Eastern Point Consulting Group, Inc.

Mentoring — For Women on the Success Path

Many firms have now put into place mentoring programs for junior associates, which work. Unlike earlier attempts that may have lasted six weeks, and then disappeared into a black hole of good intentions, mentoring for junior associates can clearly be sustainable and successful. It does mean overcoming some early cynicism and skepticism, but when the buzz begins about how useful it is, even the greatest skeptics can be won over.

The challenge now, is not the junior associate. I believe mentoring can prove to be an invaluable aid for women — both senior associates and partners, if, and it is certainly a large if, they know how to get it. Notice I said get it, not receive it. Mentoring for senior associates and partners will not be handed out, formalized or mandated. It must be claimed through the development of professional relationships, which will help the individual achieve her goals.

I notice how few women serve on the executive committees, or head up practice areas, or become the chair of major committees. I study the attrition of women in firms, and hear, in my role of consultant to law firms, how alienated many women are. There are certainly exceptions — from women who have become rainmakers to managing partners to heads of offices. But, as you know, many women perceive a glass ceiling that is just as prevalent as 10, 20, 30 years ago — the difference is, it is experienced later in one's career.

The challenge of mentoring is to help women name their goals — and then feel empowered to achieve them. I believe many women internalize the lack of perceived opportunity and interpret it as a statement about their worth. I have observed many bright and talented women doubt their abilities and overtime experience the erosion of self-esteem. It is insidious. It does vary according to the different cultures within law firms. Some firms are achieving success with senior women, but more firms, when they stop and look, realize that there are very few older women in the firm. And there are even fewer women who have a large book of business or hold positions of leadership.

I hear the same stories today as I heard fifteen years ago about women partners not inheriting clients, about being excluded from an important meeting with potential clients, about not being invited to play golf (even if she plays well) and from not being able to break into the club.

There is a psychological impact to the new height of the glass ceiling. By the time women feel excluded, and at times devalued, they have achieved success academically and professionally. It is startling. It is unlike their earlier experiences, and as a result, they internalize the devaluation rather than observe it. It is unusual for a woman to recognize how much their experience is shared by their peers. It is more usual to attribute the feelings of devaluation and exclusion to a sense of personal failure than to an environment, which makes it difficult for women to thrive. Many firms believe that women leave in greater numbers then their male counterparts because of families and the difficulty finding balance. This is certainly true for some. But when I interview "regretted losses" I hear about the perceived lack of opportunity much more than the lack of balance. I think it is easier to attribute women's departure to family than opportunity. It excuses the firm from acting, except to perhaps review their part-time policy or their flexibility for those who wish other flexible work arrangements.

I do believe that mentoring can play a significant role in breaking the downward spiral that causes the hopeful and optimistic young woman to abandon her early dreams and aspirations and choose to change direction because she feels it just can't work.

The women I have observed who are most successful have allies. They have people — men and women, in their corner who will support them. They have built a network of relationships which serve to bolster their ego strength when they have to push back against both clients and partners whose behavior has the potential to erode both self-confidence and self-esteem.

The women I have observed who are successful play up their unique qualities. They do not try to wear the persona of others — men or women. They are frequently extroverts — but not always. They were often athletes in school or achieved success as a dancer or musician. In other words, they have tested themselves and experienced success apart from the practice of law.

The women I have observed who are successful have sought mentors. They have identified those who have skills or behaviors to teach them, and built relationships to create learning opportunities. No one person may embody all the characteristics of a role model, but that doesn't prevent a woman on the success path from building multiple relationships and learn what she can from each one of them.

It is striking to me how many young men intuit this. And how few young women do. I have observed many young women who think that if they work hard enough, their potential would be observed and rewarded. And then, later, when it's not, they get either very depressed or very angry. Many feel more and more alienated and eventually decide that the cost benefit ratio isn't ok. That may mean she will leave or it may mean that she will stay, and perform at a lower level.

Some men also have difficulty finding their way. It may be because of their race, sexual orientation, religion, or their introverted style. The experience of being an outsider is shared by many. But I have observed that women are inclined to internalize the experience of the outsider in a particular way. The erosion of self-esteem serves to prevent women from successfully attaining new business, from the pro-active stance necessary to be perceived as a leader, and from communicating the confidence required for her partners to turn to her to solve the challenges facing the firm today.

Women can be successful in senior positions in law firms today. But they much choose the path of leadership. Leadership will not be handed out to women. It must be claimed by those who believe in themselves. Building a network of mentors, both inside and outside the firm, will provide the foundation of support, sounding boards and perspectives to help women break through both purposeful and unconscious exclusion.

It is not a sign of weakness to seek and cultivate mentors. Rather it is a sign of focus, direction and purpose; all attributes of leaders.

To find out more about Eastern Point, please visit our contact form, email , or call (617) 965-4141.