American Bar Association
February 27, 2012
“As any good mountaineer will tell you, a successful ascent requires a good deal of preparation: choosing fellow climbers, ensuring team conditioning, assembling first-rate equipment and having experienced guides.”
Jay M. Jackman. Quoted in Nichols, Nancy A. (Ed.), “Reach for the Top: Women and the Changing Facts of Work Life,” Harvard Business School Press, 1996, p. 81.
The need to strategically plan and navigate your career never ends. When you enter a new workplace, you need to understand the culture of the organization. As you move up the ranks, you need to master delegation and management skills. At midcareer, you may be ready for new professional challenges but still need some guidance. And retirement transitions require a different kind of assistance. Guided professional development, modeling advice, and advocacy are ongoing necessities for a successful legal career.
Every woman attorney, then, needs a mentor. But the old model of mentoring, in which a senior attorney took on a protégé, is rarely realistic in today’s legal workplace. First, the demands on the time of senior attorneys make it all but impossible for them to devote themselves to a mentor-protégé relationship. Furthermore, people are typically more attracted to those who are similar to themselves. In most legal workplaces, the most seasoned and powerful attorneys are still white men. Generational differences also make finding an ideal mentor difficult. And if you find such a perfect mentor, you will probably need to queue up––think of how many other women are searching for the same kind of counsel!
Additionally, traditional mentoring is skill focused. However, women and attorneys of color need mentoring that is not just instructional but also provides emotional support, builds confidence, and helps the protégé to effectively deal with the potential barriers to success posed by unintended bias and stereotyping. Women attorneys wanting to find ways to address work-family conflict need experienced colleagues who can empathize with their difficulties and share time-tested strategies. Similarly, women with leadership ambitions need models with whom they can identify.
Many firms have formal mentoring programs developed to address these needs. However, these relationships are “arranged marriages” in an association that in reality relies upon good chemistry. Even when mentoring programs are successful, they rarely address the needs of attorneys beyond the first few years of practice. The new partner, the midcareer attorney, and the attorney considering retirement are rarely offered mentors to help them navigate these transitions.
Your Personal Board of Advisors
It is essential to keep in mind that no one will ever care more about your career than you. When you take personal responsibility for your own professional development and success, you are far more likely to feel in control of your career and to overcome challenges to your success. Rather than wait for your firm or organization to provide you with the kind of mentoring you really need, why not proactively develop relationships with people who can provide mentoring across a wide variety of concerns?
You might think of this group of mentors as your own personal board of advisors. Whether or not you meet with all of them simultaneously, each board member can be chosen to fulfill specific needs. The list of expectations any attorney has of a good mentor is daunting. No wonder so few senior attorneys are willing to try to fill this role! You will be far more likely to get all the different kinds of help you need if you clarify your needs and objectives for mentoring relationships and then identify a group of people who can assist you in accomplishing your goals.
Selecting Members of Your Board
Mentoring needs change at different points in your career development. So the first step is to assess your requirements at this point in your career. Selecting potential mentors will depend largely on the results of your assessment. Ask yourself, “What expertise do I need to develop to undertake this challenge? What confuses me now that some clarification could help? Which path is so murky that I need someone who has traveled this road before?”
Your personal board of advisors serves as a kind of informal, customized, personal knowledge resource to fill in your knowledge and support gaps. Once you have determined the kind of knowledge, modeling, and advice you need, ask yourself, “Who would know something about this?”
Having identified your learning and support requirements, look for mentors in a variety of places. Ask successful attorneys to recommend people with particular expertise or those who have been helpful to them in some way. Look around your firm for people you admire and would like to emulate. Maybe you have come across an in-house attorney who is willing to advise you about how clients make buying decisions. Consider your former law school professors who possess the expertise you are trying to develop. Perhaps you have encountered an opposing counsel from whose experience you think you can benefit. You may have attended a CLE program and thought of the presenter as someone who could really help you succeed.
Every situation presents you with possibilities for finding mentors. Listen to the contributions people make at meetings you attend. Be attentive to those who have special expertise in areas you want to develop, those whom you admire, and those who have values similar to your own. Work on collaborative projects with people, both at work and in your community, and observe others’ strengths. Take note of good networkers whose success secrets you would like to emulate. If you attend a program and are particularly interested in the speaker, try to approach her afterwards. Tell her you admire her work and would like to learn from her, or that you want to achieve what she has and would appreciate her advice.
If possible, get a feel for what it would be like to work with a potential member of your personal advisory board. You might volunteer to serve on a committee or seek out an assignment that will allow you to work with a potential mentor as a way to establish a working relationship.
Try to spot people who seem particularly disposed to invest in a mentoring relationship. When people express genuine interest in you and your career, consider taking them up on it.
Different Functions for Different Board Members
New attorneys need a mentor within their organization who can help them learn about its culture. This mentor can provide tips on who is powerful, who the key players and decision makers are, whom to seek out, and whom not to cross. A more senior lawyer in your firm can help you learn the protocol; she can facilitate your socialization and integration into the firm. Colleagues with whom you forge alliances within your organization can assist you in learning the skills required for advancement.
It is extremely useful to find a mentor who does the same kind of work as you. A senior and successful attorney in your practice area who can provide candid and constructive criticism of your work––and who is not writing your formal evaluation––is an invaluable resource.
