have to feel the pain. That has to be coupled with a vision of what could be different and better if they changed.
TWLL: When a woman lawyer is considering joining a new firm, what questions should she ask?
Susan Letterman White: Who is in the highest position of power? Who is making the decisions at the highest levels, and how are they going to help my career? Tell me about the compensation model for partners. How will work be assigned? What do I have to do to get on the teams I want to be on?
Is there a formal sponsorship program, and if so, who am I going to be paired with? Is the sponsor evaluated on my progress?
They may not want to be transparent. That tells you something.