In the rapidly changing legal industry, it is no surprise that broad conceptions of what it means to be a rainmaker are also evolving. Dr. Heidi Gardner, Lecturer and Distinguished Fellow at the Center on the Legal Profession at Harvard Law School, has been conducting research over the past decade on collaboration in law firms. Her findings have also revealed insights into rainmakers: what makes them successful, how their roles changed over time, and how the next generation of rainmakers can be primed to succeed. She will be presenting her findings on the myths and realities of rainmakers at the Thomson Reuters 24th Annual Marketing Partner Forum.
Successful Rainmakers: Extroverts, Introverts, and Cultural Understanding
A common discussion regarding rainmakers, and leadership in general, is whether they are born or made. Based on her decades long research, Dr. Gardner’s answer to whether rainmakers are born is a resounding no. What makes someone a successful rainmaker is their ability to exhibit other sides of their personality, or other strengths and traits, depending on their audience. Rainmakers are typically discussed as being highly extroverted—charismatic, forceful, possessing great salesmanship skills. However, these traits themselves don’t make rainmakers successful, but rather it is their enormous ability to connect with whomever the buyer of their services. Because buyers are not a homogeneous group, most successful rainmakers are able to adjust or adapt their style appropriately.
Introverts are therefore not precluded from being successful because of their commonly thought of as “quiet nature”. In fact, introverts may make better rainmakers in some regard. Dr. Gardner points out that introverts tend not to think out loud and consider what they’re going to say before they say it. They often take time to reflect and appropriately listen to the person that is sitting across the table. This makes introverts very adept at identifying the buyer’s underlying issues and thinking through what it takes to connect the dots inside their firm to help clients solve complex issues. Dr. Gardner also points out that “Many buyers of legal services are also introverts, and they will appreciate someone who has similar a demeanor—not salesy or pushy.” Great rainmakers who are introverts are chameleons. It likely takes more energy for them to be outgoing and interact with strangers in a bigger setting, but they will have developed the capacity to be gregarious enough to make those connections.
Successful rainmakers have a foundation of being highly empathetic and have a strong motivation and interest in understanding other clients—it’s part of what makes them so successful. Dr. Gardner posits these skills are the “basic building blocks for being able to communicate across cultures” and make rainmakers more equipped to be successful with buyers from other countries. What’s required is an additional measure of cultural intelligence; successful rainmakers take part in and study the behavioral mimicry of their buyers in addition to having an appreciation for why different people approach different problems from different perspectives in general.
Evolution of Rainmaker: Toward Collaboration
During the course of Dr. Gardner’s research, she has discovered an interesting trend, or rather non-trend, in the legal industry: the rainmakers at law firms are largely the same people. During the past ten to twelve years, firms have moved away from mandatory retirement. Partners are staying longer than ever, so the rainmakers at firms now are the same ones from a decade past.
There is a new generation of rainmakers coming in now, but there is a lot of frustration in the profession regarding the structure and effectiveness of succession planning (which will be discussed further below). Despite the fact that the legal industry is currently dealing with the same cast of characters, one profound change Dr. Gardner has observed in the last decade involves a simultaneous broadening and narrowing of the role of the rainmaker.
According to Dr. Gardner, “clients increasingly expect a level of industry expertise” that requires attorneys to identify their practices with more specificity than ever. An attorney can no longer be an “environmental attorney”, but must become “an environmental attorney with a focus on extractive industries”, or an “intellectual property lawyer” must be an “IP attorney who specializes in the patent prosecution of computer hardware”. However, because clients’ problems are becoming increasingly complex, rainmakers are less able to be seen as the single go-to person for a particular client who puts together a team of experts in a single discipline, but rather as needing pull together teams of multidiscipline experts. So along with the narrowing of the rainmaker’s own field of expertise, successful rainmakers are broadening their ability to pull together diverse teams to tackle their client’s problems. The rainmaker is the conductor; as Dr. Gardner states: “The client counts on them to be a broker to all of the kind of experts that exist within the firm.”
In order to be successful going forward, rainmakers of the future need to be more collaborative as far as seeking out complementary experts to serve clients. A common obstacle that prevents rainmakers from being successful in this is the reliance on bringing in the “obvious suspects” as a matter of prestige in front of the client. But when called upon to do work on the case, these attorneys are nowhere to be found. Dr. Gardner believes that a key to building a successful team will be to find the hidden gems at the law firm—rainmakers should seek out attorneys who are hungry for client service opportunities. She acknowledges that doing this can be a risky. It’s easier to put someone in front of your client who has an existing reputation as a guru in their sector, but their value to the process is limited if their participation is not complete.
People who are truly intent on becoming successful rainmakers should be investing the time and the energy on others who are not necessarily thought of as the “obvious suspects”. They must access the deeper well of talent that exists and bringing them through the system so that they become committed, loyal, deeply engaged attorneys who are serving the client. To continue to be successful, rainmakers will need to take the risks and bring different kinds of people on board; as Dr. Gardner stated “The legal industry is too fragile to rely on just small pool of experts.”
Rainmakers – The Next Generation
As stated previously, Dr. Gardner has found that effective succession planning in law firms has been found wanting. Even though this generation of rainmakers has been around longer than ever, it is critical for the continuing success of firms to take a hard look at bringing up the new generation of rainmakers on deck. The most effect way to begin doing this is through mentorship. Dr. Gardner states, “People need to accept responsibility for developing a pipeline of talent.” She experienced some of the effective mentoring while she was working as a consultant at McKinsey’s Johannesburg office. She worked under a partner that would take her to all the important meetings, where she wasn’t expected to participate, but allowed to observe. During her time under the tutelage of this partner at McKinsey, she learned a tremendous amount about the ins and outs of client handling. Today’s rainmakers need to make those types of investments in people that will eventually come after them.
Up-and-comers also need to be willing to take responsibility for the trajectory of their career. Too often, Dr. Gardner has encountered partners who have tried to give junior partners or associates the opportunity to participate in learning experiences, who are asked “Can I bill the time?” This is the incorrect mindset to have on the road to becoming a successful rainmaker. Dr. Gardner elaborates: “If you’re trying become a successful rainmaker, you have to invest some non-billable time in your own development as well.” Both the willingness of existing rainmakers to mentor and the tenacity of of rising rainmakers will be what dictates the success of the next generation of rainmakers.
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