How female lawyers admire their colleagues differently than men

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An exhaustive new study of 2,000 general counsels in 55 countries reveals that men and women holding the title have very different views of what makes for a good relationship with their outside lawyers and law firms.

The research from Acritas Sharplegal finds that the cultural barriers preventing women from rising more quickly and successfully through the ranks of law firms could, ironically, hinder the ability of a male lawyer to win more work from female in-house counsel. Indeed, the findings raise questions about the sustainability of traditional male-dominated attitudes that continue to shape the legal profession.

Also, the results should be a clarion call to the men who hold sway over most corporate law firms on Wall St., Bay St., or elseewhere. It doesn’t take a nuanced reading of the report to see that there is a serious and immediate need to learn much more about the very different way female buyers of legal services operate, how they make a “hire” decision and the criteria on which they rate the value of the relationship with outside firms.

In Life And Law

In a way, this shouldn’t be too surprising. Countless studies over the past 25 years have demonstrated that, in business, men generally are more fact- and solution-driven while women place a premium on collaboration, communication and a shared understanding. The research demonstrates that nothing in a woman’s genetic code changes when she becomes general counsel at a company.

When male in-house lawyers were asked about the firms that they intended spending more with in 2015, they were two-and-a-half times more likely than women to say that their “level of trust” in a firm would sway the decision.

Female general counsel’s look for something entirely different.

“Understanding my business,” “works well with us,” “communicates well” and “knowledge of how I work” are cited as qualities significantly more important to women in determining how much money they would spend with any given law firm.

The implications are clear.

If the general counsel client is a man, the outside lawyers working on their files are well advised to stick to – as Sgt. Joe Friday used to say – “just the facts, Sir.”

On the other hand, firms that demonstrate their in-depth knowledge of a female client’s business, works cooperatively with her to arrive at solutions, and communicates clearly and frequently, are likely to be rated higher by her and thus form her impression of the lawyers and the firm. This is a crucial – and necessary – step to landing work additional work from a company already on the firm’s client roster or landing a new client.

Different Approaches

The general counsel of a sizeable technology company explained why she liked the firm she uses so much.

“We do a lot of work on strategic alignment,” the woman said. “So it is easier to deal with them because they understand the peculiarities of our … niche. I get more focused and practical advice from them, and I have to do a lot less explaining and a lot less rewriting (of documents).”

Matching the desire for business understanding, top female counsel expressed a desire for more effective communication with their lawyers and firms.

Indeed, when asked what a firm could do to improve satisfaction with the service they provided, women were much less likely to say “nothing” compared to men, and much more inclined to express a need for improvement – especially better communication from the firm.

This was a fairly common view among female general councel. One respondent who said she had some issues with her law firm sounded frustrated and didn’t mince her words: “I think they need to check in every once in a while. I find that if the work is coming to them, it’s fine, but they don’t very often check back in with the legal counsel for the company, just to ask, ‘How are things going? What are you planning?’ There are very few firms that (do this). As long as the work is flowing, they’re happy.”

For men, however, an understanding of their business needs or “checking in” was far less important. Qualities such “trustworthiness and reliability” and “experience and track record” were notably more influential in their decision-making about giving work to firms.

“It’s critical for external counsel to thoroughly investigate what their clients and prospects require and expect of their law firms,” observed Lisa Hart Shepherd, Acritas’ chief executive officer. “(Lawyers) need to take into account the behavioral differences between male and female buyers of legal services.”

The Survey’s Vast Implications

Until firms create a formal business development function inside their marketing department with a professional “sales” staff and lawyers are expected to generate additional files or land new work, the challenge is clear to both client relationship partners and new business teams.

There is a stark difference between what men and women holding the top in-house law jobs want from their outside counsel. Beyond providing quality work, responsive lawyers and fees proportional to the assignment – without which a firm will lose the client pretty quickly, regardless of the sex of the general counsel – the intangibles count for a lot more than many lawyers realize.

After being emailed a copy of the study’s news release, a “rainmaking” partner I know well who also has client management responsibilities wrote back to say, “It never occurred to me that these could arise as issues that have nothing to do with the work we do for (her).”

He added that he thought of several new business opportunities in recent years where “I was stressing all of the wrong things to (her),” referring to meetings with general counsels who were women he’d hoped to get as clients.

Business mistakes often result from inadequate information. No longer can a law firm say “We didn’t know!” when it comes to adapting to the somewhat different needs of women general counsel.

On Target, On Line

There is an interesting footnote to the study.

Acritas’ data revealed not only the approach that female general counsels generally prefer but also their preferred communication channels. For example, 43 percent of women working in senior in-house legal roles said they used LinkedIn on a daily or weekly basis, compared with just one-third of men. Furthermore, only 25 percent of women said they never used the site, compared to 40 percent of men. One possible meaning? New business approaches to women may be better made online than on the golf course or at a charity event.

The survey reach was extensive. The 2,000 respondents means the sample size was large enough to shrink the statistical margin of error to miniscule levels. Among the participants, Acritis obtained responses from 800 general counsel in the US, 250 in Canada and 360 in Great Britain – nearly 75% of the total – working in all major industry sectors. Roughly half were at mid-sized businesses with revenue of between $50-million and $1-billion, and half from large organizations with more than $1-billion in sales.

Photo by Martin Hubek, Flickr

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Jim Bliwas

Jim Bliwas

Jim Bliwas has been helping law firms with a range of marketing, business development and management challenges for most of his career
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