Mentors Speak on Mentoring
In the recently released book Dear Sisters, Dear Daughters, published by the American Bar Association, experienced multicultural women lawyers act as mentors to the women of color coming behind them in the legal profession. Dear Sisters brings together the inspiring insight and sage advice of more than 80 women lawyers. The professional and personal wisdom they share, however, will benefit women and men in any profession. Here, we offer some excerpts from their observations on mentoring.
- Pursue relationships with mentors and be open to finding them in unexpected packages. Many women of color assume that a mentor has to look like them. Were that true, my colleagues in this book and I would have been doomed, because so few women of color preceded us in the law. My mentors happened to be white men with whom I "clicked" and who formed their first impressions of me based not on my gender or race but on the quality of my work. I, in turn, have mentored many law students and young professionals. Few have been Asian American women like me, which has not been for lack of interest on my part. It has more to do with people who have gravitated toward my areas of practice and with whom I’ve "clicked," which is to say that good chemistry is critical. In every instance, we have enjoyed a special relationship that cannot be forced, which is why I am dubious of formal mentoring programs in which mentors and protégés are assigned to each other.
Wendy Shiba Vice President, Secretary, Assistant General Counsel Bowater, Inc., Greenville, SC
- Is it easy to be a successful minority female attorney? No, but it can be worth the sacrifices that you have to make in order to achieve success. Hard work and long hours are the hallmarks of a successful attorney. As a minority female attorney, however, that is often not enough. You likely will encounter colleagues and clients [who] question your abilities just because of your gender and/or the color of your skin. On the other hand, you also will encounter people (male, female, black, white) who assess your skills fairly and are willing to help you become a better attorney. These are your mentors, whether or not they are officially recognized as such. Seek them out and develop relationships with them on a professional as well as personal level.
Laura A. Wilkinson Rogers & Wells LLP, Washington, DC
- You shouldn’t have to do it alone, but you should be tough enough to do it if you have to. The unfortunate reality of my generation still holds for today’s women of color in the legal world, but it ought not be your deterrent. There will not be an abundance of women of color mentors readily available to you in your law school or law firm. Legal mentors in my generation were even fewer and farther between. But I cannot relate enough the significance of mentors in your lives. It is their experience that will provide you with a foundation for your own career, as their support will inspire you to maintain that energy for your convictions. In my life, I learned from several important individuals, but my parents were my career’s first mentors. Even though they were not in the legal field—and were actually farmworkers who worked in fields—I could not ask for better mentors than them.
Antonia Hernández President, General Counsel Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Los Angeles, CA
- I had three mentors when I first became an attorney. I am still connected to one of those individuals today. One person was a friend from law school who was well connected in the community. That person was my first partner, and his family and their affiliations supplied me with my first clients. The second mentor was an attorney who became my confidant and friend for the next seven years. I leased space at his law firm (a small family business with only one other attorney). I was taught to charge my worth and not to sell myself short. The third mentor is a law professor, judge, and friend who helped me tremendously over the years since our acquaintance in law school. He opened many doors for me and gave me tremendous legal advice. There were several other professional people who gave me legal advice and support when I was a solo practitioner. Every attorney who has any degree of success must have at least one mentor. I also was a mentor to two students—one is now a solo practitioner attorney and the other is a computer analyst.
Valerie R. Johnson Staff Attorney Legal Aid Society, Rochester, NY
- I’ll reiterate the importance of finding a mentor early in your career. I was fortunate enough to clerk on the North Carolina Court of Appeals under the tutelage of the Honorable James A. Wynn, Jr. Judge Wynn was a great mentor. He taught me too many things to enumerate here; however, one thing in particular has stayed with me, and I think it is worthy of mention. As a judicial clerk, my primary responsibility was the (rough) drafting of opinions of the court. Although I have always been an avid reader, Judge Wynn advised me that the best way for one to increase his or her writing skills was to constantly read. Throughout my career as well as in my personal dealings, I have found this lesson to be profoundly true, and I am for-ever grateful for Judge Wynn’s instruction.
Debbie D. Thompson Staff Attorney U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Atlanta, GA
- Remember that someone said a kind word to you that helped you along the path to becoming a lawyer. Return the favor by spending time with another young lady—become a mentor. Studies show that individual time spent with a young person can make the difference in that person becoming a productive member of society or a drain on society’s resources. Young people are bombarded with messages that often are not positive, so they need someone to counteract those negative messages with words and acts of encouragement. You made it, and now you can help someone make it.
Alpha M. Brady Director, Division for Policy Administration American Bar Association, Chicago, IL
- Whether you want to be one or not, you will be regarded as a role model for many people. Be proactive and mentor colleagues, students, and family members. On the other end, recognize that you need mentors yourself, and seek them out. Be aware that mentors come in many colors and both genders. My most unlikely mentor was a conservative Republican partner, who had never worked with a woman, and we stayed in touch until his death many years after I left the firm.
Adrien Katherine Wing Professor University of Iowa College of Law
Join Dear Sisters, Dear Daughters on the Web
You can now dialogue with contributors to the book, ask questions, offer opinions, and generate ideas by joining the Dear Sisters Web Conference. To supplement this popular book, the Dear Sisters, Dear Daughters forum offers a convenient place to share advice, guidance, and lessons learned from experienced multicultural women lawyers.