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The changing landscape of BD for women in law

Following a survey that revealed that business development is harder for women, this principal urged female lawyers to find ways to network that work for them – but also that “the stereotype is becoming a minority” within BD.

user iconLauren Croft 07 December 2023 SME Law
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Sue-Ella Prodonovich is the principal of Prodonovich Advisory. Speaking on a recent episode of The Boutique Lawyer Show, she discussed whether business development is more difficult for women in the profession – something female firm owners have previously discussed with Lawyers Weekly.

Ms Prodonovich recently put out a survey asking if women found it harder in terms of business development, after having a conversation with a female lawyer at a conference.

“The problem was that at her firm, all the emphasis was on networking. It was like schmoozing after hours networking. She was a young mother with a heavy workload, and she just found it impossible. She just really didn’t want to do these after our events. I was at another course when another young female lawyer piped up and she said she’d go to networking events. And she did this as part of the course in the firm. She just didn’t like them because she was usually surrounded by a sea of older men in dark suits, a situation which can be quite intimidating. And she also found she had little in common to even strike up a conversation with these guys,” she said.


“I want to sort of make it clear from the outset [that] it’s not about bashing one gender for another, because this cuts both ways. I was at a legal conference in the states and I caught up afterwards with a strategic advisor. He’s been doing this for 30 years. And he said, ‘you know what? I don’t go to that conference anymore’ – because he said it’s a room full of younger, mainly female professionals. And he felt like the creepy old guy. But while anecdotally, we hear these stories about how it’s harder because of caring responsibilities and other things, there wasn’t really much research done.”

The survey received approximately 100 responses, most of which came from women with more than a decade of experience. According to Ms Prodonovich, the overwhelming response was that it was harder. The majority of respondents were women, and over 80 per cent were from law firms in Australia.

“Let’s face it, business development is difficult for most people. The days of the rainmaker in the ’80s, slick-talking period has gone because clients can see more information. But let’s look at some headline results. Number one, women are still shouldering most of the workload at home, and they get caught more often than others between parenting responsibilities, childcare and then caring for their parents. Luckily, they’re quite good at it, multitasking, but their time is limited,” she explained.

“I think you’ve got more women … who feel like they’re impostors. They spend more time getting ready for a meeting. They spend more time researching. Their male counterparts are more likely to wing it. So, they’re putting more time into doing all of that. I think that’s what makes it a little more difficult. The thing, though, is COVID was a bit of a breakthrough – the minute we started having meetings online, the minute that we could sort our home lives out a little easier, it really let women come to the fore and establish relationships in their own right.

“It accelerated perhaps the end of days for some old-style networking. Professional industry bodies had to be a little more creative in how they got people together through training and professional development. There were more opportunities that [women] could attend and engage without being the loudest voice or the tallest person in the room. I think, really, that’s one of the bigger things. Once we’re online as well, the corner office and the artefacts of leadership start melting away.”

In the face of this research, Ms Prodonovich outlined a number of practical solutions and strategies that women can be implementing moving forward – such as networking online and setting boundaries with difficult clients.

“In the olden days, like maybe 10 or 15 years ago, we’d focus very much on pipelines. How do I pursue a new prospect? How do I get a new client on board? So I think that moving away from selling skills to business relationships, I think a move away from just gender-based skills and having everyone involved and understanding what each other’s going through is useful. I think the voice of the client, listening to clients and maybe ignoring some clients, I’ve certainly experienced with some firms where clients have been the most difficult. They only want advice from a senior male they trust,” she added.

“Older clients would seek a second opinion or would like another partner to come to the table who they thought had more years. And that’s pretty depressing when those things happen, but it’s less and less. At the end of the day, though, within legal firms and professional services firms, the lawyers need to contribute to the asset of the firm. What I mean by that is they need to have influence over relationships with clients and referrals. They need to be technically competent and have expertise, and they need to have a relationship, a reputation in the market.”

In addition, doing business development in ways that work for you and potentially trying something different could set you apart, according to Ms Prodonovich.

“Really, what we’re talking about is business development when you don’t fit the stereotype, and the stereotype is becoming a minority, so it’s the majority now that are becoming different. So be prepared to push your comfort zone, but don’t try things that are so awkward that it causes you any stress. But accept that you’re going to be pushed, trial and test some things,” she concluded.

“Rather than overthinking before you jump in, do things with a buddy, do things with someone else outside the firm, get outside of the echo chamber of your firm, and what might be said just in a smaller cohort and look for your tribe. In this ecosystem, we only need a few contacts to be successful practitioners, not a few hundred. So, you’re looking for the tribe who are also looking for you.”

The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with Sue-Ella Prodonovich, click below: