Resources Newsletter Archive Issue 15, July 2001

Issue 15, July 2001

  • Mentors and Strategic Alliances

Making The Hours of Your Life Worth More™

Issue # 15
Mentors and Strategic Alliances


ARTICLE SUMMARY: Lawyers at every stage of career development need to be able to learn from other people in order to succeed. A process for proactively developing relationships with knowledge experts, mentors and strategic allies is described. The characteristics of an ideal personal strategic advisory board are presented and methods for creating and maintaining it are explained.



1. The American Bar Association Annual Meeting

2. Final Report of the Project for Attorney Retention

3. "Mentors and Strategic Alliances"



Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., Editor

Ellen is the founder of™ Personal and Career Coaching for Lawyers Determined to Achieve Professional Success AND a Fulfilling Life



Most attorneys -- especially women -- live impossibly busy lives. Finding a balance between work and life without sacrificing professional success, deciding on the best practice area or work setting, and making career transitions can be a daunting task, even for the most gifted and accomplished lawyer.

Just as every person deserves the best possible legal counsel, every attorney deserves professional, dedicated support in accomplishing her most important goals. You know how hard you've worked to get where you are -- you serve others, both personally and professionally. You've earned the right to both career success and a fulfilling life.

This newsletter is intended to help you create a satisfying life -- within, or outside of -- legal practice.


1. The American Bar Association Annual Meeting Are you planning to attend the ABA Annual meeting in Chicago, August 2-8, 2001?

If you are, and we haven't already met in person, please introduce yourself to me. I'll be presenting on a panel entitled "Life Management for Lawyers" which will take place from 2:00 - 3:30 PM on Saturday, August 4, 2001. I have the honor of sharing the panel with Martha Barnett, President of the ABA; Deborah Rhode, Chair of the ABA's Commission on Women in the Profession and author of "The Unfinished Agenda" (see Issue # 14 of Beyond the Billable Hour™ for more information); Patricia Meador, Chair of the ABA's Health Law Section and Andrew Demetriou, Member of the ABA's Health Law Section Council.

I'd love to have the opportunity to meet you personally and hope to do so if you'll be in Chicago for the meeting.


2. Final Report of the Project for Attorney Retention

"Balanced Hours: Effective Part-Time Policies for Washington Law Firms," the final report of the Project for Attorney Retention, is now available at

You can download the entire report at the site or request a hard copy.

Lawyers are already utilizing it to craft their own proposals for balanced-hours schedules.

Even if you don't work in a Washington law firm, this report is a must-read for every attorney concerned about work/life balance.


3. Mentors and Strategic Alliances

"As any good mountaineer will tell you, a successful
ascent requires a good deal of preparation: choosing
fellow climbers, ensuring team conditioning,
assembling first-rate equipment, and having
experienced guides." [1]

It's no secret that law school doesn't provide a practical legal education. As a new lawyer, you need to understand the culture of the organization in which you're working. Faced with the task of writing a document you've never written before, you need some practical guidance - and some examples to use as models would help too.

But the need for guidance doesn't end after a few years of practice. A new partner is faced with the challenge of bringing in new business. An alliance with an experienced rainmaker or someone who can connect you to the right people would be invaluable.

Furthermore, the need to strategically plan your career never ends. In order to accomplish your long- and short-term objectives, you must be planning ahead and designing your current work so that it will pave the way to your goals.

At mid-career you're probably ready for new professional challenges but may feel trapped by an overwhelming amount of work which prevents you from exploring more satisfying options. Guided professional development is an ongoing necessity for a successful legal career.

Every attorney, then, needs a mentor. But the old model of mentoring, in which a senior attorney took on a protégé, is rarely a realistic option in today's legal workplace.

First of all, the demands on partners' time make it all but impossible for them to devote themselves to this kind of relationship. Furthermore, the apprenticeship model was viable when all attorneys were white men. But the heterogeneity of the profession makes it more difficult for senior partners to see themselves reflected in the associates around them; and there is a paucity of models for women attorneys and attorneys of color.

Ironically, it is these very attorneys who most need and benefit from mentoring. The exclusion of women from informal networks and the devastating effects this can have on career success and satisfaction have been repeatedly documented. Woman attorneys wanting to balance work and family need experienced colleagues who can share their own time-tested strategies. You need an advocate when your efforts to care for your family are used as evidence that you lack professional commitment.

Furthermore, David A. Thomas compellingly argues the case that professionals of color need mentoring that is not just instructional, but also provides emotional support, builds confidence, and helps the protégé to effectively deal with the potential barriers to success posed by racial stereotypes.[2]


Although many firms have formal mentoring programs, few are successful. When I ask the attorneys I coach about their mentors, they typically say they've had an occasional lunch with this person but have never found the relationship to be helpful. Often, they perceive the "mentor" to be uninterested in their professional development. Certainly this doesn't sound like "a person of more experience, prominence, or influence who serves as a trusted counselor or guide, answers the protégé's questions about the practice of law, and helps further the associate's career."

To be fair, these relationships are "arranged marriages" in an association that, in reality, relies on good chemistry. That's not to say that if your assigned mentor is willing to mentor you, it's not worth a try. Sometimes supportive and productive relationships evolve out of firm-arranged mentoring alliances. (Remember "Fiddler on the Roof" when Tuvya sings "Do you love me?").

Even when mentoring programs are successful, they rarely address the needs of attorneys beyond the first year or two of practice. The new partner, the mid-career attorney, and the attorney considering retiring are not offered mentors to help them navigate these transitions.


One of the most important messages I try to leave my attorney coaching clients with is that no one will ever care more about your career than you. When you take personal responsibility for your own professional development and success, you're far more likely to feel in control of your career and to be able to steer the course with your whole life in mind.

Rather than wait for your firm or organization to offer a mentor, why not develop a number of strategic alliances with people who can provide mentoring across a wide variety of professional concerns?

You might think of this group as your personal strategic advisory board. Whether or not you meet with them all simultaneously, each can be chosen to fulfill specific goals. As Ida O. Abbott points out, the list of expectations lawyers have of mentors is daunting; no wonder so few senior attorneys are willing to try to fill the role.[3] It's far more likely that you'll get all the different kinds of help you need if you clarify your goals and objectives for mentoring relationships and then identify a group of people who can assist you in accomplishing your goals.


1. Evaluate Your Learning Needs

The first step is to assess your learning needs. As part of your strategic career planning, you should be regularly evaluating your skill repertoire and identifying knowledge gaps.

Selecting potential mentors will depend largely on your assessment of these needs. Ask yourself, "What expertise do I need to develop in order to undertake this project? What skills do I need to acquire or improve in order to achieve my career goals for this year?" Don't wait until evaluation time to hear what others think of your skills. Be proactive in clarifying your goals and the expertise you need to achieve them.

f you'd like a list of "lawyers skills"
to use for your self-assessment, send an e-mail
to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it with "lawyers
skills" in the subject line.

2. Proactively Identify Resources.

Once you've determined the kinds of knowledge you need to acquire, you can ask yourself, "Who would know something about this?"

It's essential that you take responsibility for identifying potential mentors and establishing relationships with them.

Your mentors, or strategic allies, or personal board of directors serve as a kind of informal, customized personal knowledge resource to fill in your knowledge gaps.

Attorneys have traditionally been taught to value self-reliance. You're not supposed to ask for help, or to admit the need for assistance. Asking others for answers is considered "cheating."

But as a knowledge worker in today's economy, you simply cannot know everything. Suppose you're asked to draft a document you've never done before concerning some esoteric area of the law and you have a 24-hour turnaround time. Wouldn't it be better for the client if you had a knowledge network available to you? You'd be learning as well as providing good client service. According to Robert Kelley's research, successful people ask themselves, "What is the fastest route to get the information I need, and who are the people I need to go through to connect with the person who has the best information?" [4]

Having identified your knowledge gaps, you can look for mentors in a variety of places. Consider law school professors you had who possess the expertise you're trying to develop. Maybe you've come across an in-house attorney who knows a great deal about the subject. Perhaps there's a legal expert you're aware of in a non-competing firm. Contact your local bar association, or look at the ABA's website or search via Martindale-Hubbell.

