Top of the Mountain

Making partner, ginning up huge business, earning peer respect and industry influence are laudable goals—but it’s important to pursue them methodically and mindfully. One dynamic duo who have reached the mountaintop show how it’s done.

Red flag sitting on the top of a mountain summit

LaVon M. Johns and Patricia Brown Holmes

June 1, 2023 11:00 PM

PATRICIA BROWN HOLMES, managing partner of Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila LLP (“RSHC”), is a seasoned trial lawyer and former state court judge. She is the first Black woman to lead and have her name on the door of a major law firm that is not women- or minority-owned. LaVon M. Johns, a highly sought-after dealmaker with a focus on complex commercial real estate and finance transactions, now leads RSHC’s thriving business transactions practice group. Separately, these two dynamic attorneys have built blockbuster legal careers. These talented women now practice together at RSHC, where there are no limits to what they can achieve for their clients and their firm. Here, they provide their insights on climbing the ladder of success.

Understand what it truly means to strive to be exceptional. Many up-and-coming lawyers aspire to become superstar partners who singlehandedly generate enormous revenue as a highly valued “rainmaker.” But the work of building a reputation for exceptional legal acumen and an enduring clientele is far more collaborative and service-oriented than the rainmaker trope implies. It requires tireless effort, resilience and tenacity.

Excellence in your craft—developing superior subject matter expertise and sharpening all the skills necessary to master the cases or matters in your practice area—is the foundation of every rainmaker’s practice. From there, success comes from building relationships and serving the colleagues, clients and prospects in your network and beyond.

True rainmakers are deeply engaged outside the firm, constantly in conversation with stakeholders across and beyond the areas in which they practice. They understand the value they personally bring to any project but also appreciate the skills of all the other professionals they know and go out of their way to connect people who can help one another.

In making these connections, rainmakers broker relationships that might not immediately benefit their own business—and they are glad to do so. In the long run, acts of service create opportunities a lawyer can later build on.

Spectacular client service is key. Make your clients’ goals your own. Building strong business relationships is hard work, humbling and time-consuming. Approaching the task with the appropriate mindset is key: Your clients’ and prospects’ goals must become your own. Clients must trust you and believe you have their best interests first and foremost.

How do you ensure you are properly aligned? It begins with listening carefully to what a business leader needs, understanding his or her pain points and collaborating to create potential solutions. This work cannot be done from a distance; you must get in the trenches with your clients and walk beside them through the messy, complex challenges they face daily. You must know what they know—and more. You must see around corners and think far down the road.

Not only will such close alignment enable you to truly understand clients’ needs from both a business and legal perspective, but by demonstrating your commitment, you show that you are worthy of the trust clients place in you. That is what makes a business relationship last. Most of our longtime client relationships have become true friendships because clients know they can count on us for whatever they need.

Stay above the noise. Be flexible. Building a successful legal career in the law is difficult for anyone. But as we all know, women, and particularly minority women, face additional obstacles posed by systemic bias and the assumptions some people make about our capabilities and gifts.

It is undeniable that these factors exist, but you can accept that fact and make a commitment to yourself that you will not let bias distract you or limit your vision of what is possible. There will always be noise of one kind or another; rise (and stay) above it. Show up every day with your game face on, prepared to do excellent work and exceed everyone’s expectations. But stay humble. Good lawyers are always learning, always improving so they can better serve their clients.

Understand, too, that as your personal life evolves throughout your career, you will need to adapt to continue to exercise your ambition and maintain your momentum. This does not look the same for everyone. While some women may want to step back for a time to focus on their family, others may find they want to sustain their current pace alongside the new responsibilities. Sometimes well-intentioned advice about cutting back for “work-life balance” can limit what we believe is possible. But each of us must decide for ourselves what our path will look like and how we want to integrate our personal and professional lives.

These choices are difficult, so female lawyers should surround themselves with mentors and colleagues who encourage them to keep going. No one can build a successful law career alone.

Keep climbing. Even when you slip, get back up and keep going. When you first graduate from law school, you have reached the finish line of a very difficult three-year race. And you think you are a star. Then you begin your first law firm job, and you realize you do not yet know very much at all. Later in your career, you might become a partner, and while that is an exciting achievement, you are also humbled all over again by the new complexity and challenges. The higher you climb, the harder you have to work to keep from falling.

