YOU DON’T ASK, YOU DON’T GET
Pepper Hamilton’s $65 million rainmaker explains the secrets of her success.
Litigator Nina Gussack, who recently stepped down as chair of Pepper Hamilton’s executive committee, brings in a hefty portion of her firm’s gross
revenue. As she tells senior reporter VIVIA CHEN, she’s not a natural salesperson—but you can’t be shy about asking for business.
THE AMERICAN LAWYER: You are
responsible for $65 million worth
of business—about 20 percent of
the firm’s total revenue. That’s
pretty awesome. Was rainmaking
always part of your career strat-
GUSSACK: When I started out
[after graduating from Villanova
Law School in 1979], the goal
was to become a partner. I want-
ed the gold ring. I also knew I
wanted to grow my business. My
father was a businessman, and
he constantly told me that some
lawyers didn’t understand busi-
ness goals. I absorbed that train-
ing—that you had to understand
the clients’ needs to be successful.
TAL: Your major clients are Eli Lilly,
Glaxo, and Bristol-Myers. How did
you decide to focus on Big Pharma?
GUSSACK: When I was in school,
I was interested in medicine. I
came to Pepper as a summer as-
sociate, and Ned Madeira [now
chair emeritus of the firm] was
doing a lot of pharma. I sought
him out when I came to the firm.
Then he cultivated me. With his
support, my practice grew.
TAL: So he was your mentor—and
you initiated the contact. How did
you know he could help your ca-
GUSSACK: I picked him because
of his work, not because of per-
sonality. But it worked out. He
was everything I needed. He was
ambitious for me, he urged me to
take risks, and he raised my pro-
file with clients. But there was
nothing that would have predict-
ed that we would have a success-
ful mentor/mentee relationship.
TAL: People make a big deal about
mentors and sponsors these days.
There are whole seminars devot-
ed to the topic. Are people over-
studying the issue?
GUSSACK: People make the mis-
take that the mentor has to look
like them or share the same
background. Ned was my men-
tor, though he had never worked
closely with a woman—certainly
not a Jewish woman. He was
a WASP Mainline prototype.
Sometimes the best mentors are
people who are not in your com-
TAL: Do you remember the first
time you brought in a matter?
GUSSACK: I was young—in my
mid-thirties. . . . I had been work-
ing for Eli Lilly for a number of
years on a variety of matters, and
then an issue arose about a drug
that resulted in deaths during clin-
ical trials. It was a significant mat-
ter, and I became national counsel
for them. Once you demonstrate
understanding of the client’s
needs, opportunities broaden.
TAL: After you scored that first
big matter, did say to yourself,
“Hey, that wasn’t so hard”?
GUSSACK: No! It was harder than
I expected, and it’s harder every day. You have to be efficient,
make sure your practice broadens.
There are now more regulatory
considerations, consumer protection claims, multidistrict litigation.
TAL: By any standard, you’ve succeeded at rainmaking. How did
you hit the jackpot when so many
women struggle for business?
GUSSACK: You have to ask for the
business, and you have to let the
client know that you can handle
things. There’s a big difference
between having a conversation
with a client and asking for business. Women stop short of asking
for business. I tell young women
that you have to be the best substantively, but that you also have
to put yourself out there and inject yourself in the client’s orbit.
It’s true: You have to ask 20 times
to get one [client]. You need to
develop a thick skin.
TAL: Does that describe you? Are
you a natural salesperson?
GUSSACK: For some people, it’s
natural. For me, it’s a challenge
every time. There’s always that
fear of rejection. Getting that first
pickle out of the jar is the hardest.
TAL: I hate to ask you this, but I’m
sure some people are wonder-
ing: Have you ever slowed down
during your career? Do you have
GUSSACK: I do have two children
[now in their twenties]. I did take
maternity leave, but I didn’t work
part-time. A lot of women find
they need to work part-time; it
wasn’t for me. It is an incredibly
intense practice, and people need
to make choices.
TAL: Here’s another question I
hate to ask: How did you manage
to do it all?
GUSSACK: You need a collabora-
tive partner and great child care.
It is hard juggling. My husband is
a law professor at Rutgers, so he
has flexibility and can scoot out at
three o’clock for the pediatrician.
TAL: At this point, you should be
sitting pretty and leaving the of-
fice at a decent hour. What keeps
you working so hard?
GUSSACK: I have strong relation-
ships with clients. They expect a
great deal. It is demanding. I still
find it immensely satisfying.
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