Women Partners: To What Extent Do Management Roles Enhance Your Practice?
These questions are especially acute for women partners. For all sorts of (hopefully obvious) reasons, firms need women in management positions. Because women make up roughly 20 percent of partnerships on average, the odds of women getting tapped for management roles are disproportionately higher than they are for men, so they tend to be faced with this quandary more often. And not all management roles are created equal. So how do you decide which roles are worth your time? Will serving as hiring partner enhance your practice? After speaking with several successful women partners at some of the most prominent law firms, many answer “yes,” but others say, “not so much.” Here’s what you need to consider.
The path to building a successful practice and becoming a firm leader varies from firm to firm, but a prerequisite at all firms is to get exposure: exposure to other lawyers at the firm, exposure to the firm itself, and exposure to the broader legal and corporate communities.
Renee Wilm, head of the corporate practice at Baker Botts in New York and member of the executive committee, says participation on any committee “is an opportunity for exposure to firm management.” She adds “it’s also an opportunity to learn about the rest of the firm, outside your own practice area and geography.” So why does that exposure across the firm matter for your practice? Because, as Kelley Cornish, a bankruptcy partner and member of the management committee at Paul Weiss sees it: “practice development is all about relationships and relationship building skills.”
Kathleen Sullivan, former dean of Stanford Law School, chair of the appellate practice and name partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, takes the relationship point a step further. “Client development is very similar to fundraising for a law school—you never approach a donor as just a donor, especially never during the moment of need or crisis. You need to build long-term friendships with interactions that take shape over time. Women are spectacularly good at this.” When she established her practice after joining Quinn from academia, Kathleen says “I never had a business plan, but I had a great rolodex. It’s about reaching out to people, learning what issues they are facing, and trying to be helpful.”
Management Versus Business
Some of the women I spoke to disagreed with the premise that having a management role helps build your business. For example, Sharon Nelles, one of three women on Sullivan & Cromwell’s management committee said: “I built my practice to get a seat at the table—I didn’t want a seat at the table to build my practice. I wanted a book, credibility, and a voice.” Sharon knew early on in her legal career that she wanted control of her own destiny. “I realized that I wanted to be the partner who gets calls from clients, and I understood that was beneficial to my internal advancement.” Beth Wilkinson, the renowned trial lawyer who opened her own firm last year, shared the same sentiment. “I built my practice because I wanted control over my own life. The ultimate power is having independence.”
Even though Sullivan & Cromwell enjoys a stable of elite clients who return again and again, Sharon still hustled for her own cases because “the way you establish yourself as a leader is not by title, but by action.” Nevertheless, Sharon still took on administrative roles including a stint as partner in charge of firm social events. “I was honestly interested in the workings of the office… If you do that job well, you may get the next role that carries more weight, so you need to weigh the pros, not just the cons.”
Deepening Client Relationships
When you are exposed to how your firm works from a broad perspective, you can talk more fluidly about the offerings of your firm. And this allows for better cross-selling and optimal staffing.
Jamie Gorelick, former Deputy Attorney General during the Clinton Administration, and one of the most well-known litigators and strategic counselors in Washington, D.C., spoke to this point. “My position as chair of the government and regulatory affairs practice allows me to see laterally across the firm … [When] I saw how big data was impacting dozens and dozens of lawyer’s practices, I built a practice area no other firm offers… Had I not been sitting where I sit, I may not have seen it. Now I have a coterie of well-versed experts to rely on. And the co-chairs have branded themselves in this way too.”
Jamie Wine points out that her clients “appreciate that I understand how to run a business. Particularly as a litigator, you need to know how to manage business risks and reputational risks. It’s all about thinking broadly and understanding factors that go into decision making.” So, for instance, if a client in New York has a private equity matter they need help with in Hong Kong, Jamie can instantly introduce her client to the right person in Latham’s Hong Kong office. In turn, clients recognize that Jamie thinks about their business more broadly, forging a deeper relationship.
Kelley Cornish emphasized that her management roles helped her get to know more people throughout the firm, and as a result, she staffs her client matters much more effectively. “When I open a company matter, I need to staff it with lawyers from different practice groups such as tax and litigation. It’s so much easier when I can simply pick up the phone and get the support I need because I already have relationships throughout the firm. And when you staff matters well, you are more likely to get repeat work from the client.”
Inward Versus Outward Facing Roles
Some partners take a bright line view with respect to the types of committees deemed worth their time. Certain inward facing roles, such as overseeing the paralegal pool, are often viewed as jobs that lead nowhere with respect to practice development, whereas having a title as a practice group head is regarded as lending credibility and stature within the legal community. Does it have to be an “either or” choice?
Mary Jo White, the first woman to become U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, former head of the SEC, and now senior chair of Debevoise & Plimpton, believes “it’s a mistake to have leaders completely divorced from the practice—you also need to be in the trenches so that you have credibility. Carrying your share of administrative responsibility is important and the right thing to do, but try not to take on roles that interfere with your growth as a practitioner.” Mary Jo points out that some lawyers are drawn to pure management roles and are excellent at what they do, but “it was never for me.” Returning to Debevoise as head of litigation after serving as U.S. Attorney posed the challenge of how to handle all the administrative matters that typically accompany a position like that. “I had a wonderful co-chair who handled the requisite bulk of management issues in addition to his practice, which allowed me to concentrate my efforts on my legal work.”
Others view certain inward facing roles as essential, not only for purposes of growing your practice, but also for empowering women generally. According to Beth Wilkinson, “It’s always important for women to be on the compensation committee as a measure of success; if they are not part of that group, they won’t be taken seriously exercising authority and leadership, because positions like that mean something to the legal community at large.” Renee Wilm makes a similar point: “You have two marketplaces to manage: internal and external. The higher your profile internally, the stronger your brand externally.”
Barbara Becker, an M&A lawyer and member of Gibson Dunn’s executive committee, has served on many inward facing committees at her firm. All of these committees, particularly her executive committee work, has allowed her to meet lawyers from around the firm to learn more about their practices, which inevitably has opened up opportunities. This perspective was shared by Kelley Cornish: “Practice development involves understanding personal dynamics and how to get things done. In this regard, inward facing roles are equally important, even if indirectly—the more people you know, the better you can cross-sell and staff your client matters effectively.”
Sequencing Your Management Involvement
Jamie Gorelick intentionally did not take any management roles for 10 years after she returned to WilmerHale following her government service. “I was already committed to the 9/11 Commission, two corporate Boards, and other non-profit interests. I believe that if you’re not going to do the job well, don’t do it.” According to Barbara Becker, “If you are going to take on a committee role, it is important to dedicate sufficient time to do a great job. There is always a question of ensuring you can balance any committee work with your client-facing and other personal commitments.” So, is there a best time, a certain point during your practice development, when it is optimal to commit to management?
There is no one size fits all answer to this question. You must consider your appetite to invest the extra time required for management because, all agree, the time commitment can be substantial. And in the context of raising a family, your children’s stage of development is a factor. Sharon Nelles increasingly devoted more time to management and charity involvement as her children grew older. Beth Wilkinson struck out on her own when her kids were old enough to understand the import—of course, not because her kids were a certain age, but because the timing felt right. It was not until just recently that Jamie Gorelick considered the prospect of helping to run the firm as a member of the management committee. She says, “ultimately, I decided to serve the firm because it was the right thing to do—and the right time to do it.” On the other hand, Renee Wilm notes that juggling management responsibilities while raising a young family is not uncommon for her generation of women partners at Baker Botts. The bottom line is that the timing of taking on a management role can be complicated by personal commitments and thus, is a very individualized decision.
Importance of Wanting Leadership
The extraordinary women interviewed for this article seemed to be naturally drawn to leadership positions, regardless of their backgrounds. And yet they all cautioned how critical it is that you really need to want a leadership role before taking one. “Play to your strengths” advises Barbara Becker, adding that “if you are a collaborative person, it will add to your reputation internally, and in some intangible way, adds to your success at the firm.” And if you feel you are asked to do more than your fair share, “you must call your colleagues to account, but do it nicely” advises Jamie Gorelick.
Given all the negative press that surrounds women in the law, it’s important to remember: Women partners may be fewer in number, but the opportunities presented to them, even if disproportionately, are just that—opportunities.