February 27, 2012 Articles

Women Seeking Men?—Finding the Right Mentor for Your Legal Practice

Studies indicate that success in a law firm—or any business, for that matter—can be traced, among other things, to securing strong mentoring relationships early on.

By Desiree Moore

All young lawyers are encouraged to find mentors. Particularly in law firms, mentorship is integral to a successful legal career. Studies indicate that success in a law firm—or any business, for that matter—can be traced, among other things, to securing strong mentoring relationships early on.

Young women lawyers are often encouraged to seek out other women specifically to act as their mentors. This stems from the notion that successful, well-established women lawyers have forged the way and thus are in a unique position to guide and mentor up-and-coming young women lawyers.

In many instances, this may certainly be the case. Undoubtedly, there is value in the unique insight that is gained from achieving success in a male-dominated profession. And only women who have actually accomplished this can impart that insight.

<p>But the goal of mentorship is bigger than simply understanding the experience of any one woman, and young women lawyers should consider all their options, seeking multiple mentors in furtherance of a long and successful legal career. Specifically, women should seek to establish mentoring relationships with men––in addition to any mentoring relationships with women––to ensure they are maximizing their understanding of, and success in, the legal profession.</p>
<p>There are several compelling reasons for women to consider men as mentors. First, as Joanna Krotz noted in an article on women entrepreneurs and mentorship in <a href="http://www.microsoftbusinesshub.com/" _rte_href="http://www.microsoftbusinesshub.com/">Microsoft Business Online</a>, &ldquo;[T]he sexes do not experience the business world in the same ways . . . .&rdquo; <em>See</em> &ldquo;How Women Entrepreneurs Benefit From Using A Mentor.&rdquo; In this regard, young women lawyers are well served to learn from male mentors exactly how male lawyers experience the business world. Without this insight, achieving success in our male-dominated profession presents a distinct challenge.</p>
<p>There is also value in assimilation. Law firms, like all corporate entities, would be well served in many instances by making social progress and meaningful changes to the longstanding status quo––and women can be at the forefront of these changes. First, however, we have to be inside. We have to be familiar with that status quo. Only then will we be in a position to be heard.</p>
<p>What&rsquo;s more, as success for women in law firms is a recent advent, there are far fewer women partners than male partners. Thus, the pool for potential legal practice mentors is deeper––and likely stronger––when men are included.</p>
<p>Finally, in professional settings women are sometimes said to harbor competitive or other negative feelings toward other women. To the extent there is some merit to this, even if only in some instances, young women lawyers should be cautious—such feelings would certainly interfere with a healthy mentoring relationship.</p>
<p>Without delving too far into the tensions that may exist among some women in law firm and other corporate environments, it is interesting to note that Ms. JD, an organization seeking to &ldquo;support and improve the experiences of women law students and lawyers,&rdquo; has adopted the following pledge in its ethics code:</p>
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<blockquote>Given the choice of being a mentor or a tormentor to a younger, less experienced female attorney, I actively choose to be a mentor. When a younger, less experienced female attorney comes to me with a question or for advice, I will not revel in how much more I know than she; I will share that knowledge and experience.</blockquote>
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<p><em>See</em> <a href="http://ms-jd.org/code-ethics-female-attorneys" _rte_href="http://ms-jd.org/code-ethics-female-attorneys">Ms-JD.org Ethics Code</a>.</p>
<p>This ethics credo raises two interesting ideas: first, negative undertones may in fact exist (the precise word choice here––&ldquo;tormentor,&rdquo; for example––further supports this); second, we can choose to make any negative dynamics among women a thing of the past. Hostile or strained relationships will not further our collective purpose as women in the legal industry and we should move past these without delay.</p>
<p>To take a step back, the subject of mentorship for women lawyers cannot be viewed lightly. A recent National Law Journal Article noted that opportunities are diminishing for women in large law firms. Moore&rsquo;s recent list of top ten careers for women, unsurprisingly, did not include lawyering. And recent studies also indicate that women are feeling less ambitious about their legal careers than ever. In view of this, mentorship is even more critical as a positive, driving force. Young women lawyers simply cannot make a go of this alone.</p>
<p>And to be clear, there are certainly complexities between men and women in legal practice environments. But to discard the notion of seeking mentorship from men outright would be in error. To reject the idea that men can provide career-changing guidance and insight to women––or to believe that men should only mentor men––is shortsighted. This will only serve to perpetuate the gender divide that is already so pronounced in the law.</p>
<p>In the end, young women lawyers have to decide on an individual basis what type of mentor is best for their careers. In all instances, when it comes to choosing a mentor or not, young women lawyers should absolutely and unequivocally choose a mentor. In fact,  they should choose many mentors, including men. This will ensure greater exposure to various perspectives, ideas, and insights and, ultimately, it will ensure a long and rewarding legal career.</p>
<p><strong>Keywords: </strong>woman advocate, litigation, mentor, legal practice</p>