There are moments when you will feel you have finally “made it”—and those moments are worth celebrating. Celebrate them often! After the celebration, though, you must continue to bring your highest energy and best ideas to the tasks in front of you. That never ends, but that is a good thing. Striving is the heart of your work. Good lawyers are always focused on improving processes, identifying new goals and working to achieve them. There is always a bigger deal, a bigger client, a more important case you will want to challenge yourself to take on. A career as a well-respected law firm partner and rainmaker is a marathon, not a sprint.

Have fun! Be happy! Most of all, make your own happiness the goal. A happy lawyer is a productive lawyer, fully able to share her gifts, enjoy the pleasure of solving problems in creative ways and deliver true value to her clients. If it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing. So make it the most fun you’ve ever had.

Patricia Brown Holmes is the managing partner of Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila LLP and focuses her practice on high-stakes, “bet-the-company” commercial disputes and litigation; class actions; investigations; ESG; and risk, reputation and crisis management counseling for her wide range of public and private corporate clients.

LaVon M. Johns is a partner with Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila LLP, and an industry luminary best regarded for her practice advising clients in complex commercial real estate and finance transactions, including acquisitions, dispositions, financing, leasing and public/private partnership transactions.

Headline Image: iStock/Overearth

Related Articles

The Breadwinner

by Courtney E. Ervin

Two lawyers, one big life decision: How my husband and I are working to eradicate the stigma of putting my career first.

Silhouette of women in suit stands in the middle of equal scale

Crucial Alliances

by Jane E. Young

Workplaces everywhere have changed since the start of the pandemic in ways that can be highly beneficial to women. Here’s a road map for consolidating recent gains—and making the most of them going forward.

Woman at desk working with roadmap behind her

A Beautiful Mind: Motown Beginnings, Top Dealmaker

by Sara Collin

Motown scion Farah Fakir Cook has achieved her own stardom away from the klieg lights, helping clients navigate ever-changing currents in intellectual property and technology. One crucial topic looms especially large for her in the years ahead: How current law will contend with the rise of artificial intelligence.

Woman wearing pink suit standing against desk

Progress and Potential

by Michele M. Jochner

Women have undeniably made great strides in our profession in recent decades, but much remains to be done. What’s the current state of the industry, what lies ahead—and what do lawyers (male and female alike) say are the most important issues going forward

Watercolor image of person on a mountain looking at night sky

Greener Than Thou

by Tanya C. Nesbitt

Litigation concerning ESG practices and environmental justice considerations is certain to increase in the years ahead. Public companies in particular: You have been warned.

Two individuals in business attire sitting in conference room

Can These Walls Talk?

by Joanne M. O'Connor

Is architecture speech? A recent landmark Eleventh Circuit case raised a host of curious issues encompassing property rights, aesthetics and the First Amendment.

Cartoon figure on the phone with documents in hand and 1st Amendment text in backdrop

Canadian Women in the Legal Profession: From Non-‘Persons’ to Chief Justices

by Sara Collin

We take an in-depth look at the challenges and optimistic future of women in the Canadian legal sector.

Canadian Women in the Legal Profession

The Future of Litigation Is Changing for Female Solicitors in the U.K.

by Catherine Baksi

The support of entire law firms, organizations and senior counsel members will be the key to encouraging female solicitors and positive change in the industry.

Changing Litigation for UK Female Solicitors

New Sheriff in Town on ESG

by Patricia Brown Holmes

Various regulatory agencies within the Biden Administration are stepping up enforcement of corporate malfeasance in the ever-trendy ESG space.

ESG Enforcement in the Corporate Environment

Follow the Money

by Rachel F. Sifuentes

Women are the future of fintech—but in the here and now, they’re still being underserved in an industry otherwise marked by explosive growth. Here’s why that must change.

Women and the Future of Fintech

Privacy Practice

by Casey Waughn

Data protection is all the rage among tech companies and state, national (and even transnational) governments alike. Is it a passing fad or here to stay? And how should businesses and groups of all sizes handle compliance with a blizzard of new laws?

Data Protection Prompt New Privacy Laws

The Upcycle Conundrum

by Karen Kreider Gaunt

Laudable or litigious? What you need to know about potential copyright and trademark infringement when repurposing products.

Repurposed Products and Copyright Infringemen

The Compensation Situation

by Liz S. Washko

Pay discrimination has been outlawed for decades. Yet the issue has taken on new salience in recent years. Here’s what to know about compensation equity—and where the legal risk lies for companies.

