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November 29, 2016 Articles

To Succeed at Business Development and Client Relationships, Female and Minority Attorneys Face Challenges and Opportunities

Good starting points that also apply to male and majority race populations

by Concepcion Montoya and Rick McNeil

The Challenges
Despite the increased efforts in diversity and retention of diverse attorneys, real challenges remain in the development and retention of female and minority attorneys. Some female lawyers and lawyers of color have expressed concern that they do not feel as prepared as their majority colleagues for initiating, developing, and sustaining successful relationships with their colleagues or clients. This can be especially true for younger female and minority attorneys, who also face the challenge of inexperience.

In some cases, these attorneys worry that they might be excluded from high-profile cases and clients, might not perform as well because of unclear expectations, and might lack the self-confidence or support of their law firm to readily engage in these activities. In March 2016, the ABA Minority Trial Lawyer Committee held a webinar on this topic, and the participants voiced a number of concerns, including these:

• How does a new female attorney or a new attorney of color find a way to meet and develop meaningful relationships with clients?
• How do such lawyers learn to excel in areas of law dominated by non-minorities?
• How do such lawyers handle situations in which their majority counterparts may be invited to, for example, a round of golf (if they don't already play golf)?

Starting Within the Firm
Many law firms have established gender and minority diversity programs. If your firm has such a program, working within that program can be an excellent starting point.

Many attorneys forget that the first clients they have are their colleagues at the firm. This is especially true for young associates starting out in a law firm. It is vitally important, therefore, to establish a rapport and trust with your colleagues early on in your career.

You can replicate on your own many of the common features of a firm's diversity, mentoring, or business development programs by considering the following:

• Identify a potential mentor or sponsor.
• Be freely available if asked to lunch or other social events.
• Ask lawyers in your practice groups and in management to go to lunch or coffee.
• Look for common ground with your colleagues—if you don't play golf, you can create a connection through another hobby or interest.
• Stand out as an ally more than a competitor to your colleagues.
• Develop a reputation for being intelligent, careful, detail-oriented, and trustworthy.
• Find an area of law that appeals to you and become an expert in it. Remember, it need not be a substantive area of law, such as real estate. It could be ethics or e-discovery, or another area. However, the trick is to try to make yourself invaluable in whatever area you choose that is relevant to your firm.
• Get involved in the management of the firm. Volunteer at a firm committee or volunteer to be a mentor. Publish articles in a practice group's newsletter.

Outside the Firm
Many of the observations that hold true for developing successful relationships with your colleagues also apply to developing successful relationships with clients.

In fact, in the early stages of your career at a law firm, your colleagues sometimes are much like your clients in that they may have significant decision-making involvement in the matters to which you are assigned, how much outside client contact you get, and the extent to which you may be asked to participate in firm governance.

At a certain point, however, it will be time to take your "show on the road." This may take the form of client meetings, or it could be in court or some other public setting, such as giving a presentation. Here, questions of explicit and implicit bias can arise.

We still hear stories of women attorneys, especially younger ones, being mistaken for secretaries or court reporters. Unfortunately, this is not especially uncommon, even today. We also hear stories of the paradigmatic older white male trial attorney bullying or being demeaning toward younger female attorneys (minority or not). This also is not an infrequent observation. We also have been told of in-house attorneys who have passed up opportunities to choose qualified female or minority lawyers for certain kinds of cases.

The opposite also can be true, as more and more companies seek outside counsel with a demonstrated commitment to and record of diversity.

Although our takeaways may seem somewhat modest, we feel they are good starting points and apply equally to male and majority race populations. They are as follows:

• Carry yourself with confidence.
• Look for opportunities to get and stay involved, even if doing so stretches your comfort zone.
• Be inclusive, helpful, and a team player.
• Be friendly and respectful—but not a pushover. Do not tolerate discrimination directed at you or others.
• Focus on developing meaningful, trust-based relationships.
• Develop an expertise that will be of value to your employer and excel at it.
• Learn your client's business: Be familiar with the client's management and operations, competitors, and the industry challenges the client faces.

Keywords: litigation, diversity, minority, female, law firms, business development, clients

Copyright © 2016, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).