We are launching a series of chats with rainmakers. Today, we are visiting with Pepper Hamilton litigator Nina Gussack (right), who recently stepped down as the chair of the firm's executive committee.
You are responsible for $65 million worth of business—about 20 percent
of the firm's total revenue. That's pretty awesome. Was rainmaking always part of your career strategy?
When I started out [after graduating from Villanova Law School in 1979], the goal was to become a partner. I wanted the gold ring. I also knew I wanted to grow my business. My father was a businessman, and he constantly told me that some lawyers didn't understand business goals. I absorbed that training—that you had to understand the clients' needs to be successful.
Your major clients are Eli Lilly, Glaxo, and Bristol-Myers. How did you decide to focus on Big Pharma?
When I was in school, I was interested in medicine. I came to Pepper as a summer associate, and Ned Madeira [now chair emeritus of the firm] was doing a lot of pharma. I sought him out when I came to the firm. Then he cultivated me. With his support, my practice grew.
So he was your mentor—and you initiated the contact. How did you know he could help your career?
I picked him because of his work, not because of personality. But it worked out. He was everything I needed. He was ambitious for me, he urged me to take risks, and he raised my profile with clients. But there was nothing that would have predicted that we would have a successful mentor/mentee relationship.
People make a big deal about mentors and sponsors these days. There are whole seminars devoted to the topic. Are people overstudying the issue?
People make the mistake that the mentor has to look like them or share the same background. Ned was my mentor, though he had never worked closely with a woman—certainly not a Jewish woman. He was a WASP Mainline prototype. Sometimes the best mentors are people who are not in your comfort zone.
Do you remember the first time you brought in a matter?
I was young—in my mid-thirties. . . I had been working for Eli Lilly for a number of years on a variety of matters, and then an issue arose about a drug that resulted in deaths during clinical trials. It was a significant matter, and I became national counsel for them. Once you demonstrate understanding of the client's needs, opportunities broaden.
After you scored that first big matter, did say to yourself, "Hey, that wasn't so hard"?
No! It was harder than I expected, and it's harder every day. You have to be efficient, make sure your practice broadens. There are now more regulatory considerations, consumer protection claims, multidistrict litigation.
By any standard, you've succeeded at rainmaking. How did you hit the jackpot when so many women struggle for business?
You have to ask for the business, and you have to let the client know that you can handle things. There's a big difference between having a conversation with a client and asking for business. Women stop short of asking for business. I tell young women that you have to be the best substantively, but that you also have to put yourself out there and inject yourself in the client's orbit. It's true: You have to ask 20 times to get one [client]. You need to develop a thick skin.
Does that describe you? Are you a natural salesperson?
For some people, it's natural. For me, it's a challenge every time. There's always that fear of rejection. Getting that first pickle out of the jar is the hardest.
I hate to ask you this, but I'm sure some people are wondering: Have you ever slowed down during your career? Do you have kids?
I do have two children [now in their twenties]. I did take maternity leave, but I didn't work part-time. A lot of women find they need to work part-time; it wasn't for me. It is an incredibly intense practice, and people need to make choices.
Here's another question I hate to ask: How did you manage to do it all?
You need a collaborative partner and great child care. It is hard juggling. My husband is a law professor at Rutgers, so he has flexibility and can scoot out at three o'clock for the pediatrician.
At this point, you should be sitting pretty and leaving the office at a decent hour. What keeps you working so hard?
I have strong relationships with clients. They expect a great deal. It is demanding. I still find it immensely satisfying.
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