Monday, March 30, 2009

Firm Mentoring--Not All Mentoring Created Equal?

Lawyers' life coach and work-life balance guru Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D. has written an interesting new article in which she suggests that not all programs -- formal or informal -- are created equal when it comes to mentoring of young associates.

In particular, Ostrow suggests that young women attorneys benefit most when they find a seasoned male attorney to mentor them and "sponsor" their rise up the ranks.

In her article, "What Determines Women's Advancement to Equity Partnership" in the Beyond the Billable Hour Newsletter, Ostrow writes:

"[Th]e most crucial ingredient for career advancement - especially for
a woman or minority attorney - is having an advocate: someone with power who will
watch the young attorney's back and campaign for her behind the scene.

The mentee's career benefits when her mentor provides a junior attorney
access to his network, facilitates her participation in collaborative projects,
promotes her to others thereby augmenting her visibility and credibility, protects and champions her behind the scenes, provides challenging and highly noticeable work
assignments, brings her along on client meetings and ensures that she plays an active
role, and by association signals her legitimacy to decision-makers. A mentor like this functions as a sponsor. Unfortunately, in my experience, I've found few law firm
mentoring programs that focus on this critical role.

Yet having a sponsor makes all the difference in enabling women to advance
to full equity partnership. Among the first questions I ask all the women law firm
attorneys I coach is, "Do you have a sponsor?" If the answer is "no" then, assuming
her goal is to advance, this becomes a top agenda item. Establishing mentoring
relationships with high-level, powerful insiders is essential for women pursuing career advancement in the legal profession.

Studies of the relationship between mentoring and the career success of
women in professional service firms, and law firms in particular, suggest that a
senior male attorney is likely to most effectively fill this mentoring role. If
for no other reason than the fact that the overwhelming majority of law firm
partners and leaders are men, this is probably not very surprising.

However, the gendered culture of law firms also influences the differential effects of male vs. female mentors for the careers of women attorneys. Success in most firms requires the ability to thrive in a highly competitive, aggressive, individualistic, "heroic" culture. Attributes stereotypically associated with masculine behavior are viewed as indicators of potential and "fit." Decision-makers always have imperfect information about candidates for advancement. In the absence of sufficient, objective information to allow for a rational means of discriminating among aspiring attorneys, having a powerful male mentor signals to the predominantly male leadership that a woman lawyer possesses those sought-after competencies and qualities typically associated with her male peers. In other words, a male sponsor may help a woman overcome implicit bias based upon gender stereotypes."

What's your take on this article and your experience with mentoring? What facets of a mentoring program are most beneficial to women and minority associates? What should they look for in informal mentoring relationships?

1 comment:

Susan Bender Phelps said...

Atorney's are taught to persuade and influence. In a mentoring relationship, the mentor must be able to elicit thinking and provide intellectual and professional leadership that helps to support, encourage, and promote the professional development of their protégé. These skills don't usually come naturally. But they can be taught. When mentors receive training prior to beginning the relationship, higher levels of success and satisfaction of both mentors and proteges are reported.