7.09.2006

Get your mentors where you can

This article from NYLawyer reiterates a a theme from the article discussed in the prior post and stresses the importance of mentors for young women lawyers. Here's the article in its entirety, if you don't happen to have a subscription (my commentary follows the article):

The Gender Gap: Don't Climb The Ladder Alone

New York Lawyer
June 30, 2006
Reprints & Permissions

By Melissa McClenaghan Martin
New York Law Journal

All attorneys, and especially women, need to seek out mentors. "You can't just sit back," says Ida Abbott, diversity consultant and author of "The Lawyer's Guide to Mentoring." "You must proactively get what you need to develop and succeed in your career."

Good mentors can offer feedback on skills, introductions to important clients and networks, and access to the unwritten criteria for success within the organization. They can also advise junior attorneys on their long-term professional development and career goals.

For those who want to make partner, a good mentor will "be your champion and facilitate partnership," said Jane DiRenzo Pigott, a diversity consultant and former partner at Winston & Strawn. "That doesn't often happen for women in law firms."

With women representing only 17 percent of law firm partners but 44 percent of associates, there are simply not enough female mentors available to mentor junior women. Unfortunately, senior men are often reluctant to fill this gap, according to the Minority Corporate Counsel Association study "Mentoring Across Differences," because they fear the relationship will be misperceived as inappropriate or believe it is "too hard and uncomfortable" to mentor women.

With a limited number of potential mentors, how can women create and maintain the mentoring relationships they need to develop and succeed?

"Some women think that, as long as they do excellent work, they will succeed," said Ms. Abbott, who is also a co-author of "Mentoring Across Differences." But they also must proactively seek out mentors.

When women do seek out mentors, they may limit their search to senior women who are "leading the perfect life, that is, the life a younger woman wants," noted Ms. Abbott. But the search for a perfect role model means that women will miss out on significant benefits that other senior attorneys, including men, could offer.

A mentor can serve as a role model, teacher or advisor, but, perhaps most importantly, a mentor can be a power broker within the organization and profession, sharing wisdom and connections with a junior attorney. Because most power brokers are men, "women who are in an effective mentoring relationship with a powerful male mentor have a much higher likelihood of success," concludes Ms. Pigott.

Regardless of what role a mentor fills, "you can't work with only one person and think that's enough," said Susan Kohlmann, a Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman partner and former managing partner of the firm's New York office. "In most firms, that's not a recipe for success." Rather, junior attorneys need to assemble a network of mentors, taking advantage of formal programs and developing relationships informally.

While an associate, Ms. Kohlmann created such a network. She had female partner mentors who gave her advice, including about how they balanced career and motherhood. Her male mentors were particularly helpful when she was up for partner and guided her through the process. She considers this combined mentorship instrumental to her success.

After mentoring relationships are found, sustaining them is often the hardest part.

Diana Sen, a sixth-year associate at Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson, and Janice Mac Avoy, a partner and former hiring partner of the firm, developed an informal mentoring relationship while working together. But translating their initial connection into a sustained relationship required continued interaction, which Ms. Sen ensures by volunteering for pro bono cases with Ms. Mac Avoy.

And, when the two won an important case, Ms. Sen suggested they go out for drinks, creating another opportunity for quality time with her mentor.

Many junior attorneys don't realize they must continually develop their mentoring relationships, Ms. Mac Avoy said. "You need to check in before there's a problem." She suggests that mentees routinely "do a drive-by," stopping by a mentor's office.

"Touch base with your mentor in the same way you would with a client," she added.

Pillsbury's Ms. Kohlmann agreed.

"Don't send an e-mail," she said. "In-person contact is critical."

Women may be more likely than men to neglect this important step. Ms. Pigott recently asked the summer associates at a major law firm whether any had stopped by the office of an attorney they didn't know. The only ones who had were men.

"Men are very deliberate about networking," she explained, "so women must be equally deliberate about it."

Some women wonder how to connect and maintain contact with a male mentor.

"I don't follow the Yankees, I don't play golf, so there just aren't as many ways to connect with a male mentor and establish that rapport," said an eighth-year female associate who has worked at two New York City firms.

But finding and maintaining a relationship with a male mentor may present another unique problem, the fear the relationship will be misperceived. While senior men and their male mentees go out for drinks, fear of misperception may prevent women from having the same bonding opportunities with male mentors.

