LM Extras Jun 16, 2021

Changing the Conversation

Meaningful tips for increasing rainmaker diversity.

Law firms have spent considerable time and effort on diversity and inclusion, including methods for diversifying the ranks of senior leaders. Most initiatives are pipeline-focused — they look at how to diversify the candidate pool to include more Black and brown law students, or how to retain more minorities and women.

Liisa M. Thomas

These measures are of course critical. However, they have not led to significant changes in the numbers of minority lawyers in law firm leadership roles.

The questions remains: Why not? It’s because these efforts fail to recognize the importance that rainmaking plays in the law firm leadership structure. Rainmakers, by bringing in the business, are the de facto firm leaders; they bring in the revenue on which firms survive. If more minorities were rainmakers, there would be more minority leaders at law firms. Many firms do have rainmaking (“business development”) training, either using internal or external resources. Minorities and women are already included in those training efforts, but these efforts are not changing the diversity numbers any more than the pipeline work.

Again, we ask, why not? Most efforts focus on technical competences: how to sell, how to network, how to market. They skim past motivation, glossing over it — if asking it at all. The legal industry, when trying to increase the diversity of its leadership, should move away from only teaching the how of rainmaking and add significant effort to the why of rainmaking. Our gut tells us that those who are motivated are going to work harder and go farther.

Research on personal motivation and goal pursuit supports our instincts. Those who achieve their goals share several attributes, including:

Each of these attributes can be developed and supported by firms, by coaches and by aspiring rainmakers using self-directed interventions.

Having aspiring rainmakers develop these attributes will not, alone, turn them into rainmakers. Law firms, coaches and current rainmakers will need to describe the benefits of rainmaking. As a law firm partner, I can attest that there are many. They may not happen all the time, but they do occur — including an ability to direct one’s own career, to have control over one’s destiny, to engage in exciting work, and to engage in the kinds of tasks that one finds most fulfilling.

So what steps can be taken to develop each of these motivation-related attributes? For our aspiring rainmakers, we can share some advice:

  • Perceiving and Living a Calling: One “lives a calling” — if you are doing work that you see as fulfilling, the work has meaning to you and you feel connected to others. Ways to increase your sense of living a calling include identifying your personal mission and things you value and finding ways to bring that sense of purpose into your work life. 
  • Zest: This is the sense of being alive and engaged, and there are many ways to increase this feeling. Interventions range from physical activity to simply being in nature.
  • Autonomy: Autonomy, or the sense of control over one’s destiny, is seen as an important part of work satisfaction. Rainmakers (i.e., senior lawyers) may by default have more autonomy than junior associates. But people can create autonomy. One way is to develop skills and take on added challenges. 
  • Relatedness: We all feel the need to connect with others. Research has shown that those who are successful perceive that they are connected to a community. It doesn’t necessarily take a significant intervention to create that sense of community — sometimes just recognizing its importance can be enough.
  • Competence: To feel a sense of competence, we want to both feel that we have mastered our area and that we are growing — that we are learning new subject areas and gaining new skills. A way to start, if you feel that you don’t have enough mastery and growth in your work, is to identifying your strengths (a good diagnostic tool is at viacharacter.org). You can then spend time trying to integrate those strengths into your daily work.

As a minority woman rainmaker in a large firm, my hope is that we can diversify the ranks of rainmakers. I know that many share this desire, and I urge law firms to focus on interventions that support lawyers’ zest, help them develop a “living a calling” perspective, and help them achieve a sense of autonomy, relatedness and competency. Each one of the ideas outlined above could be turned into more formal programs, whether run by the firm or by external coaches.