Women lawyers, business development and hockey

  • July 01, 2014
  • Susan Van Dyke

Business development does not depend on a love of hockey, or even spas. It only depends on consistent actions that play to your strengths, good communication and a healthy dash of patience. Set on 'Repeat' and you’re all set.

Finding the right activities is critical to sustaining a plan. Women are often juggling home, kids and work schedules and aren't often available for evening events, while their male counterparts are entertaining clients at a hockey game. They also don't want to project an interest in male clients or prospects that could be misinterpreted as a romantic overture.

And for those who aren't actively involved in marketing yet, 2009 provided a healthy dose of reality that taught us we have to earn every piece of work. It forced even the curmudgeons to throw up their hands, abandon long-held anti-marketing opinions and discuss marketing strategies.

Women, as a group, seem to get it. Women understand that we need to connect with clients and prospects, and in many cases it's what they enjoy about their careers.

Michelle Pockey, a partner at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP, agrees. "Five or more years ago a lot of lawyers didn't get it. It's about understanding that relationship-building is a hallmark of building a practice. We must identify those people we need to make meaningful connections with," she says. "Great things can happen, but it does require a plan that can be sustained when busy – consistency is one of the cornerstones in business development."

 There are several unique challenges for women professionals trying to build a practice. We still carry a disproportionate load in childcare and running a household. The men in our lives have come a long way, but the scales aren't balanced yet and it weighs down our ability to engage in activities outside of the traditional workday.

As purchasers of legal services, men are still in the majority – although, with the exodus of women from private practice to in-house positions, the tide may change. It's often harder to connect with men, we don't always enjoy the same activities, and some clients prefer to work with their own gender.

We're also saddled with administrative responsibilities. One of my clients, an associate and the only women lawyer in her small firm, was assigned all the human resource tasks because she was deemed the best choice. This function consumes a lot of time that could be used for business-development activities.

Women lawyers need to make business development activities a priority  — on their own terms. Here are some strategies:

Customize your own power group 

It’s no surprise then that the Women Lawyers Forum, a section of the CBA since 2005, has 13 active branches. Their mandate, in part, is to help women lawyers with networking and mentoring. Having attended and spoken at a couple of WLF events, I can describe their gatherings as inclusive think-tank sessions that are highly collegial and productive.

There are strengths in numbers, and women do well in groups with a shared focus. Invite a few like-minded professionals to create your own custom-designed power group to explore opportunities for business development and have more fun in the process. Each of us comes with a critical mass of contacts, referral sources and connections. When we share this precious and trusted resource, we all win. 

Leverage your size: share opportunities to network or attend events. Obtaining important introductions will be easier with more "hunters", and the collective tentacles of the group will cover more industries, geography and companies. By sharing opportunities, you're less likely to miss an important event. Pull each other in when you see something of value for someone in your group. 

Group members need not be exclusively women, however. There are many men who support the advancement of women and will gain personally by having a female sounding-board. Imagine the challenges of a male professional in trying to connect with or entertain female clients.

Swim in friendly waters

As women began to see the value in networking, sharing thought leadership, working as a collective and giving back, women-oriented associations began to spring up. It's a very appealing model for busy professional women who want to attach themselves to a group and be assured they'll see a few familiar faces and a welcoming environment.

Michelle Pockey is one of the founders of the Professional Women's Network (PWN), which started in Vancouver in 1996, and is expanding to Montreal and Toronto. The purpose of PWN is to help women find support through each other and with the challenges of working with men. People are talking more about business development now than ever. Three years ago they invited men to join and of their 800 members, about 45 are men.

Women and men alike acknowledge the different atmosphere a single-gender event creates. You have shared challenges and an instant understanding of your mutual situation. Developing contacts through these connections is easier and more enjoyable than at a mixed event.

Christa White, recruitment specialist with the Counsel Network has also seen an uptick in networking among women. “There are a few women’s organizations – groups like the Professional Women’s Network, and the Downtown Networking Association (a professional women’s networking group also based in Vancouver) – who are joining forces to exponentially improve the business development opportunities they bring their respective members,” says White.

“I’m an enthusiastic participant – the events are well organized, well attended and designed specifically just for women. Personally, I can tell you that some of my female clients choose me because I’m the only female recruiter in the Vancouver office of The Counsel Network. All things being equal, some women simply prefer to work with other women.”

Find champions

Many women admit to difficulty in singing their own praises. We’re not naturally a competitive gender, so it’s not common to find a woman who will list her achievements aloud with confidence and ease. It’s just not part of our DNA. But ask us about a colleague or friend we believe in, and we’ll suck the oxygen out of the room telling you every last detail about her winning ways. So, why don’t we do it for each other on a regular basis?

Team up with a trusted colleague – male or female – and plan to support each other by making sure the right partners (or clients) hear about your most praiseworthy achievements. Keep each other informed about good work, successes, and compliments from others. Then, spread the word. Find opportunities to amplify your message such as through your managing partner, at meetings, on your website and in publications.

Understand your strengths

Playing to your strengths will catapult you to success like nothing else. You’re going to be more successful engaging in activities that you’re good at and enjoy and that get you closer to your goals, than by wrestling with your shortcomings.

Focusing on your deficiencies raises your blood pressure, and makes you generally unhappy. You'll spend valuable time concocting creative ways to stall or succumb to a sudden urge to clean out and organize your purse.

Instead, think of situations or environments where you most easily connect with others. What have others observed and shared about your strengths and unique abilities? When are you most at ease around others?

If you don’t know, start to make note of when and where you’re at your best. Is it among a small group – even one to one – where you can focus and dig into one conversation at a time, or a large group where you can flit around from person to person? Or perhaps it’s a gift for gaining the trust of another quickly, or making others feel at ease. An informal environment or more structured? In an office or over a meal? Morning or afternoon? Teaching or listening?

Just as importantly, understand and, for now, accept what you’re not good at. If you have a reasonable option to gently decline a beer-centric, face-painted, gut-exposing hockey game because it’s not your thing, do it. If it is your thing, by all means, fill your boots. If not, reserve your precious non-billable or investment time for things you’ll enjoy and be successful at.

If in doubt, start here

Avoid “overthinking paralysis” when considering where to start. You know who you are. This is about action and engagement.

A simple but very effective approach to business development is to create a list of your top five clients and make plans to connect with them a few times a year. By staying regularly in touch with your key clients you’ll improve your working relationship with them and you’ll also attract new work from these existing clients. Ask lots of questions about their business concerns and goals and listen for opportunities to solve a problem – even if it’s just finding a handyman.

Discover different and interesting things about the client’s interests. Learning together by attending a breakfast or lunch seminar is usually a big hit as it provides you with much to discuss and a shared experience to build upon. Many in-house general counsel, to name just one group, often appreciate the productivity a professional development activity brings them – especially if it’s not coming out of their budget.

Perhaps your passion is writing, research, participating on a board, or something else not necessarily related to networking. Choose your target with a bit of research and care to ensure you’re hitting the mark, and then stay the course. Give yourself plenty of time – a year or two even – before you evaluate the effectiveness of your efforts.

Susan Van Dyke, Principal, Van Dyke Marketing & Communications is a law firm marketing consultant based in Vancouver, B.C. She has two boys who still don’t understand what their mom does for work, only that clients are really, really important. She can be reached at 604-876-7769 or svandyke@telus.net.