Women don't have to miss out on these opportunities.

"I think that's an easy excuse," said Pillsbury's Ms. Kohlmann. "It's the reality of the workplace that people have to maneuver those relationships."

Ms. Pigott suggested women talk to their male mentor about "the logistics of the relationship, allowing him the opportunity to say, I prefer to meet in my office or over lunch, rather than drinks."

This sort of formality can help any mentoring relationship. Although it is easy to "focus more on the friendship, rather than the utility of a mentoring relationship," said Ms. Abbott, women should be careful not to miss opportunities for professional development.

"Women tend to be very good at building personal relationships, but sometimes it is difficult for them to turn a social relationship into a professional one where they ask a senior attorney for help," she said.

In an informal mentoring relationship, the mentee should "label the relationship," suggested Michele Coleman Mayes, senior vice president and general counsel of Pitney Bowes. "Tell your mentor why you sought them out. Once they realize you have a purpose and it's not just an informal let's-have-coffee meeting, they'll feel responsible and will likely be more rigorous about the relationship."

Women should also be clear on what they want from a mentoring relationship and share their goals with their mentor. These goals should be reassessed periodically, and women should consider whether the mentoring relationship needs to change in terms of substance or logistics.

Throughout their career, women must be both strategic and proactive in creating and maintaining the mentoring relationships they need to achieve their career goals.

"They need to reach out to the mentoring opportunities that are there and be comfortable using them," Ms. Abbott advised, even if doing so requires women to go outside their comfort zone.

Melissa McClenaghan Martin, a non-practicing attorney, writes about the retention and advancement of women in law and other professions.

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My mentor at my prior firm was a man. I actually had two partners that acted as mentors of a sort, although I considered one of them to be my "primary" mentor. A modified version of that man is mentioned in this prior post.

Of course, contrary to what was described in the aritcle, I found it fairly easy to maintain contact with my mentors, since the firm wasn't huge, and I did a lot of work for the two of them. That being said, it wasn't always a relationship that felt "natural." These sections of the article above struck me as very applicable to my relationships with my mentors:
"I don't follow the Yankees, I don't play golf, so there just aren't as many ways to connect with a male mentor and establish that rapport," said an eighth-year female associate who has worked at two New York City firms.

But finding and maintaining a relationship with a male mentor may present another unique problem, the fear the relationship will be misperceived. While senior men and their male mentees go out for drinks, fear of misperception may prevent women from having the same bonding opportunities with male mentors.
That male/female thing (ie.--the unspoken possibility that we could have sex if we wanted to, or that others might think that we were in fact doing it) always seemed to sneak in. We rarely, if ever had closed door discussions, even though the male associates did it all the time. Drinks with just one of my mentors was out of the question. It just wasn't an option. And, I rarely had discussions with them that weren't business-related, although one of the partners was a bit more chatty than the other, and we occasionally did discuss issues that weren't work-related.

I think that the advice in the article, to have a candid conversation with your male mentor about the logistics of the relationship, is unrealistic, to say the least. That single conversation would have put a damper on the relationship in no time--no doubt about it.

I always found that no matter what I did--no matter how I acted--the gender issue was always there. I caught each of my mentors checking me out as I exited their offices on more than one occasion. And, one of them was clearly a boob man, while the other a leg man. In my case, the leg man had better eye candy available than the boob man, but I digress.

Another strange thing that occurred because of my gender was that I experienced outright catty, jealous behavior from the wives of a few partners on a number of occasions. I found it to be more than a bit humorous, since I had no intention of getting it on with men as old as my dad, especially since I was (and am) happily married to an intelligent, handsome, funny guy my own age, thank you very much.

I do wish that there had been more women partners at my old firm. That certainly would have made it easier for me when it came to finding a mentor. But, that wasn't an option, so I made do with what was available to me. And, it wasn't all that bad, all things considered. And, to this day, my ex-mentors continue to serve as references for me, so I guess all wasn't lost when I threw in the towel and bolted, now, was it?

So, in closing, I definitely agree with this advice at the end of the article:
"They need to reach out to the mentoring opportunities that are there and be comfortable using them," Ms. Abbott advised, even if doing so requires women to go outside their comfort zone.
I suggest that you take it to heart and find a mentor, regardless of their sex. A male mentor is better than no mentor at all.

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