Having a mentor is essential to the success of any young attorney. However, it is even more so for young, female attorneys, because the practice of law continues to be male-dominated in many environments, especially at the highest levels of management. Having a mentor will give you a resource to consult about many difficult issues which may arise in your first years of practice and for which law school may not have prepared you. Examples may include office politics, gender differences in the work place, career-path planning, and thorny ethical issues.
Have Mentors Inside and Outside of the Organization for Which You Work
A mentor who works at the same organization as you has many advantages: s/he knows the environment and individuals you deal with at the office; s/he knows the office culture at your workplace; s/he has personal experience navigating the hiring and promotion structure of your work place. Therefore, having a mentor inside your organization is a great idea because s/he can provide you with unique insights.
However, there are other factors that may be drawbacks: s/he may have a strong feeling of loyalty toward the organization and have a hard time hearing criticism of it or viewing it objectively; s/he may have a hard time keeping information you provide confidential, whether due to internal reporting regulations or other factors; s/he may be responsible for decisions about retaining or promoting you. Thus, it is a good idea to seek out another mentor who works at a different organization. The ABA is an excellent resource for doing just that. Another great resource to find an outside mentor is a law school or other alumni association.
Seek Out a Mentor of the Opposite Gender
It is tempting to think that someone of your own gender will understand your situation and issues better than someone of the opposite gender. In fact, it may be true. However, if some of the issues you would like to address with your mentor relate to gender differences and interactions in the workplace, the perspective of a mentor of the opposite gender may be invaluable. You may want to ask questions like, “If I did X, how would you perceive it?” As pointed out above, you do not have to have just one mentor. So, why not have at least one of the opposite gender?
Be Aware of the Possibility of Queen Bee Syndrome
Another reason it may be helpful to have at least one mentor of the opposite gender is “Queen Bee Syndrome.” This refers to the tendency of senior females to be more critical of female subordinates than of male ones and/or the reluctance of senior females to assist in the career formation of more junior females. Not all social scientists agree on the existence or prevalence of this phenomenon. Even among those social scientists who agree it exists, there are many theories and explanations as to why it exists. Some believe the attitude of senior females to be “I made it in a male-dominated industry without any help, so why should I help someone else?” Others believe it to be, “In this male-dominated industry, women have to be twice as good as men to advance the same amount, so I will be hard on my female subordinates to prepare them.”
Regardless of the reasons for these behaviors, my personal and anecdotal experience has been that they do exist. Many young, female attorneys I have spoken with have been disappointed by the reception they have gotten from more senior, female attorneys. Many describe having approached senior female attorneys at their firms seeking mentorship only to have had their advances rebuffed or having received reviews from female superiors which were much more critical than those from their male superiors.
If you do encounter these behaviors, it is important to realize that this attitude may have nothing to do with you personally as the subordinate female. Moreover, as much as it might not feel that way, it may come from a benevolent desire on the part of the senior female to help the subordinate female succeed.
The possibility of Queen Bee Syndrome is another reason to have a mentor who works for a different organization: it may be that a senior female at another organization will not perceive you as a ‘direct threat’ and therefore will be less prone to engage in these behaviors. For other suggestions on how to tackle this issue, I recommend “In the Company of Women.” Pat Heim, Ph. D. & Susan A. Murphy, Ph. D., MBA (2003).
Consider Taking a Personality Test
Picking a mentor who understands you is very important. How can you do that if you do not understand yourself? At one point in my legal career, I took a Myers-Briggs® test. I found it extremely revealing. By understanding how my own thought patterns and predispositions worked, I was able to find like-minded colleagues and create a support network. I also was able to work more effectively with colleagues who had personality traits I did not share. Moreover, certain traits and tendencies tend be associated with one gender versus another. Thus, taking a personality test may not only help you choose the right mentor, but also get along better with colleagues and other individuals in your life. Further, it may help you avoid the “Queen Bee” issue mentioned above by enlightening you as to which senior females will be responsive to mentoring you based on similar personality traits.
Be Both a Mentor and Mentee at the Same Time
As a young attorney, you may feel that you do not have enough experience to mentor someone else. However, there may well be others out there who would love the chance to be your mentees: younger lawyers, law students, college students considering legal careers, paralegals, etc. Serving as a mentor to someone else will not only help that someone else, it also will help you be a better mentee to your own mentor. It will help you understand the challenges of being a mentor and what questions and thoughts you can convey to your own mentor to help her/him be more effective.