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.