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August 27, 2008

Women Rainmakers…What’s Different, What Isn’t? Part 1

This is Part 1 of an article I published in the August issue of  Of Counsel, the Legal Practice and Management Report

Selling is all about building relationships, and as you may have noticed, the way that women relate to people often differs from the way that men do. So it’s not surprising that, as the number of female decision-makers has increased in both corporations and law firms, there has been a corresponding rise in interest in building on female relationships as a business development strategy.

In 2006, Latham & Watkins organized a group called Women Enriching Business (WEB) to “concentrate on business development issues and opportunities particularly relevant to women.” WEB has extended Latham’s range of networking events beyond the traditional golf courses and baseball games to jewelry stores, florists, and cooking schools.

While Latham partner Erica Steinberger stresses that WEB events are not just for women, she also points out that positioning them can be tricky because “there’s such a fine line between events that appeal to women and events that some may be insulted by. I have one client that I go shopping with to our favorite shoe store. On her last trip to New York, she bought seven pairs, and we had the whole store helping. We had a blast. But I have other female clients who would be offended if I suggested that sort of afternoon. You’ve got to think about who the client is, and what she or he would really enjoy doing.”

Steinberger offers another example of a male client, a managing director at an international investment bank, who loves to cook. Steinberger invited that client and his wife to a one-night course at a cooking school. “You should do this for my firm instead of those big expensive dinners you offer us,” he advised after a few crucial pointers on perfecting ravioli.

A Touch of Class

WEB also recently organized a cocktail reception at an upscale jewelry store near Latham’s Paris office. More than 200 clients, contacts, and lawyers found it an unusually attractive place to meet, chat, and build relationships. With most networking events, only a small percentage of the people who are invited actually attend. In this case, the unusual setting led to a very high percentage of acceptances.

One client was so impressed that she suggested that Latham lawyers meet with a women’s group at her company to discuss the possibility of jointly hosting events. To date, WEB has formed strategic partnerships with more than a dozen groups, including women’s initiatives at consulting firms, the Financial Women’s Association, the National Association of Women Judges, and the National Association of Women Lawyers. There was also a “flavors of fall” cooking demonstration in San Francisco, a flower-arranging event in Chicago, and a jewelry night in London.

In addition, for the past two years Latham has co-sponsored Fortune magazine’s “Most Powerful Women Summit,” an invitation-only event for 300 top female business leaders. Last year’s conference included such panelists as Anne Mulcahy (Chairman and CEO of Xerox), Meg Whitman (President and CEO of eBay), Julia Stewart (Chairman and CEO of IHOP), writer Nora Ephron, and CBS News correspondent Lesley Stahl. There were many opportunities for relaxed networking, including spa treatments, “yoga by the sea,” and a tennis clinic conducted by Billie Jean King.

In addition to networking events, WEB has started several programs to provide women attorneys with business development training. The first was a multi-city tour offering a two-hour workshop called “Branding Yourself—Mastering the Style of Success.” More recently, the group has been working with my company coaching key partners to bring in new business more efficiently.

Real Problems, Real Solutions

While many law firms have experimented with women’s initiatives, only a few have had this type of success. When BusinessWeek wrote last year about “What Works in Women’s Networks” (6/18/07, p.58), the article began by noting that most efforts fail. “Corporate women’s networks frequently get a bad rap—for good reason. The groups frequently toil on the fringes, hosting ‘lunch and learns’ and book clubs that rarely provide the skills or exposure women need to rise in the ranks.”

The article cited three key success factors:

1. Tackle real business problems.

2. Get customers in on the act.

3. Bridge the gender divide (that is, get men involved as well).

Latham’s program does all three. It focuses on the real business problem of generating new business; works with customers in its networking events; and invites men to participate, both lawyers and clients.

Next week: the conclusion of this article.

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