What Clients Want: The Perspective of Female GCs

Date: Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Location: 333 Avenue of the Americas, (333 SE 2nd Ave.), Suite 4400, Miami, FL 33131, USA

The speakers discussed a series of issues relating to diversity within law firms.

Networking

“the reason people refer to men is because they have more time”

All the speakers touched on the importance of using social settings and networking to build a community of female lawyers and counsel, establishing relationships with others to encourage mutual recommendations for work etc.

Smith highlighted the need for women to build their own “book of business” and grow relationships with one another.

Menendez-Cambo said: “the reason why people refer to men is because they have more time, they're not juggling the different roles that women do, so they have time to play golf casually on a Saturday, they have time to see the client… you may be the woman behind the scenes doing the work, but when you leave you've got all these other responsibilities.”

She suggested weaving parts of your lives into work, holding meetings over a spa day, which also helps build the working relationship. “Part of our challenge is really developing new ways of being able to intersect the social networking and the responsibilities that women General Counsels have today, as well as women partners.”

“Men are very good at building networks; women are very good at finding friends,” said Camacho. “Very often it's difficult for women to mix and to be able to create a good working relationship with a network of women that will then be recommended to do business… I do believe that in order to get more references we need to know more people, we need to create a biplane and for me that's the main reason I attend this type of seminar.”

Cornejo added that as well as creating social networks, “it's very important that once you develop your specialty that you market yourself and that's one thing that women are very bad at and we have to toot our own horn.”

The Billable Hour

“an archaic system”

The answer to the question ‘what do clients want’ seemed to be a resounding ‘not the billable hour’. The point was made that billing by the hour, and imposing difficult targets in that respect can discriminate against women, who often don’t have as much time as men, having to juggle a number of other commitments, such as children.

Of the billable hour, Cornejo said: “I personally detest it and I think that it is an archaic system that needs to just go away.  It's a complete conflict of interest between you in a law firm and your client, because you need to bill as many hours as you want and the in-house Counsel needs to manage the budget, so the two don't meet.”

She added: “If you've got a goal that you have to bill the 2,000 hours, but you're trying to be a mom and you're trying to be a wife and you're trying to do everything, you can't because you have to be at work probably 12 hours if you're going to bill eight hours a day, if you're going to be honest about it and that just doesn't work and the clients don't want it.  We want to know, how much is it going to cost me?  If you are going to do a transaction for me, I want a fixed fee quote.”

Menendez-Cambo agreed: “To me the hourly rate is meaningless.”

The Role of In-House Counsel

“In-house need to insist on diversity”

Camacho said that to build a diverse legal profession it is necessary to promote diversity in both in-house and law firms. She said general counsels should take into account more than just the numbers of a firm they are looking to hire, and its ‘diversity’ on paper as a matter of statistics, but that they should also pay attention to the people working on the matter. “One thing that we have found is that very often there's diverse talent, but there's a lot of churn and they change and we want to build and maintain and have a pool of diverse talent that will thrive and develop and become partners and then be that person that will be working on a day to day … and we are able to build a relationship that will help to advance that person's career.”

Smith said: “It is on the in-house counsel that we have to insist on it [diversity]”

She said law firms often don't necessarily care about diversity and fairness, but simply do what's "policitcally correct", this often results in ‘window-dressing’ diversity. She added companies should have diversity goals in terms of law firm hire.

Camacho and Smith both mentioned programmes that are in place in some businesses that reward legal departments for hiring diverse law firms, but as Camacho said: “of course this needs to come from the general counsel.”

Origination

“women will not become partners until they have a book of business”

Everyone on the panel spoke about how important getting the credit for introducing business is to progressing in a legal career. A number of stories of “female working bees” who weren’t credited for their work were recounted.

Menendez-Cambo said that she does try to give credit to those who do the work, especially women who may be overlooked, “but that’s not enough to be perfectly honest… so I go out of my way to make sure that others do too.” She also talked about the value sending a simple email can have ensuring that even if a lawyer doesn’t get official credit for a matter, it is brought to the right person’s attention just how much work she did on the case.

Cornejo said when she finds that the lawyer she needs for a job is a man, she tries to find a female colleague of his to approach first so that even though he work will most likely ultimately be given to the man, she can take some credit for introducing the contact. “If there's a chance that that woman will get credit for the business, then I've helped her build her book of business, because that's the only way that the needle is going to move, because women will not become partners until they have a book of business and they will not have a book of business unless we hire them.”

Economy

“should transcend economy”

A question from one brave man in the audience asked why the economic downturn resulted in a loss of traction for the diversity programme and how we can stop it happening next time the economy “goes south again.”

Menendez-Cambo said the reason is that when a business is forced to make cuts they give extra weight to the “rainmakers” of the office.

“Because we have not yet penetrated that upper echelon of things, you find that minorities across the board are not in a position where they are viewed as a rainmaker, for good or for bad reasons. Either because they have not developed the business or they're actually the person who's supporting the person who's getting the credit, but they haven't gotten the credit one way or the other.”

Smith said she thinks diversity “should transcend economy.. it has to be part of your philosophy come hell or high water.”