Let's just put it on the table: Sheila Birnbaum and Nina Gussack must have an obscene amount of business between them. As we know, Gussack (a partner at Pepper Hamilton) has $65 million in business, while Birnbaum (a Skadden Arps legend who joined Quinn Emanuel this year) probably has even more. If they pooled their resources, they could probably buy a tidy little tropical island and sip mango daiquiris into the sunset.
It's easy to feel intimidated by that level of success, except that Birnbaum and Gussack are disarmingly direct, down-to-earth, and funny. Which is why they seem so relatable, and why you might want to listen to what they have say about client development.
Earlier this month, I moderated a panel about women and rainmaking at the New York City Bar that featured these two power houses. They did not disappoint: Both Birnbaum and Gussack dispensed nuggets of advice with refreshing bluntness.
I'll give you a summary of their advice in another post, but for now I want to focus on what they had to say about work/life balance—which, in some ways, runs counter to the party line that firms, companies, and consultants love to mouth.
At the City Bar event, Gussack told the audience that she landed one of her first big clients when she was eight months pregnant back in the 1980s. The partner she worked for urged her not to go to the meeting in person, but she went anyway. Her determination didn't stop there. She told the audience: "Within six hours of my delivery, I was on a conference call." She asked the audience: "Was that the stupidest thing I did? Or the smartest? . . Is that what you need to do to get business?" She added: "I've never been able to answer that question."
Birnbaum, however, answered for her: "That was the smartest thing you did."
Of course, Gussack had that baby over 20 years ago—long before the lexicon of work/life balance became a fixture in recruiting brochures. Presumably, workplaces are much more respectful of people's families. Surely, no client would pursue a woman to the delivery room today, right?
Don't bet on it, both Gussack and Birnbaum said.
Though Gussack said she's "never been comfortable" with that conference call episode, she ultimately concluded that it was the wise thing to do if client cultivation is a priority. "The reality is that you can tell clients, 'I'll get back to you in six weeks'—but in six weeks, the client won't be there." She added, "it's intense and super competitive."
"We live in a 24-hour world. It's worse than it's ever been," said Birnbaum, adding: "I've never had children, and I couldn't do it with children. I made certain choices, and I'm happy with them. But it's not for everyone. You might not want this kind of pressure, and that's fine. . . But if you want the brass ring, it's an enormous commitment of time, and don't let people kid you about it."
So there you have it. If you want to be a big success, you pretty much have to accept—and like—the fact that work will occupy a large part of your life. "This is hard work," said Birnbaum. "But if you love it, it’s not hard work."
What do you think? Are Birnbaum and Gussack's formulas for success on the money? Or do they represent an old-fashioned approach that younger lawyers no longer have to follow?
Photo: Chen, Birnbaum, and Gussack.E-mail Vivia Chen: email@example.com Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/lawcareerist