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Can Rainmakers Have Work/Life Balance?

Vivia Chen

October 22, 2013

©-style-photographsiStockphotoLet'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."

Photo (10)"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: vchen@alm.com     Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/lawcareerist

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Looking forward to the full disclosure of their advice!

I think you have set up a false alternative here - have a life or a $65 million book of business. Not many lawyers, no matter how much time they devote to their careers, have a $65 million book of business. I work with women partners to help them become rainmakers. I can tell you that there are many women who have children (some with 3), a life (as much as any lawyer has a life) and significant books of business, not $65 million, but large enough for them to be very well-compensated and well-respected within their firms. Let's not discourage women from pursuing being rainmakers!

Shalala's comment is awful, and the whole idea of scoring one's success in work, love and parenting is an insult to intelligence and a big part of the problem. We all know that there is no single successful standard in any of those life areas (or healthfulness, for that matter).

I think that any comments about the relevance to "younger lawyers" of these rainmakers' success must be viewed through the lens that 1) at $65m-plus, they’re extreme outliers, which makes them largely irrelevant as potential archetypes; and 2) like many, if not most, big rainmakers, they established themselves and achieved most of their success during the 20-year boom in demand for legal service.

They made their bones in a seller’s market, i.e., where the demand for top-tier legal service exceeded the perceived supply. Now, we’re in a permanent buyer’s market, where the supply of all categories of traditional legal service exceeds demand. This is not to diminish their effort and commitment, but merely to recognize that the game has changed radically since 2008.

Lawyers trying to generate business today face far more competition than did Ms. Gussack and Ms. Birnbaum. They’ll have to get their clients in very different ways that align with today’s conditions.

The one inarguable point they make, though, will be true forever: “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.”

IMO, firms’ dependence on the rainmaker model must steadily diminish over time. Firms are learning that depending on a handful of big producers to finance the firm is a dangerous practice. As we see reported frequently, the potential mobility of such rainmakers gives them great power as firms react do what they have to do to attract or keep them. The increase in the earnings ratio between top-earning and least-earning partners, from a longstanding 3:1 or 4:1 to today’s 12:1 or 13:1, is a loud alert.

Most business activity now is based on collaboration, which is consistent with the macro trend of the networked world, crowd-sourced initiatives, teams, etc. Slowly, businesses are recognizing the value available from enabling and unleashing hundreds or thousands of contributors to a goal. Presumably, though late adopters, law firms will eventually embrace the trend, too.

Shalala appears to have forgotten about staying healthy. Getting exercise, nutritious food, enough sleep, and timely healthcare (as well as doing whatever doctors say) consume just as much time as the other "major areas". So perhaps we can swing half of life's big priorities rather than two-thirds.

In the 1980s Donna Shalala shared her thoughts about life balance (work is part of life) with an observation I have believed ever since. Ms. Shalala said that women (men also) have potentially three parts of life: work, an adult love relationship, and children. We get to do 2 of these well, not even 2.5, but 2. Some of us give up one entirely. Most of us do one well and the other two half well.

The only exceptions I have seen are women who need three or four hours of sleep a night. There are some, and they get 2.5.

Perhaps alas, but true.

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About The Careerist

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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