Legal Community Collaboration: The Key to Open Business Development Pathways for Women (Part 1)

Topics: Business Development & Marketing Blog Posts, Corporate Legal, Diversity, Law Firms, Leadership, Talent Development, Women’s Leadership Blog Posts

Legal clients increasingly are seeking to have a say not just on how their matters are staffed, but also who gets the credit for their business. This development goes to the heart of how law departments support women partners in developing client relationships. And it was also at the heart of a recent Fireside chat sponsored by Thomson Reuters’ Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law initiative, which is dedicated to removing the structural barriers to women’s advancement in the legal profession.

Differences by Gender in Business Development Success Factors

On May 9, both in-house lawyers and law firm partners gathered to discuss how to work together to promote women’s advancement in the law. The evening started with a conversation between Anne Weisberg, the Women’s Initiative Director at Paul, Weiss, and Carol Frohlinger, president of Negotiating Women, Inc., about the findings of “Business Development in the New Normal”, a white paper Frohlinger authored. The paper reported and analyzed data gathered between 2011 and 2013 in an online, confidential and anonymous survey. Respondents included 266 male equity partners and 171 female equity partners at law firms primarily of a size ranging from 201 to 1,000 lawyers. The research was focused on two questions:

  1. What are the factors (activities, resources, roles within the firm and attitudes) that impact the success of new business origination?
  2. Are there differences between these for male equity partners and female equity partners?

Carol Frohlinger

The research used a framework comprised of eight firm-based factors and eight self-generated factors. Firm-based factors result from affiliation with a law firm — a situation that offers a lawyer the opportunity to connect with potential clients and can lead directly to new business origination, for example, by responding to requests for proposals (RFPs) and participating in pitch teams. Self-generated factors are related to a lawyer’s personality traits, business development skill level and activities. These include asking clients for referrals and bouncing back quickly if one’s business development efforts fail.

The study found that origination for male equity partners was correlated to five firm-based factors — especially from pitch team participation ­— as well as receiving the “right” amount of resources, holding leadership positions in their firms and receiving business development training and mentoring.

On the other hand, origination for female equity partners was correlated to only one firm-based factor — participating in responses to RFPs. Instead, origination for the women surveyed was correlated to relying on their own abilities and ingenuity (thus, using primarily self-generated factors). The most significant of these was being skillful at persuading clients and prospects that they will benefit from using the lawyer’s services, the study found.

Of particular importance for both men and women was resilience. Frohlinger emphasized that resilience trait was even more critical for women to attain business development success because women do not generally enjoy the level of firm support that their male colleagues receive.

Recommendations Firms Can Take to Enhance Business Origination

The discussion also brought forth several recommendations law firms can use to improve new business origination.

Frohlinger suggested that “the low-hanging fruit” was to tackle the question of why receiving referrals from other firm partners and cross-selling to firm clients did not correlate to origination success for either male equity partners or female equity partners. Is it that the individual skill levels required to perform these activities are not well-developed? Or, are there systemic issues present that discourage these highly desirable behaviors? For example, does the firm’s compensation structure incentivize partners to cross-sell? Does a lack of trust among partners undermine efforts to refer business? To improve the effort to refer business, do partners understand the expertise offered by those in other practice areas?


With regard to leveling the playing field for women, recommendations included using the opportunity that the current market disruption presents to examine systemic issues such as the way origination credit is allocated and how pitch teams are assembled, among others.

Recommendations GCs & Legal Departments Can Take to Push for Accountability

General counsels and corporate legal departments must go beyond asking their outside counsel for general diversity data and instead create accountability around specific objectives. For example, clients should ensure that diverse lawyers not only work on projects, but are leading matters consistently. And legal department leaders must hold law firms accountable for results through rewards (such as incentive bonuses, as done by Microsoft) or penalties if they do not achieve specific objectives.


One program of note is the Minority Corporate Counsel Association’s Engage Excellence program, where general counsels from Walmart, Verizon, General Mills and Dupont gather and partner with outside counsel on specific objectives, such as ensuring a diverse attorney is leading matters and that each diverse attorney gets the appropriate origination credit. One attendee shared a story about a corporation that removed $2 million from its outside counsel for a lack of progress on diversity.

After the presentation of the research findings, potential solutions to some of the business development challenges women face were discussed among members of the audience at roundtables. The key discussion points were then shared with the larger group, and will be the focus of the next two parts of this blog series.

Further, these potential solutions yielded initial action steps those attending will surely take back to their organizations to further discuss, refine and implement. As Charlotte Rushton, the Managing Director of Large Law Firms for Thomson Reuters Legal, said in her closing remarks, “It’s time to do more than just talk; it’s time to make change happen.”

            (This is the first part of a three-part blog series on this event.)