It is helpful for women attorneys to form alliances with other women who share their values concerning work-life conflict. It is even better if you admire how this person has handled the issues in her own life.
It is also advantageous to build alliances with people outside of your workplace. These may be individuals with expertise in areas where you have knowledge gaps, people you genuinely admire and believe can teach you a lot, and attorneys who are particularly supportive and whose perspective on the profession is of value to you. Your personal board of advisors may also include people in other professions, perhaps in the industry you serve. You might want to include a professional career/executive coach on your board.
Sponsors and Champions
Mentors may serve many different functions. They can enhance your career prospects by increasing your human capital, helping you to develop job-related knowledge, skills, and abilities. Mentoring can also help integrate you into the workplace. A mentor who “shows you the ropes” helps you negotiate the organization and provides insider information about organizational politics. Mentors may provide emotional support and modeling. However, studies of mentoring in law firms indicate that this is insufficient to enable a woman attorney to reach the highest levels of law firm leadership.
Another mentoring function is that of increasing the protégé’s social capital. A mentee’s career benefits when her mentor provides her with access to his network, facilitates her participation in collaborative projects, promotes her to others thereby augmenting her visibility and credibility, protects and champions her behind the scenes, provides challenging and highly noticeable work assignments, brings her along on client meetings and ensures that she plays an active role, and by association, signals her legitimacy to decision makers. A mentor like this functions as a sponsor or champion.
The sponsor on your board can make all the difference in enabling you to advance to the highest level of the profession. Research on the relationship between mentoring and the career success of women suggests that often a male attorney is most effective in filling this seat on your board. This is not surprising, given that the overwhelming majority of leaders in the legal profession are men. However, the gendered culture of law firms also influences the differential effects of male vs. female mentors for the careers of women attorneys. Success in most firms requires the ability to thrive in a highly competitive, aggressive, individualistic, heroic culture. These attributes, stereotypically associated with masculine behavior, are viewed as indicators of potential and fitness. Decision makers always have incomplete information about candidates for advancement. In the absence of sufficient, objective information to allow for a rational means of discriminating among aspiring attorneys, having a powerful male mentor signals to the predominantly male leadership that a woman lawyer has what it takes. In other words, a male mentor/champion may help you overcome unintended bias based upon gender stereotypes.
A woman lawyer without such an advocate is at a disadvantage. Research indicates that women with senior male mentors are more likely to advance and to receive higher compensation. In addition, formal mentoring programs are unlikely to help you reap the benefits of sponsorship. Instead, the voluntary selection of a protégé by a senior male signals to other firm leaders that you possess those qualities believed to be requirements for success.
Assuming a Leader’s Identity
While the sponsorship of a powerful senior male attorney is likely to facilitate attaining promotions, it does not appear to prepare women well for assuming the role and identity of partner or leader; nor does it inspire the confidence and satisfaction it is supposed to bring. The lack of women at the highest levels leaves many new women partners without a clear picture of how to act the part. Without such models, women can become less confident and more anxious. In addition, male mentors typically fail to provide other essential mentoring functions: social and emotional support, or advice concerning role ambiguity and work-family conflict. Research indicates that these functions are better served by women mentors.
Cultivating Relationships with Your Personal Advisory Board
The alliances you form with members of your board are substantive, strategically important business relationships. These are genuine, meaningful, and productive relationships with people at all levels of experience who can provide career enhancement and self-development.
Relationships with members of your board depend upon personal chemistry and often occur serendipitously. They evolve in a natural and authentic way. But you can influence serendipity by volunteering for committees or working on assignments that allow collaborative relationships to develop. This also allows both parties to evaluate the benefits of the working relationship.
Knowledge and assistance are privileges, not rights. It is important to clarify each person’s expectations of the relationship. Negotiate how long you expect the alliance to proceed in this form; at a later date you can always arrange to continue the relationship.
Try to gain an understanding of what each mentor needs for the relationship to be mutually rewarding. For some board members, helping another attorney succeed will be sufficient. Others may feel rewarded by your offers to assist them in writing articles or introducing them to other people in your network.
It is important not to abuse your relationships with the members of your personal advisory board. Be clear about each individual’s willingness to be available and helpful, and structure your requests accordingly. Treat these relationships with great care, show appropriate gratitude, and give proper credit for contributions. Never waste your advisors’ time. When you seek their expertise, prepare your questions well and summarize the efforts you’ve already made to solve the problem.
Lay the Groundwork In Advance
The worst time to be constructing your personal board of advisors is when you need it to work for you. It’s essential to be proactive and to find ways to build these relationships before you need to call on them for assistance. The kind of social capital provided by your relationships with mentors doesn’t typically produce quick dividends. The benefits of social capital take time to accrue. In fact, social capital is the by-product of your efforts to contribute to the success of others.
The principle of reciprocity creates social capital. Reciprocity begins with an act of generosity without the expectation of a return. Helping others without regard to how they will help you is the best way to make sure that you will benefit from the relationships you create. Working to understand the needs of others around you and doing your best to contribute generously to their success is the best way to plant the seeds for your own success. People whom you have helped will want to help you succeed. Consider potential contenders for seats on your personal advisory board and start planting those seeds.
© Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., CMC