Shared below are the personal insights of two female colleagues in a small, boutique firm—one the managing member with more than 30 years of experience (FFG), the other a second-year associate who started with the firm as an intern before her third year of law school (AKS)—who have engaged together in mutual mentoring for the past three years. What we, the authors, have learned from this team approach is that even those with decades of experience have much to learn from novice colleagues. Recognizing this untapped value benefits both mentor and protégé, particularly (in our experience) with respect to (1) networking, (2) technology and practice building, and (3) collaboration.
FFG: Ashley and I first met three years ago, after she completed her second year of law school and I had been an attorney for decades. When I first began practicing law more than 30 years ago, networking was never mentioned at my big law firm. The firm had so many long-term institutional clients passed down from generation to generation that no one seemed concerned about attracting new relationships. If they were, any efforts in that direction were not aired in my presence. There were no female partners, so women were not serving as client relationship attorneys. As women ascended in the profession, it became clear that moving beyond the junior ranks, sustaining a career in private practice, and enjoying leadership opportunities were tied directly to rainmaking prowess.
Many women observed that male peers were invited to lunch, sporting events, and other outings where they would be introduced to people who could retain them. The male attorneys learned at the sides of partners how to cultivate relationships critical to their careers. Many women found it difficult to replicate these opportunities without internal sponsorship and started to create their own organizations for professional networking opportunities. Now, after many years of forging and fostering connections in my legal community, I have developed a thriving practice of my own. I have conveyed to Ashley the importance of networking and offered advice, but I have encouraged her to pursue it in her own style.
Observing Ashley since she passed the bar in 2012, I realize that I have learned a great deal from how she approaches her career. Women are finding new ways to network that are more efficient and on their own terms. Ashley’s proficiency and comfort level with social media enables her to maintain contact with people with whom she meets flexibly and regularly, maximizing her connections while conserving time. She also has sought out local “speed networking” events to discuss our firm with several individuals at once, without a significant time investment. In addition, she has collaborated with contacts she has met to create her own informal group of talented emerging professional women who will be able to support one another personally and professionally as they advance. Because the group is rooted in friendship, Ashley looks forward to this activity, and it has become a part of her social life rather than a work obligation. Ashley and her peers clearly are ambitious yet seem better able to strike a balance between work and their personal lives in contrast to the all-or-nothing expectations that faced many of us more senior attorneys when there were fewer women in the upper ranks. I have learned before it is too late that making personal time a priority allows you to be your best while at work.
AKS: Before entering practice, I envisioned my day-to-day as a lawyer consisting of drafting documents at my desk and hosting intimate meetings with clients. Like many young lawyers, I did not appreciate the importance that relationship building could play in my own career. In law school, it was never explicitly laid out that to be a marketable senior lawyer, one needs to have a book of business. Remarkably, it had never occurred to me that a book of business did not generate itself.
Had I no mentor, I might have assumed that I would progress in my career simply by working hard and producing good work. I now realize that with that mindset, I would have fallen short of my own potential and of the value I can contribute to my firm. Fran constantly emphasizes the importance of making and nurturing connections, and provides the support that I need in order to do it successfully. She encourages me to spend time on networking even if it means putting aside other work at times. In addition, unlike Fran’s experience as a young associate, I am frequently invited to join in on meetings with clients and activities with colleagues. Because Fran vouches for me and others respect Fran’s opinion, I benefit from a reputation that precedes me, which can open doors that otherwise might remain closed.
At Fran’s suggestion, I have sought out a wide variety of activities, some of them traditional, like giving talks and attending networking events, and others modern, like blogging and engaging with friends and colleagues on social media. At my level, I would never have raised my hand to give a talk or to run for a leadership position on my local bar association, had Fran not told me (a) I could do it and (b) she wished she had figured out earlier in her career the benefit of such things. Because Fran has shown me the flexibility and peace of mind that building my practice will bring, I am motivated to pursue these networking activities for myself. By following Fran’s advice, I already have developed a strong name for myself while increasing our firm’s visibility within our legal community. As my network of peers grows along with me, my firm and I both will reap the benefits.
Technology and Practice Building
FFG: It is no secret that junior lawyers are often more facile with technology, having grown up with an array of devices at their disposal. We have come a long way from the time when I wrote briefs or dictated letters into a recording machine so someone else could type them and retype them for revisions. It is not uncommon for seasoned lawyers at our firm for whom working with technology devices may not be second nature to turn to junior colleagues for support.
