May 16, 2019 Articles

The Road to Rainmaking

Real tips from four women law firm leaders.

By Ashley J. Heilprin

Deborah Kuchler is a founding partner of Kuchler Polk Weiner, LLC, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Deb has managed dockets of complex civil litigation in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida involving toxic tort and environmental litigation, pharmaceutical litigation, class actions, and product liability, personal injury, and commercial litigation.

Michelle Craig is the founder of Transcendent Legal in New Orleans, Louisiana. Michelle serves as owner and chief litigation and labor and employment counsel. With over 10 years of Am Law 200 law firm experience, she has extensive experience in labor and employment, commercial litigation, and product liability.

Amy Stewart  is one of the founding partners at Stewart Law Group PLLC, a minority- and woman-owned litigation boutique in Dallas, Texas. Amy’s background is unique in that prior to becoming a lawyer, she was a collegiate athlete and a college basketball coach, and then worked in sales and marketing prior to law school. Amy brings her wealth of experience as a litigator to her areas of legal practice, including labor and employment litigation and alternative dispute resolution, commercial litigation, product liability, and work related to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act.

Eileen Letts is the managing partner of the Chicago office of Zubler Lawler & Del Duca LLP. She is a civil trial attorney, with dozens of jury trials and over 100 bench trials, often involving Fortune 500 companies and iconic government entities. Ms. Letts’s areas of focus include product liability, complex tort, insurance coverage, and commercial disputes.

Developing a Culture and Style That Promote Flexibility and Authenticity Is a Key to Success

Ms. Kuchler’s firm has created a culture where everyone is encouraged to work collaboratively rather than competitively. This has led to a culture that is more flexible and emotionally supportive. Similarly, Ms. Stewart founded her firm with the belief that everyone who works there, whether a partner, associate, or front-desk staff, can be their authentic selves. Rather than trying to fit someone else’s mold, it is really important to Ms. Stewart that attorneys who work with her are able to succeed on their own terms. “That is what clients want, that is what juries want, that is what arbitrators want, and that is what judges want,” said Ms. Stewart. “When we’re walking around trying to be someone who we are not, people see that, and that’s also why we are unhappy with their firms and choice of work. People do not like not being able to be themselves when they practice law.”

Each of the four women leaders described the importance of finding their own style and building authentic relationships as strategies to thrive. “Success does not happen overnight,” said Ms. Letts. “It takes time and authentic relationships. Build a network that allows you to share ideas among women lawyers, and find your own style.”

For lawyers who have a more introverted style in particular, like Ms. Craig, it is important to find a strategy that is authentic and enjoyable, without the pressure of trying to be someone you are not. Ms. Craig is very involved in the community, in various organizations and groups that she is personally interested in. Because she is actively involved and visible, she receives questions from potential clients and referral sources about the work that she does. This style has allowed her to pursue her passions and have organic, meaningful conversations that have led to business.

Don’t Be Afraid of Hearing “No”—Put Yourself Out There

Women lawyers often face business development challenges such as self-promotion, making the ask, transitioning personal relationships into business relationships, and having less access to male power brokers.

One of Ms. Craig’s strategies is to use speaking engagements as an opportunity to promote her skills and practice. She has found that it is important to stay visible so that when potential clients or referral sources have a need, they think of you. That being said, Ms. Craig emphasized the importance of prioritizing, because “you can exhaust yourself trying to do it all . . . trying to balance getting the work done and business development.” Identify the key speaking events that will be beneficial and commit to those, without overextending yourself.

Ms. Letts acknowledged the lack of diverse women in the profession in positions of power. However, Ms. Letts has forced herself to step outside her comfort zone to make the ask. “What’s the worst that can happen? They say no.” Ultimately, if you don’t make the ask, you won’t get the business. Ms. Letts advises that lawyers must have a hook, make connections, and never be afraid to make the ask. Find a balance between being aggressive and meek in a style that is authentic, but you must make the ask.

Like Ms. Letts, Ms. Stewart is not afraid to make the ask. Ms. Stewart attributes her ability to overcome those challenges and grow her business to her background as a college basketball coach and sales and marketing professional. She reflected, “When I was a basketball coach, I was responsible for a great deal of recruiting, which is nothing but sales. Then I was a marketing consultant for the NCAA, which is also sales, and then I worked in pharmaceutical sales. I was preconditioned to people telling me, ‘no.’ I understood that it was not personal, but just that at this moment in time, it was. It wasn’t a personal attack.” Ms. Stewart advised that women lawyers cannot be afraid of hearing “no” and allow that fear to thwart their ability to promote themselves and make the ask. While you may not be the right person at a particular moment in time for particular matter, it does not mean that you should not continue to build a relationship with the person, because when the next matter comes up, that person may think of you.

When it comes to transitioning personal relationships into business relationships, Ms. Stewart again emphasized that we cannot be afraid to make the ask. She has found in many instances that those contacts were waiting for women lawyers to make the ask or simply thought that those lawyers were “so successful and busy that they did not need the new matters or that they do not do that sort of work.”

Promote the Lawyers Who Help to Promote You; Collaborate, Don’t Compete

Once you have a relationship with a potential client, you must follow up and continue to develop that relationship. Ms. Kuchler recalls the first “big fish” that she landed and the woman lawyer who made the referral over 20 years ago. “I am always going to refer her, speak highly of her, and promote her,” Ms. Kuchler said. When she does receive referrals, she always looks for an opportunity to return the favor. Ms. Kuchler also emphasized the importance of promoting the in-house lawyers she works with through other networking and professional development opportunities.

Whether in a big firm or small practice, Ms. Craig noted that through partnering and collaborating with other lawyers, you may have a stronger ability to secure the potential new business, instead of competing with each other. There are several small firms that Ms. Craig partners with on a regular basis because they do a different type of work, and it is in her client’s best interest to work with them. Because she is able to promote other lawyers and trust that they are not in competition, Ms. Craig continues to partner to expand business opportunities, noting that “these relationships are incredibly important to business development when you have your own firm.”

Involvement in a National Organization Can Be Helpful for Building Your Book of Business

Ms. Kuchler has faithfully participated in national organizations for years. She has volunteered to help put together corporate counsel symposiums, speak, and write. Consistent participation in national organizations has helped Ms. Kuchler build her reputation and business around the country.

According to Ms. Stewart, “Clients hire attorneys who they like and have expertise.” Ms. Stewart’s involvement and leadership roles within the ABA Section of Litigation has helped her to build lasting relationships with lawyers across the country while also distinguishing herself as a “go to” trial lawyer. When someone needs to refer a commercial litigation matter to a lawyer in her city, they think of her. Consistent involvement with working on committees and panels has demonstrated her competence, diligence, and trustworthiness so that people feel comfortable referring matters to her. Finally, Ms. Stewart encouraged women and minority lawyers to take advantage of the many opportunities to promote themselves through writing articles, putting together roundtables, and speaking on panels. All of these activities assist with building a lawyer’s reputation and profile, and help to build expertise.

Like Ms. Stewart, Ms. Letts has also been an active member of the ABA for many years and served in various leadership capacities, including in the House of Delegates, the 360 Commission (as a cochair), and the Council for the Section of Litigation, as well as the chair of several committees. Her involvement with bar groups has been very helpful with making connections as well as growing her substantive knowledge as a litigator. As people see women lawyers in charge of bar activities and following through on their responsibilities, they frequently consider those women leaders when looking for attorneys to refer work to.

Ashley J. Heilprin is an associate attorney at Phelps Dunbar, LLP, in its New Orleans, Louisiana, office.


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