The Root of the Disconnect
The scarcity of firm resources (time, effort and money) amplifies a tension between the urgency to generate profits and the importance of setting strategy and cultivating talent. The purpose of rainmaking is to maximize earnings and keep the business profitable, whereas the objective of leadership is to ensure the firm and its people thrive by reaching their individual and collective maximum potential in service to the firm’s overall success. Both purposes work together to support the firm’s long-term survival. Yet, in a profit-versus-people mindset, profit tends to win. This outcome is flawed but understandable because the results of rainmaking are more immediate, direct and quantifiable than the impact of leadership, which is longer term, more diffuse and harder to measure. And although there are leader-rainmakers skilled at executing both roles, these lawyers experience system-induced constraints on their ability to do both simultaneously. “Leadership,” for purposes of this article, is defined as service-oriented leadership focused on the development of a firm’s strategy, culture. At many firms, rainmakers also hold high-status titles with decision-making power (such as managing partner or practice group chair), but it is not always the case that the lawyers serving in these “leadership roles” are performing the core work of service leadership.
At firms, most leader-rainmakers find themselves pulled between developing clients and business (external focus), for which there is higher recognition and remuneration, and concentrating their attention on shaping firmwide strategy and leading people (internal focus), which often are mistreated as lower-status responsibilities. We should move toward a profit and people mindset to maximize best outcomes. When rainmakers and leaders are equally respected and developed by fostering their shared skill set, the firm’s talent bench becomes deeper, broader and more agile. This can only be accomplished if firms change their approach to training and development.
A 2020 research study by ALM and The Tilt Institute found that, while 71 percent of Am Law 200 firms offer “leadership training,” lawyers rated the efficacy of these programs as only 4 out of 10. (The not-yet-published 2023 update for this study has revealed that, despite a substantial increase in the number of law firms offering leadership training, effectiveness ratings remain low at 4.6 out of 10.) The same study found that the average hours of leadership training are just 3.6 per year at the partner level and 6.4 per year at the associate level. Another 2020 study, conducted by LawVision Group and The Tilt Institute, determined that the greatest obstacle to these programs is buy-in from the lawyers. According to that research, firms have difficulty defining what “leadership” is, and lawyers don’t believe these (ill-defined) skills are “teachable.” On the rainmaking side, this research also revealed that business development training is limited, focusing mostly on sales (how to pitch cases to clients) and not on developing the foundational skills and emotional self-awareness needed to make rainmaking efforts more successful.
In conducting my own research for this article, I interviewed select senior law firm partners, across a range of firms that varied in size from 25 lawyers to more than 300. They included a co-managing partner, executive committee members and practice group chairs. Some of those interviewed are also major rainmakers. These partners reported having received little or no formal leadership training, that their business development training had been largely ad-hoc (i.e., being invited to client pitches earlier in their careers or receiving informal mentorship by a more senior partner who had taken a personal interest) and that the formal business development training they did receive was mostly about the basics of professional networking. All the partners interviewed observed a discrepancy between the status of rainmaking roles (higher) and leadership responsibilities (lower) at their firms. None of the partners gave permission to be identified or quoted, which underscores the simultaneous sensitivity and importance of addressing the disparity in treatment of rainmakers and leaders—as well as the well-known gender gap between the two roles (an important topic that is beyond the scope of this article).
Because rainmaking and leadership have different purposes and results, it can be hard to see that outstanding rainmakers and leaders rely on many of the same skills, such as:
- Ability to inspire
- Emotional intelligence (comprised of communication, connection, empathy and self-awareness).
Although born from the same primordial soup, these shared skills and traits are utilized differently in each role. Rainmakers largely focus their energies externally to develop clients and income for the firm, while leaders focus their efforts more internally to develop talent, culture and strategy within the firm. Law firms operate as though rainmaking and leadership have little in common perhaps because the two functions manifest so differently, but this is a significant oversight. It has created a blind spot to the importance of cultivating, measuring and rewarding the vital and synergistic qualities that exceptional leaders and rainmakers do share. As with profit-versus-people, when law firms view external and internal investments as an either/or choice, the external priorities often prevail because they are measurable, shorter term and more urgent to the survival of the firm because they are monetary in nature.
There is no need to approach this tension as a zero-sum game. Instead of an either/or mindset, we can approach the external-internal tension with a both/and mindset. This becomes easier to do once firms recognize that key qualities of rainmakers and leaders offer a two-for-the-price-of-one investment. This vastly increases the opportunity for more effective training and better economic outcomes. Firms can reap the advantage of a single investment that benefits two key roles. Moreover, by shifting the focus of professional development toward the intersection of the shared qualities listed above, training will move away from the more limited and less engaging technical skills (like basic networking and project management) and toward true development that is focused on increasing each lawyer’s capacity to become a more effective rainmaker and leader. The sweet spot for this effort is at the intersection of vertical development (capacity building) and horizontal development (technical skill-building). This would deepen, broaden and diversify the firm’s current and future bench of rainmakers and leaders. Given the low effectiveness scores for the leadership and rainmaking training currently being offered, a mindset (vertical) and skills (horizontal) reboot is clearly justified.
There also is a long-standing and erroneous belief that talents like rainmaking and leadership cannot be trained. Lawyers speak with reverence about these allegedly “unteachable” skills, as if few are blessed with these attributes and there is not much that can or should be done to develop anyone who isn’t. Innate aptitude does provide an advantage, but there is abundant research supporting the conclusion that leadership and rainmaking are not just art—they are also science capable of being decoded and replicated. Without the ability to reproduce the skills both rainmakers and leaders bring to bear, firms will continue to put themselves at the mercy of a few powerbrokers (rainmakers and/or leaders) who need to be replaced by expensive and risky lateral hires when they leave abruptly or retire. If a law firm rewards rainmaking and leadership (through compensation, promotion and by shining a light on the importance of their shared qualities), and a law firm treats the development of these skills as interrelated and equally necessary (so that the rainmaking and leadership paths share high status), the actual training will become engaging and memorable because the results will be personally meaningful and professionally transformative. When these things become true, lawyers will engage and prioritize their individual and collective development. They will also become more committed and loyal to the firm.
Firms cannot operate successfully over the long term without both leaders and rainmakers, so it should be an easy decision to develop both and to give high status to both—because we should want to develop as many potential leaders and rainmakers as possible. Doing this would produce game-changing results that improve profits, performance, retention and a greater sense of belonging. It also would address something else important: the need to recognize and reward these competencies, whether they end up manifesting in rainmaking or leadership roles.
To do so, we first must examine biases that have been fueling the persistent and counter-productive friction between rainmaking and leading. It is time to reevaluate the degree to which we have been valuing profit and the external development of clients (key priorities of rainmaking) more than we value cultivating people and the internal development of the firm’s culture and strategy (key priorities of leadership). With increasing burnout across the profession and rising pressure over the “Future of Work” and return-to-office policies, lawyers—especially the next generation of emerging leaders and rainmakers—have become less willing to grind out long hours without meaningful professional development, connection and support. Reconciling the relationship between rainmaking and leadership reveals important synergies that will grow talent and improve the bottom line.