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May 2018

Mentoring circles pay off for women in the legal profession

On an episode of Sound Advice called “Mentoring Circles for Women,” Louise A. LaMothe, former chair of the ABA Section of Litigation, says she discovered a different way of thinking about mentoring six years ago when she presented a program for women at her local bar association that evolved into mentoring circles.

“Mentoring is of critical importance to professional development. Mentoring goes on everywhere and helps junior lawyers get to the next level,” says LaMothe, now a practicing arbitrator and mediator in Santa Barbara, Calif. “Mentors remain important at every stage of professional life as the lawyers’ abilities grow and our needs and our focus change.”

LaMothe says that women and minorities were left out of mentoring opportunities too frequently in the past, which is why many law firms have turned to mentoring programs.

Although this is a good thing, she says research has found that individual mentoring in the law firm environment was too often hit-or-miss. “The chemistry of the mentor and mentee was not always the best fit, or people get too busy and they just don’t follow through.”

Her idea is to provide a supplement to mentoring programs currently in place at many law firms, especially for solo practices or very small firms, that include lawyers outside the firm.

“You begin with a couple of anchors that include senior lawyers or judges, if available. Then you include several midlevel working lawyers in all stages and all types of practice. Finally, you add in a few junior lawyers just getting their feet wet to round out the group,” LaMothe says.

LaMothe says the system works well because it offers:

  • A predictable schedule, only meeting once a month.

  • Meetings that take place over lunch; although a few meetings have taken place after work.

  • A meeting time that is well protected. It’s important that other commitments are not set during the time of the mentoring circles.

LaMothe says the group needs to be large enough so that absences do not impede the work of the group, but not so large that it discourages people from sharing their perspectives.

“At every session, everyone gets to speak and the group draws out those who have not spoken or participated. Everyone is asked how they are doing,” she says.

Most important, “The group discussions are confidential. What is said in the circle, stays in the circle,” LaMothe says.

These rules help junior lawyers establish relationships with more senior lawyers and build trust within the group. “Having the perspective of different lawyers at many stages of their career helps a more junior lawyer think outside the box,” LaMothe says.

On the professional side, LaMothe says there is support to help young, female lawyers succeed in a very male-dominated culture.  “It’s very difficult to work your way in. This is the insight the more senior women can give to the junior ones to help them figure out what to do when they are stuck. In a community like ours, where many job openings are never publicized, the mentoring circles also help to spread information about alternate places to work when you want a career move,” she says.

On the personal side, LaMothe says: “We are just trying to make it all work – we are trying to balance having a job while still having a relationship and maybe having a family. We all want to have a personal life. It’s about talking to others to figure out how they manage it all and to find out if there is a better way that has not been thought of before.”

The mentoring circles offer less hierarchy than one-on-one mentoring, and there is less pressure on the senior lawyers of the group.

“Frequently a more junior member lawyer has an insight that a more senior lawyer has missed,” LaMothe says. “Because of its informality, a circle feels less like counseling and grows into more than mentoring and it’s a lot of fun for all involved.”

The mentoring circles include food, holiday parties, wedding and baby showers. And the group is there to help guide members through difficult times, too.

Sound Advice is sponsored by the ABA Section of Litigation.

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