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Nina Gussack, the $65 Million Woman

Vivia Chen

June 11, 2013

Gussack_TransformativeLeadershipAwardsEastWe 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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Comments

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Overall, this is an inspiring piece. Ms. Gussack is a role-model. However, I was slightly put off by her response to "do you have kids" question. It sounds a little judgemental of women who opt to work part-time.I have known people who have worked at Pepper and they found the environment to be rigid. While Ms. Gussack is right, "people need to make choices", I think that employers in general and law firms in particular need to evaluate what is truly required to succeed and to create requirements that help people become successful. Mandatory, paid maternityand paternity leave would be a great start. Flexible work schedules would be another. PT work is not the only type of family friendly option that exists.

I do respect what she has accomplished. But if I do the math, does Nina gets 20% of the firm's profits or are there others in the group that deserve some of the credit for the revenue? And where is the political correctness talking about Ned being a "WASP" and inferring that he had no personality? Who is Nina mentoring now that puts her outside of her comfort zone and what would they say about her?

The trick is, IMHO: How to ask for business and not be a pest, a stalker, and too "sales-y." The last thing I want, as an in-house lawyer, is to be hounded for "my business." And the folks who constantly "ask for the business" get the hand, I've found. Being ambitious is one thing, being desperate is another. Who can solve this thicket? Betsey?

Thank you, Vivia, for posting this excellent piece, and for initiating a series on this critical topic. You ask terrific questions, and Nina Gussack is the ideal lead-off interviewee.

The universal truths of BigLaw success are all addressed, directly or indirectly, in this interview. They are frequently articulated by people like Nina Gussack, but more often than not ignored--by both men and women, and by the law schools and law firms charged with equipping them to practice law in large firms. (My comments are limited to BigLaw practice and business generation.) They should be taught, and learned, very early on. After more than a few years in practice, very few will have the means to catch up.

1. It is essential, especially for women, to access and nurture dedicated, powerful sponsorship (something well beyond mentoring) as an associate. (I agree with Ronique that this statement says it all: "He was ambitious for me" ...)

2. Before you can build a large, self-sustaining practice, you have to earn the client's business, understand its industry (preferably, a growth niche), school yourself in finance & speak the language of business. Finally, you'll need to be able to think like a business person--creatively, and with appropriate risk-tolerance-- transcending, when appropriate, the linear thinking typical of lawyers-- and law school.

3. The successful lawyer is always a problem solver. She identifies and anticipates business challenges and "unmet needs"--and offers solutions and opportunities. She is a "trusted advisor"--on all matters, not just the purely legal.

4. As Nina says--learn to ask, ask, and ask for the business. Develop a thick skin.

5. Build relationships. Invest in them, fiercely. Everything is about relationships--and loyalty.

6. Considering firm management? (By management by I do not mean chairing the recruiting or diversity or any other lower tier --or, worse, perfect for a woman--committee, or running a practice group. I am talking abou, executive and policy committee leadership, heading for managing partner.) Then think very hard before electing to work part-time (though a modified flex-time can work, with adequate investment in sophisticated smoke and mirrors). That's my take, and I'll bet it's Nina's as well.
7. Throw a healthy chunk of the money you're being paid, after loan repayments, at anything that doesn't require your personal involvement, anything that reduces or disrupts time with family and healthy personal time----laundry and house cleaning, transportation to/from work, therapy, home repairs, exercise and other stress reduction activities, computer setup and repair, entertaining, food shopping, and a myriad of other life conveniences. And equip the hell out of your home office by the way.

8. If you have children,or other family members for whom you are responsible: Invest in fabulous child/ elder or other personal care--people you trust and make a part of your family. Then treat them like family, which is what they deserve. This means truly caring about them, and being there for them when they need you--personally and financially. It means prioritizing their well being. You owe them everything--not just a salary and health insurance.

9. If you have a spouse or partner-- be of the same mind, have a plan, be generous and compassionate. None of this works without that.

And take heart--Nina Gussack is a wonderful role model. She loves what she does. She does it exceptionally well. She has raised a couple of kids and is still married. She is brilliant and wildly successful. And she is one of very very few women leading large law firms. I hope many more will follow. We are way overdue.

"He was ambitious for me" will stick for awhile...#valuablementor...

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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