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Is Business Development Getting Any Easier for Women Lawyers?

By Sue-Ella Prodonovich

It’s official: In a recent survey, 72% of respondents said they believe business development is difficult for women lawyers — but more than 50% said it is getting easier.

business development is difficult for women lawyers

Is business development in professional services more difficult for women? That’s the question I posed in this article in August. But to find out the real answer, I asked professionals to answer a few short survey questions. Almost 100 professionals took the opportunity to respond, and the results reveal some interesting insights.

Most Agree That Women Find Business Development More Difficult

There’s little doubt most of us believe BD is more difficult for women. In fact, more than 72% of respondents said that business development was more difficult for women than men. Of these, just over 13% said it was “much more” difficult.

A quarter of respondents said it was equally difficult for men and women. Meanwhile, less than 3% said it was easier for women than men.

Pie Chart - Business Development is more difficult for women fee earners working in professional services firms

Women Are Still Shouldering Most of the Workload

One of the common themes from the comments supporting this question was that traditional BD (networking) favored men, who’ve often found it easier to engage in “traditional” activities such as attending sporting events or having an after-work drink.

Some noted that this was often because professional women were still expected to carry a disproportionate load when it came to caring for children and carrying out household duties, making it difficult to engage in after-work social activities.

“Women continue to disproportionately carry the burden of family responsibilities, leaving them with less opportunity to engage in BD activities on top of core BAU work. Women disproportionately carry the responsibility for other non-promotable tasks such as recruitment, mentoring, office management, further reducing opportunities to focus on BD activities.”

“BD is often done before or after work events, as a general rule, women are the default parent and carry the mental load of the household. This means attending BD before or after hours requires significant organizing and is not always possible.“

Outmoded Views on Gender Relations Remain an Issue

To many of us, it may seem incredible that highly successful professional women should be treated any differently from men. However, one of the most prevalent themes in responses was the observation that outdated notions of gender relations still existed in the professions. This has often affected women’s abilities to perform effective BD.

“BD is more difficult for women as approaching men and being alone with men can be misinterpreted as attraction rather than work-related. This can be an issue for the woman, the lead/client, and the woman’s partner/spouse. It can also lead to misunderstanding and reputational issues.”

“I have been questioned by firm partners if I take a male client to dinner/lunch, one-on-one. Most of my clients are men. This means if I have a client visiting from interstate, I feel the need to also invite another male partner from the firm so people don’t get the wrong impression (despite being married with children).”

“As a younger woman, when I initiated BD activities, it was misinterpreted more than once as a personal invitation, not a professional invitation. I learned to only do BD with another professional, not alone.”

“There’s still a strange dynamic asking to get in front of a senior male client(s), whether for a coffee or a drink, particularly as a younger female partner with a largely female team. There is still a perception in disputes that a female lawyer isn’t going to be aggressive enough (even if the client doesn’t want an aggressive strategy). How many times have I heard that we need to engage senior counsel (older male) for some ‘gravitas.’”

Do Women Professionals Still Feel Like Imposters?

Perhaps most interestingly, several respondents mentioned that despite being successful and experienced professionals, they suffered from imposter syndrome. In fact, the tendency for women to doubt themselves was another recurring theme.

Many respondents particularly felt that men were more likely to “gild the lily” and overstate their capabilities and achievements, while women were more likely to understate them.

“Men seem to be able to talk up their practices and themselves without worrying about being ‘found out.’ I see male colleagues going into BD and relationship meetings far less prepared than I ever would, but they still seem to be held in high regard by clients. I spend a lot more time working on BD strategies, materials, preparation and follow-up than my male colleagues, and this is hard to fit into a day when there are already so many other demands on my time.”

“At meetings or events, there can definitely be a sense of imposter syndrome; more often than not, there are more men in the room than women. It can be intimidating to break into a conversation with a group of lads discussing the latest sports news.”

“I think women generally are less confident, and so ‘talking up’ their business skills and abilities doesn’t come as naturally — as an overthinker, I err on the side of saying less, which I believe has been perceived as me not being as knowledgeable as more vocal counterparts.”

But BD Is Getting Easier for Women

There was, however, some good news in the survey. Most respondents — 63.3% — agreed that, over the past five years, it had become easier for women to engage in BD. Another 22.2% said it was about the same. Just 2.2% said BD was getting harder, while 12.2% said they weren’t sure.

Pie Chart - Over the past five years has it become easier for women fee earners to execute effective BD strategies in professional services firms?

A lot of people believed this was the direct result of women taking on leadership roles as general counsel and in the C-suites of corporate land.

“I have noticed an increase in women in general counsel and legal counsel roles (many who are mums), and being a mum myself, we find other ways to catch up and build the relationship during school hours.”

“If you believe in the stereotypes, then it might also be easier to find ‘common ground’ with someone of the same gender. So it’s a function of having more women on the client side that makes it easier for women on the ‘BD’ side (if you are assuming that there are gender differences).”

“More women clients, more serious support for women’s professional development, more awareness of what is ‘not on’ in terms of blokey bad behavior.”

