Picture this: two firms are vying for the same engagement with a large client. Both firms have great reputations; both put forth lawyers who are experts in their fields; both sets of lawyers have handled matters that are similar to the potential subject. And yet only one firm will be retained by the client. What makes the client choose one firm over another?

I had a theory about the answer to that question. I thought that it took more than just coming from a good firm and having a great reputation to bring business in the door. I believed rainmakers had something that differentiated them from other lawyers: the ability to sell.

This is not a skill we are taught in law school, nor is it the focus of most business development training in firms.

And yet it is precisely what rainmakers do: we sell ourselves, firms, expertise, and reputations. I theorized that successful business developers had personal characteristics that made them better at selling than other lawyers. And in a study I co-sponsored with Lawyer Metrics that was published in late 2013, my theory was verified.

Through psychometric testing and background and behavioral interviewing of rainmakers (attorneys with $4 million in business) and client service partners (attorneys who are highly valued by their firms, but don’t have large books of business), we found that rainmakers do, in fact, display characteristics that are different from client service partners. Those characteristics are engagement, dominance, motivation, and risk-taking. And when you talk with successful rainmakers, you see these characteristics prominently displayed.

Engagement is the ability to actively listen, look for connections, and be interested while also being interesting. Rainmakers like people, so they ask questions, gather information, and use that information to connect with the people. They see their work and personal lives as inextricably intertwined, so business development is not a burden but a part of everyday life.

Dominance is the ability to persuade and lead. Rainmakers use this characteristic to help clients reach business solutions. How do they do that? They learn their client’s business and understand their business goals. So when they respond to a client, they speak like business people, not lawyers. They are strategic, creative, and innovative in the way they approach business problems, always looking for the best way to help clients legally reach their business goals.

Motivation is the ability to be a team player, but unlike client service partners, rainmakers view “the team” as the client. Rainmakers focus on making the client look good and bringing the client into the decision-making process so that she is invested in the decisions being made. Rainmakers empower others and delegate responsibility to their team in the office so that they can focus on bringing in new clients.

The final characteristic is risk-taking, which is exactly what it sounds like: the ability and willingness to take risks. Rainmakers differentiate themselves from the pack by putting out ideas, approaches, and solutions that are outside the box. They are never satisfied with the status quo and are always looking for the next thing. So when a rainmaker is told “no” by a client, she actually hears “not now.”

What the “Rainmaker Study” confirms is that business development has two parts. First, you must have an excellent reputation. You build that with your colleagues and in the community by doing excellent work and by giving speeches, writing articles, winning cases, and making deals. You promote your reputation by being willing to talk about your successes, taking credit for your good ideas, and asking for opportunities that will enhance and expand your reputation. The second part of being a successful rainmaker is not as tactical but is instead about knowing how to build relationships. That is what the four characteristics identified above are all about: knowing how to engage and connect with your client, understanding your client’s business goals and challenges, making your client feel like part of your team, and letting the client know that you are willing to push the envelope to find creative and innovative business solutions. Both of the R’s—the ability to build a reputation and the ability to build relationships—are what make lawyers successful rainmakers.

So that brings us to the ultimate question: can anyone be a rainmaker? The study tells us that the personal characteristics of rainmakers are the same for men and women, meaning that gender is not an issue in terms of ability (although it might be an issue in terms of opportunity, but that is for another discussion).

We all know that there are some people who are fabulous lawyers, but should never be allowed in front of a client. Then there are people who are natural rainmakers, who are born with the ability to connect with people and draw them in. They may need to refine some of their skills, but they are primed to be successful business developers. And lastly, there are those in the middle who can develop into rainmakers with the proper training.

Unfortunately, that training is all but nonexistent in the world of law firms. Instead, most training is focused on building reputation, not building relationships. This needs to change. We have to admit that we are in the business of selling, and we need to focus on enhancing the rainmaking skill sets of lawyers by teaching them more than simply the tactics of rainmaking. It is the ability to build relationships that differentiates lawyers from rainmakers, and the sooner we refocus our training efforts on that, the sooner we will increase the rainmaking ranks of our firms.


This article is copyrighted by Patricia K. Gillette.