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February 27, 2012 Articles

Who Makes the Best Mentors for Female Associates?

While starting the career process can be a struggle for any fresh associate, it can prove especially difficult for young women just entering the firm environment.

By Holly J. Clemente

Lawyers face a myriad of difficulties when starting their careers—learning the many differences between law school and a law firm, juggling new clients, working with a secretary. Juggling all this while simultaneously learning to deal with office politics can be overwhelming; and while the process can be a struggle for any fresh associate, it can prove especially difficult for young women just entering the firm environment.

It may be possible to climb the corporate ladder on your own but having the support and the ear of a mentor, someone who is already where you wish to be, can make all the difference. According to Susan Black, vice president of Catalyst in Canada, “A mentor can be the person who helps you figure out how to get what you want, whether that is a strategy to go after the right assignments that will lead to a promotion or negotiating a flexible schedule.” Choosing the right mentors and convincing them to choose you is vital to your career. A good mentor can point you in the right direction, show you the big picture, point out where you could stand to improve, and highlight the areas where you are doing well.

A new associate can also tap into her mentor’s already-established network. The mentor can provide a protégé with the kind of work assignments that get noticed; assignments that a new associate might not otherwise get a chance to undertake. Former ABA President Robert J. Grey (2004–2005) noted that the most crucial ingredient for career advancement is social capital, something that having the right mentor can increase considerably.

But having a mentor is not only about what you can gain it is also about what you can provide. As in any healthy association, both parties must feel as if they are benefiting from the relationship. If you think that you may be demanding too much from your mentor, try to find ways you can contribute to the relationship. It does not have to be much, but it needs to be meaningful. Perhaps you can share your network with your mentor. If this leads to a paying client, your mentor is likely to remember it and will be much more eager to assist the next time you have a problem. Or perhaps you pride yourself on staying abreast of the newest technology. If you are a good deal younger than your mentor and more familiar with all the latest gizmos, your mentor may really appreciate your insights into the newest functions of these devices––especially if they can simplify life in some way.

Do your best to refrain from intruding too often on your mentor’s time. Remember that you sought out your mentor largely because he or she is successful, which likely means that your mentor is busy. You do not want to be thought of as a burden. Many mentors have set times when they will work with mentees, while others tend to enjoy a more relaxed approach. Find out your mentor’s preferences and abide by them.

I should say something here on the topic of confidentiality. The importance of keeping quiet cannot be overstressed. If you are going to work in a law firm, it is mandatory to learn that there are things you discuss with others and things you do not. If your mentor believes you have a big mouth, then he or she is not going to share things with you, and the relationship will suffer significantly. Likewise, if you are unable to trust your mentor to refrain from telling the whole office every time you voice a concern, the relationship will not endure. Any uncertainties you may have regarding what is open to discussion and what is off limits should be discussed with your mentor before any problems arise.

Mentors are of particular importance for female associates. Despite advances in reducing workplace gender discrimination over the last few decades, there remains an unfortunate discrepancy between men and women in partnership positions at law firms across the nation. Although law schools are graduating classes that are nearly perfectly split between men and women, something is happening to the female graduates as they begin their climb into the upper tiers of the profession. While women make up 45 percent of associates, the number drops significantly when they reach partners––fewer than 20 percent of partners are women. Within five years of entering a firm, 75 percent of associates make the decision to leave. Of those who leave, women are twice as likely to leave than men. The same problem can be seen in law schools. While 66 percent of assistant deans are female, only 20 percent of deans are female. What is causing women to leave the law at such alarming rates? And for those who remain, why are they not reaching partnership on an equal pace as their male peers? According to the statistics, many women are leaving right around the time they are approaching partnership consideration, which is also the time that a firm’s investment in them is beginning to pay off.

Why are so many women leaving the profession? While many certainly leave to spend more time with their families, far too many claim that they felt pushed into leaving. Many women would prefer to keep their careers and family but believe the current structure of law firms does not support this decision. Only a small number of female associates leave to start families. Most women leave for other careers or to practice law in a different way—starting a solo practice, for example.

A good mentor can provide a necessary boost to a young woman’s career and no doubt help reverse this disturbing trend, but it is also important that new female associates take an active role in seeking out other women to mentor them. Social Identity Theory tells us that people tend to feel connected to those who share certain common traits with them. In other words, men will generally be more comfortable around other men, and women around other women. Female associates should be mindful of this when choosing a mentor.

Few question that the law remains a “man’s world.” It may be difficult for male attorneys to truly appreciate the hurdles their female coworkers face on a daily basis. Having another woman whom you can confide in—one who has very likely already faced and overcome many of the same challenges and concerns you currently face—has enormous potential to simplify your life.

Another benefit of same-gendered mentors is the all-important “off-time” that you are able to spend together. A man may fear that his coworkers will get the wrong impression, and he may be uncomfortable spending time after work on the golf course or at a bar with a young female associate; but a female mentor may feel less pressure in such scenarios.

Many female associates believe they should have a male mentor because he will be in a better position to facilitate their career objectives. This argument may have some force, but if a strong relationship between the mentor and mentee is lacking there will be limited benefit to the relationship, regardless of their genders.

A mentor can be helpful to your career and female mentors in particular may be able to provide insights that a male mentor can not. Put a little effort into choosing your mentor and remember that the first person who comes to mind might not necessarily be your best choice. The results can make all the difference in your new career.

Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, mentors, female associates