Gadgets and gizmos aside, Ashley has been especially helpful to me and the firm by her interest, depth of knowledge, and comfort level in the technology space. To keep pace with the myriad ways in which communication methods have exploded, our intellectual property law practice has grown exponentially over recent years, and Ashley has become a key player. Based on the importance of this area of law to our clients, I encouraged Ashley to go back to school less than two years after she graduated from law school by taking a cutting-edge copyright law course offered online by Harvard Law School. As I have noticed is true of many millennials, Ashley was receptive to engaging in further education and eager to learn this new area of law. For an entire semester, Ashley attended class online, completed weekly assignments, and even took a final exam to gain the expertise we need to serve our clients in an area that is critical to them and ever-evolving in this technological age. In advising clients and in defending them in infringement matters, Ashley’s substantive expertise complements my advocacy experience to meet their needs.
AKS: As a junior associate, one aspect of building my practice is becoming an expert in a niche practice area. My practice is dictated in part by the needs of the firm and in part by my own goals. Fran has a wealth of experience in multiple areas of business law, but our intellectual property practice, which is an area of particular interest to me, is growing each day and rapidly evolving. When Fran and I saw the opportunity to enroll in the Harvard online copyright course, her immediate response was to go for it. Whereas other attorneys might have rejected the notion for fear that it would take time they could devote to billable work, Fran recognized this as an investment. In turn, I developed a niche expertise of interest that will help build my individual practice and complement the work of our firm. Further, it saved Fran and other senior attorneys’ time and energy mastering a specific area of law. Perhaps more importantly, Fran’s support increased my loyalty to our firm. Fran’s confidence and high expectations of me boost the confidence and expectations I have for myself. I push myself harder to grow, knowing that I have Fran’s support, and she benefits by having a more knowledgeable associate.
FFG: As a past litigation associate at big firms in New York and Philadelphia, I often worked on extended teams defending massive cases for substantial clients. Although there were team meetings, it was common to have discrete assignments without a meaningful understanding as to how my piece fit into a larger puzzle. It was not until I reached senior associate level that I appreciated the overall strategy or had opportunities to craft a plan for achieving client results.
We have found that collaboration leads to better results for our clients. Ashley was the first person to join our team without any prior law firm experience, and her openness and receptivity to learn as much as possible made me more inclined to promote collaborative work. Because I wanted her to learn, I included her in as much as I could. This team approach to managing our caseload promotes dialogue and allows for more productive delegation of work assignments. Senior attorneys wind up with less on their plates, Ashley gains more opportunity for experience, and the firm can promote better rates for our clients. Collaboration also allows more lawyers to be informed on client matters, so a client can reach out to any member of the team for assistance. We also can bring our clients more creative solutions when multiple opinions are offered for any given legal conundrum. In addition, Ashley now mentors our summer intern, and in watching Ashley’s patient and thoughtful example, I learn how to continue to perfect my own skills as a mentor and sponsor of my team.
AKS: With all that she has accomplished in her career, Fran easily could close her door at the office and collect work with little back and forth, especially with a second-year associate. She could also be intimidating to a junior lawyer who does not know her. Instead, we maintain routine dialogue as part of Fran’s collaborative approach to handling client matters. Fran keeps me informed of most of the details of her caseload, often asking my thoughts and then offering her own. This back-and-forth exchange with my boss is beneficial for so many reasons. For one, I am exposed to a wide array of matters, and I observe Fran’s thought process as she grapples with not only legal issues, but ethical issues and business issues affecting the firm. I am able to observe Fran’s communication tactics for handling conflict, explaining sophisticated legal issues, delivering bad news, and negotiating. I frequently interact with our clients because I am present in most meetings and handle many of the communications.
Through this dynamic, I am just as key a player on our case team as anyone else in the office, and I feel accountable to Fran, my colleagues, and our clients. Because I am the one closest to the research and the documents in a case, I often have a take that is worthy of consideration and catch details that otherwise might be overlooked. Being able to contribute boosts my confidence tremendously. Additionally, through pleasant and open communication, I have become comfortable working with even the most accomplished lawyers and professionals because I have learned by way of my relationship with Fran that at the end of the day, we all care about the same things: our family, friends, and careers.
Embracing two-way legal mentoring has the potential to enrich the entire law firm. It has been reported that employees under the age of 30 are highly motivated by having access and visibility to senior leaders. The result is improved morale and less turnover among young lawyers, who gain insight about developing business and glimpses of the view from the top. Associates are eager to learn, willing to work hard, and determined to succeed, but without the right guidance, it may take them much longer to reach their goals. At the same time, seasoned attorneys miss out on a wealth of fresh insight, perspective, and technological savvy by failing to take the time to invest in their more junior colleagues. Engaging in reciprocal mentoring can be as simple as setting up a few lunches a year and keeping an open mind. In our experience, treating the relationship as a two-way street has kept both of our careers headed in the right direction.
Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, career, business development, professional development, mentoring, social networking