No Limits

The Importance of a Strong Support System

Choi Portis
A strong foundational support system is crucial for a well-rounded lawyer who is fit to practice.

A strong foundational support system is crucial for a well-rounded lawyer who is fit to practice.

When thinking of the importance of a strong support system, I instantly thought of the lyrics to Bill Withers’s song Lean on Me. This song is the epitome of what it means to have a strong support system. As humans, we need other humans thrive. Social support and social interaction have a positive influence on your physical and mental health. Research has shown that having a strong support system has many positive benefits, such as higher levels of well-being, better coping skills, and a longer and healthier life. Studies have also shown that social support can reduce depression and anxiety. 

A strong support system can often help reduce stress. Young lawyers face a tremendous amount of stress-from large student loan payments to a shrinking job market, stress can impact your physical health and mental wellness. Having a strong support system gives you a group of people that you can go to for assistance with your issues.

There are three core groups that make up a strong support system—family, friends, and professional colleagues (which includes mentors and sponsors). The level of support that you receive from each of these groups will vary, but they are all essential for a complete support system. At any given time, these three groups will provide one of four types of social support—emotional, instrumental, informational, and/or appraisal.

Emotional support is defined as expressions of empathy, love, trust, and caring. You usually get this type of support from your close friends and family. Instrumental support is tangible aid and service. This type of support can also come from close friends and family. An example of this is someone picking up your child from daycare if you have a deposition that runs long. Informational support is advice, suggestions, and information. This form of support can come from any one of the three core groups. By way of example, you may go to your mentor for advice when handling a new area of the law or for help with developing trial strategy. Also, your sponsor may use their position of authority to get a new opportunity for you during a meeting with the firm partners. The last type of support, appraisal, is defined as information that is useful for self-evaluation. An example of this type of support can be your close friend reminding you of all of the qualities that equip you to win that motion for summary judgment.

Many times, as young attorneys, we seek professional support from mentors and sponsors. Mentors are experienced and trusted advisors. Mentors are typically older or more experienced attorneys who help guide us and provide sound advice in navigating the practice of law. Sponsors, on the other hand, are usually in a position of power and use their influence to advocate on your behalf.  Sponsorship and mentorship are two-way relationship and involve concrete action on both sides.

Professional mentorship and sponsorship relationships are especially important for women and minorities. A recent Fortune Magazine post stated: “It is well documented that the C-suites and boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies are overwhelmingly white and male.” Another Fortune article explains that although only three percent of Fortune 500 companies shared full details about the diversity of their leadership and staff, among “high ranking officials, 80 percent are men and 72 percent of those men are white.”

This indicates that because they are earning these roles, white men are already getting the support they need to advance, while their non-white, non-male counterparts are not earning leadership positions at the same rate. This is a prime example of how sponsorship can be important to the advancement of women and minorities. The glass ceilings for women and minorities in organizations is often rooted in unconscious bias. Purposeful sponsorship and mentorship can help break this pattern.

Additionally, having a strong core family and friends support system can often help with the mental stress that comes from being overlooked for positions and opportunities for women and minorities when unconscious bias is present in the workplace.

At any given time in during your day, you may tap into any one of the categories of your support system. The strong foundational support system is crucial for a well-rounded lawyer who is fit to practice. When you are feeling alone in an issue, tap into your support system because at any given time, “we all need somebody to lean on.”

Choi Portis

Choi T. Portis, a Detroit native, is Deputy General Counsel for the City of Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. In her current position, she handles complex litigation matters, supervises outside counsel, reviews Department contracts, and serves as counsel to the Department Director and the Board of Water Commissioners regarding various legal issues. Choi serves as a member of the executive counsel for the State Bar of Michigan Young Lawyers Section; and as the Affiliates Director for the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division.