As we celebrate the 50 Best Law Firms for Women and applaud their efforts, I just can’t take my eyes off the elephant in the room. Among the ranks of the most highly compensated lawyers, there are few women and even fewer women of color. In the 200 largest U.S. firms, only 4 percent of managing partners and 17 percent of equity partners are women, according to the National Association of Women Lawyers.
The numbers might be improving (slowly), but it’s still hard to explain the dearth of women at the top. Out of the gate, 48 percent of law school grads are women. They certainly start out as eager to find success and partnerships as their male counterparts: Female students hold 54 percent of leadership positions in law-review journals and are 49 percent of law-review editors-in-chief, according to a report from Ms. JD and New York Law School.
Why does the law pyramid narrow so severely? Let’s follow the money. During my 30 years in financial services, where the partner ranks were similarly male, I saw that those in the highest echelons were the rainmakers who won deals and generated revenue. They often weren’t the best bankers (or leaders, for that matter); I can attest to the fact that women are more consultative, more empathetic, better risk managers and better at client retention and getting referral business.
I spent 21 years at Merrill Lynch, where I was recognized as one of the top wealth advisers and branch managers before building a successful multicultural business development unit and becoming global head of diversity and inclusion. Having come to this country as a student, I was forced to compensate for not having the organic networks that come from family, friends, neighbors and classmates. My journey offers a few lessons for newly minted women (and men) lawyers who are building their client lists. Here are five things I learned to cultivate.
1. Self-awareness: You need to know your strengths as well as your shortcomings.
2. Persistence: I worked twice as hard and twice as smart to succeed as a woman of color.
3. Networks: I was naturally able to connect with other Indians, including doctors, entrepreneurs, financial analysts and executives, who appreciated our shared culture.
4. Support systems: Mentors and sponsors, both women and men, help show the way.
5. Relationships: Investing time to understand clients’ short- and long-term goals and aspirations builds trust and enables you to exceed their expectations.
It might have taken a little longer for me to close the business, but the payoff was a larger share of clients’ assets, strong referrals, exceptional retention and goodwill in the community. With ingenuity, self-awareness, hard work, ethical conduct, perseverance, grit and client-centeredness, women lawyers can surely find success as rainmakers and a pathway to managing-partner positions.