Q&A Interview: New Research Shows Law Firm Business Development Success Based on Different Factors for Male & Female Equity Partners

Topics: Business Development & Marketing Blog Posts, Data Analytics, Law Firms, Q&A Interviews, Reports & White Papers, Talent Development, Women’s Leadership Interviews & White Papers

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Recently, Legal Executive Institute sat down with Carol Frohlinger, President of Negotiating Women, Inc., a consulting firm that advises organizations on advancing women into leadership positions. Frohlinger has just published a new white paper, Business Development in the “New Normal” , (available for download exclusively from Legal Executive Institute) that focuses on the attributes needed to originate legal business in today’s climate, but more importantly, how those attributes differ between male and female equity partners.

LEI asked Frohlinger about the findings in her paper, navigating the “New Normal” and how the environment is different for men and women equity partners.

Legal Executive Institute: Your new white paper describes today’s legal environment as “the New Normal.” What do you mean by that?

Carol Frohlinger: The “New Normal” is a term in business and economics that refers to financial conditions following the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and the aftermath of the 2008-2012 global recession. Although I can’t take credit for coining the term, I think it’s right on point to describe the substantial impact the Great Recession had on the legal industry.

Carol Frohlinger is also presenting a new webinar, “Innovation in Building Revenue: Unleashing the Power of Women to Develop Business”  on January 27 at 1:15 pm (Central time) that will focus on how law firms can use the strategy of proactively supporting women as they build new business. To sign up for the webinar, click here.

The “New Normal” caused disruption with regard to both generating revenue as well as controlling costs. In the white paper, I focused only on the revenue side of the equation because it directly related to the results of the research. Consider the following:

  • Clients, under increasing pressure to contain costs, are keeping more work in-house, and, when they do use outside firms, pay more attention to the “value” they receive.
  • Evaluation criteria used to hire law firms initially, as well as to make decisions about whether to continue to work with firms on an ongoing basis, have become more stringent.
  • Increased competition, from traditional competitors as well as from new entrants to the market and technological advances, make it more challenging to grow revenue.

It seemed clear to me that law firms must change the way they approach business development — doing the same things in the same ways doesn’t work anymore.

It also seemed to me that there may be a silver lining in the cloud of disruption — perhaps there were untapped opportunities for women to be more successful at rainmaking? It turns out there are!

Legal Executive Institute: Your research sought to answer the questions of what activities, roles, resources and attitudes lead to the most successful origination efforts, and whether those differ between male and female partners. What did you find?

Carol Frohlinger: Perhaps not surprisingly, the data showed that those with a bias toward action and the right attitude were the most successful at origination. For example, both male partners and female partners who participated in request for proposals (RFPs) reported that their involvement was positively correlated with origination. Similarly, bouncing back quickly from failed business development efforts was also positively correlated with origination for both male partners and female partners.

“It seemed clear to me that law firms must change the way they approach business development — doing the same things in the same ways doesn’t work anymore.”

But that’s where the similarity between male partners and female partners ended.

Things that also worked for men included:

  • participating in pitch teams;
  • receiving (and presumably using) the “right” amount of resources to pursue business development;
  • holding a leadership role in the firm;
  • receiving training and mentoring for business development activities and skills;
  • meeting with clients in person annually; and
  • being highly motivated to generate significant new work.

Fewer — and different — things were positively correlated with origination for female partners. These included:

  • asking clients for new matters;
  • asking clients for introductions;
  • taking the perspective of others; and
  • persuading clients and prospects they will benefit from the services provided.

Legal Executive Institute: One of the more stark findings in your research was that male partners’ origination success was heavily correlated with their association with a law firm, while female partners’ success was more correlated with their individual engagement with the business development process. Can you explain that further?

Carol Frohlinger: Yes, the results revealed a dramatic gender divide. Actually, the first version of this white paper focused on the overall finding that female partners don’t receive the level of support for business development from their firms that their male partners do. But that conclusion wasn’t “new” news — just more bad news for women partners. We certainly have had enough of that! So, I decided to think again about the findings from a more optimistic frame; the “New Normal” provided an alternative context with the additional advantage of being consistent with the current realities.

The survey coded 16 factors related to business generation into two broad categories — those derived from being associated with a law firm (firm based factors) or those resulting from individual engagement with the business development process (self-generated factors).

Male partners’ origination was positively correlated with five of the eight firm-based factors whereas female partners’ origination were positively correlated with only one — participating in RFPs.

With regard to the self-generated factors, male partners’ origination was correlated to only three of the eight factors. Female partners’ originations were correlated to five of the eight factors.

It was clear from these findings that female partners rely on their own efforts to generate origination rather than depending on their firms for help. I believe that experience will serve them well as long as the leverage in the client-firm relationship remains squarely in the client’s court.

I’d like to add that the limited support offered to female partners by their firms is not intentional — yet it is an opportunity cost for both women and their firms.

Legal Executive Institute: Finally, you draw the conclusion that men and women can learn from each other about what works — and what doesn’t — with regard to origination, and you offer some recommendations as to what firms should do to encourage this idea. What are a few of those recommendations?

Carol Frohlinger: Whenever the status quo is interrupted, the opportunity to think differently becomes more compelling. I think that law firm partners should individually consider these findings and applying the learning to their own practices. Male partners, for example, might ask themselves if asking clients for new matters or for introductions to others who might benefit from the services they provide would help them to book more business. Female partners might decide that participating in pitch meetings without negotiating for appropriate credit for attending it and for a share of work that hopefully follows may not be the best use of their business development time.

“…[T]he limited support offered to female partners by their firms is not intentional — yet it is an opportunity cost for both women and their firms.”

However, firms have the most to lose when their partners don’t collaborate to create competitive advantage. For example, women are increasingly in decision-making roles on the client side; many are out-spoken about their sensitivity to gender diversity on pitch teams. It’s easy enough for a firm to satisfy that client need by ensuring that the right players are invited to participate and that those players are invested in the success of the business development effort.

Two of the most disturbing findings of the research if you are a law firm Managing Partner or other law firm leader concerned with revenue growth are:

  • although more than 90% of the partners reported cross-selling, these efforts are not significantly correlated with origination; and
  • although 69% of survey respondents reported sometimes or frequently receiving referrals from other firm partners, there was no significant correlation with origination.

The white paper also offers a series of questions a firm can use to diagnose the issues impeding successful cross-selling and referral-making as well as some negotiation principles that can help resolve those issues.

Other recommendations include specific gender-correlated guidance —what firms can and should do for male partners and for female partners. I hope to hear from firms that implement these suggestions about their experience.

Get the white paper, published exclusively on LEI >