“In part, this is due to Covid having dampened clients’ desire to attend out-of-hours functions, and so more BD occurs during business hours (lunchtime seminars, etc). But I also think it’s because there are more women in more senior roles, and so the opportunity to undertake BD activities in a genuine, meaningful way that resonates with other women is more and more a feature.”

Except Law Firms Appear to Lag in the BD World

Unfortunately, however, some thought professional services firms were not necessarily helping women build their practices in quite the same way. Many argued that law firms, especially, were still lagging behind.

“The only area where it is getting easier for women is the fact that so many general counsel and in-house counsel are women and that the clients want to support female partners. Not because of anything law firms are doing.”

“A large part of the problem can be the firm, not the client. There are still firms that are managed by middle-aged white men who do not value a woman and her contribution.”

Did COVID Play a Part in Helping Women’s BD Efforts?

According to some respondents, though, it wasn’t only women in leadership positions changing the landscape. Many suggested that any improvement in the ease of doing BD simply reflected the changes in how we work and socialize since COVID-19.

During the height of the pandemic, so many of us worked from home. Meetings became remote and BD moved from the hard tasks of in-person networking and social functions to the softer skills of online meetings, webinars and articles.

Some survey participants thought these activities leveled the playing field, although more than one believed they were still perceived as less critical.

“90% of my business development now involves information/value adds/exceptional service delivery rather than being based on long lunches, after-work dinners, etc. Social events are more occasional, such as the end of year get together or end of matter lunch.”

The Opposing View

It’s worth noting, of course, that not everybody agrees business development is more difficult for women. Some respondents who argued this said BD was an individual, personality-based thing and that it was harder for introverts, regardless of whether they were male or female.

“Objectively, there is no difference. Personality-based individual business development has been replaced (in effective organizations) by planned and team-oriented business development. Women can, and do, play a key role.”

“If you do want to stick to the stereotypes, then you also need to remember that diversity includes women who are ‘more like’ men and men who are ‘more like’ women. So, saying ‘BD is easier for men’ assumes that all men are the same or all men like football. In my experience, that is not a safe assumption!”

Others said that it depended on the field in which a professional specialized — and that while there were more male-dominated sectors (real estate, M&A, banking), there were also more female-dominated sectors (although these often tended to be less well-paid).

“It depends on the sector. Blokey sectors such as real estate and investment banking definitely harder, but less blokey areas with the rise of the female GC [are] less of an issue and being female can be positive.”

“I think it depends on the area. I’m in disability law, and this is a sector that is predominantly female, so I’m doing BD with other females. When I worked in [a different] more male-dominated area, I was younger [and felt] more intimidated in networking functions, which weren’t my thing, like drinking events and yacht rides.”

Does Business Development Get Easier With Experience?

Some respondents suggested that BD was more challenging for younger and less experienced professional women than it was for senior and more experienced practitioners.

“I choose networking opportunities that fit into my day and my interests, e.g., lunch, coffee or early drinks. Still do occasional dinners and events. It is a choice I make daily where I want to be. I decided to create my own tribe of like-minded people.”

Some also said that, given the chance, women actually tended to be far better at BD than their male counterparts.

“Women tend to join the dots more and are better at referring work.”

Finally, more than one respondent noted that while they appreciated the growing number of women’s support groups and women-based networking opportunities, these were often self-defeating. That was because the senior males within their firm were not across from them or not interested in their outcomes or recommendations.

“If I get encouraged to attend another women’s event talking about flexible work or menopause at which there are no decision-makers for the work I do, I’ll go postal!

In Short

The overwhelming majority of us believe professional women do find BD more challenging than men. However, most also believe it’s getting better. For a lot of respondents, leveling the BD playing field seems to depend on having more women in positions of authority, both in-house and within firms.

About the Survey

If you’d like more information on the survey, get in touch.

Who Took the Survey

  • Of the respondents, 84.4% identified as female and 13.3% as male. 2.3% said they’d prefer not to disclose.
  • Meanwhile, 39.4% said they had more than 21 years’ experience, 48.1% said they had between 10 and 20 years, and around 12.5% had less than 10 years.
  • 81% of fee-earners who identified the type of professional services firm they work with were lawyers working in private practice. The balance worked in non-fee-earner roles with law firms or were fee-earners with business consulting, tax, accounting and advisory firms.
  • In terms of location, 64% of participants were from practices in Australia, 16% in New Zealand, 10% in Europe and the balance were in the U.S., the Middle East, South-East Asia and Latin America.

Definitions

  • Professional Services Firms were defined as practices in the sectors of legal services, management consulting, accountancy, engineering services, financial advisory services, and architectural and surveying services.
  • Business Development was defined as the activity of generating new business opportunities with commercial clients. New business opportunities are derived from pursuing new client relationships, expanding roles with existing client relationships, or developing new services or products.
  • Commercial clients include public and private organizations, institutions, and government/statutory entities.

Further Reading

Image © iStockPhoto.com.

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Sue-Ella Prodonovich Sue-Ella Prodonovich

Sue-Ella Prodonovich is an author, teacher and award-winning business development advisor to law firms. She is the Principal of Prodonovich Advisory, a business dedicated to helping lawyers develop positive client relationships and sharpen their business development practices. Follow Sue-Ella on LinkedIn.

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