Pay Discrimination and Equity in Legal Indust

Remote Controls

by Cynthia Morgan Ohlenforst

How law firms, lawyers and taxing authorities must adapt to remote work

Law Firms Adapt to Remote Work

Changes and Challenges

by Megan Norris

As the pandemic ebbs and many people return to the office, midsize law firms in particular must navigate a host of unprecedented questions about costs, culture and client expectations.

Changes, Challenges and Cost of the Pandemic

Carrying the Torch While Raising the Bar

by Sharen L. Nocella

Catherine Pyune McEldowney makes waves as one of the few Asian-American women at the pinnacle of a U.S. law firm.

Asian-American Representation in Law

Trending Articles

A Celebration of Excellence: The Best Lawyers in Canada 2024 Awards

by Best Lawyers

As we embark on the 18th edition of The Best Lawyers in Canada™, we are excited to highlight excellence and top legal talent across the country.

Abstract image of red and white Canada flag in triangles

The Long, Short, Thick and Thin of It

by Avrohom Gefen

“Appearance discrimination” based on employees’ height and weight is the latest hot-button issue in employment law. Here’s a guide to avoid discrimination.

Woman stands in front of mirror holding suit jacket

Trailblazing Titans of the Industry: Announcing the 4th Edition Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch® in America

by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers honor and celebrate these talented, innovative newer lawyers who are trailblazing their way to victories in courtrooms across the country.

Connected web above map of the U.S.

Announcing the 2023 The Best Lawyers in America Honorees

by Best Lawyers

Only the top 5.3% of all practicing lawyers in the U.S. were selected by their peers for inclusion in the 29th edition of The Best Lawyers in America®.

Gold strings and dots connecting to form US map

Pearls of Wisdom: Celebrating 30 Editions of Best Lawyers’ Rankings

by Best Lawyers

In celebration of our landmark 30th edition, Best Lawyers’ leadership explains how the world’s original and most trusted legal awards maintain their esteem, integrity and reputation for excellence among the top legal entities and their clients.

Best Lawyers logo for 30th edition release with gold glitter in background

Vanguards of Victory: Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in Canada 2024

by Best Lawyers

The third edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in Canada™ has been announced, and the lawyers showcased by these awards are rising to the challenge each day as advocates for clients all across the country.

Blue and black background with small squares connected by lines

Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America for 2023

by Best Lawyers

The third edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America™ highlights the legal talent of lawyers who have been in practice less than 10 years.

Three arrows made of lines and dots on blue background


Thomson Rogers: Toronto Personal Injury Lawyers

by Thomson Rogers

Since establishment in 1935, Toronto-based firm Thomson Rogers has consistently delivered results for their clients struggling through complex litigation.

Top of a Staircase Featuring Two Large Black Doors with Bookshelves and Chairs on Each Side

Announcing the 2023 The Best Lawyers in Canada Honorees

by Best Lawyers

The Best Lawyers in Canada™ is entering its 17th edition for 2023. We highlight the elite lawyers awarded this year.

Red map of Canada with white lines and dots

The Best Lawyers in South Africa™ 2023

by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers proudly announces lawyers recognized in South Africa for 2023.

South African flag


How Long Does a Felony Stay On Your Record in California

by Peter Blair

A felony can remain on your record for life in California. Some felonies qualify for expungement. Learn how to remove a felony conviction from your record in California.

Hand setting bird free out of a guarded fence

What the Courts Say About Recording in the Classroom

by Christina Henagen Peer and Peter Zawadski

Students and parents are increasingly asking to use audio devices to record what's being said in the classroom. But is it legal? A recent ruling offer gives the answer to a question confusing parents and administrators alike.

Is It Legal for Students to Record Teachers?

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers® in the United States

by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers listed in the 28th Edition of The Best Lawyers in America® and in the 2nd Edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America for 2022.

2022 Best Lawyers Listings for United States

The Upcycle Conundrum

by Karen Kreider Gaunt

Laudable or litigious? What you need to know about potential copyright and trademark infringement when repurposing products.

Repurposed Products and Copyright Infringemen

The Best Lawyers in Australia™ 2024 Launch

by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is excited to announce The Best Lawyers in Australia™ for 2023, including the top lawyers and law firms from Australia.

Australian Parliament beside water at sunset

Wage and Overtime Laws for Truck Drivers

by Greg Mansell

For truck drivers nationwide, underpayment and overtime violations are just the beginning of a long list of problems. Below we explore the wages you are entitled to but may not be receiving.

Truck Driver Wage and Overtime Laws in the US