Ask successful attorneys to recommend people with particular expertise, or who have been helpful to them in some way.

Every situation presents you with possibilities for finding mentors. Listen to the contributions people make to meetings you attend; be attentive to who has special expertise in areas you want to develop, whom you admire, who has values similar to your own. Work on collaborative projects with people, both at work and in your community and observe others' skills. Take note of good networkers whose success secrets you'd like to emulate. If you attend a program and are particularly interested in the speaker, try to approach her/him afterwards. Tell her you admire her work and would like to learn from her, or that you want to achieve what he has and would appreciate his advice.

If possible, get a feel for what it would be like to work with a potential mentor. You might volunteer to serve on a committee or request an assignment that will allow you to work with a potential mentor as a way to establish a working relationship.

Try to spot people who seem particularly disposed to invest in a mentoring relationship. When people express genuine interest in you and your career, consider taking them up on it.

3. Different Functions for Different Mentors

Younger associates need a mentor within their firm or organization to help them learn about its culture. This mentor can provide tips on who is powerful, who the key players and decision-makers are, whom to seek out and whom not to cross. A more senior person in your organization can help you learn the protocol; s/he can speak up for you when you need a champion and facilitate your socialization and integration into the firm. Attorneys with whom you forge alliances within your firm can assist you in learning the skills needed for advancement.

It is extremely useful to find a mentor who does the same kind of work as you. A senior and successful attorney in your area who can provide candid and constructive criticism of your work is an invaluable resource.

Within your firm or organization it's beneficial to build alliances with people who have influence with decision-makers. It's important to identify people you trust and admire and who share your values. You'll need to feel comfortable enough with this person to honestly share questions and concerns.

It's especially helpful for women attorneys to form alliances with other women lawyers who share their values concerning work/life balance. It's even better if you admire how this person has handled the issue in her own life.

An associate told me about her efforts to obtain mentoring from a senior woman partner in her firm. The advice she got was, "Forget about having a life if you want to succeed here." Since this associate wanted to start a family, this was hardly a good mentoring match.

It's also advantageous to build alliances with people outside of your firm or organization. These may be individuals with expertise in areas where you have knowledge gaps, people you generally admire and believe can teach you a lot, or attorneys who are particularly supportive and whose perspective on the profession is of value to you.

Your personal knowledge board may also include people in other professions, perhaps in the industry you serve.

It's also good to include someone who can guide you in strategic life and career design. Often a professional coach serves this purpose.

It's essential to keep in mind the importance of discretion when speaking to a mentor within your firm. You must protect the confidentiality of client information when speaking with advisors outside of your firm. If your coach is a psychologist, your communications are privileged.

4. Developing and Maintaining Relationships

The alliances you form are substantive, strategically important business relationships. They have far more depth than someone to whom you hand a business card at a networking event. These are meaningful, productive relationships with people at all levels of experience who can provide career enhancement and self-development.

Especially if you dislike the superficiality that networking connotes, these alliances will be easier to develop because they evolve in a natural and authentic way. They depend upon personal chemistry and often occur serendipitously. But you can influence serendipity by volunteering for committees or work assignments that allow collaborative relationships to develop. This also allows both parties to evaluate the benefits of the working relationship.

Knowledge and assistance are privileges, not rights. It's important to clarify each person's expectations of the relationship. Negotiate how long you expect the relationship to proceed in this form - you can always arrange to continue the alliance.

Try to gain an understanding of what your mentor or ally needs in order for the relationship to be mutually rewarding. For some advisors, helping another attorney succeed is sufficient. Others might feel rewarded by your offers to assist them in writing an article or speech.

Developing your own area of expertise makes you a desirable ally. You can be a source of information to your mentor by sending clippings, articles, etc. which you know would be of interest. When you can link the problem for which you're seeking expertise to an area of your advisor's interest, your mentor can deepen his/her own knowledge while helping you.

It's important not to abuse your relationships with your personal advisory board. Be clear about each individual's willingness to be available and helpful and structure your requests accordingly.

Treat these relationships with great care, show appropriate gratitude, and give proper credit for contributions. Never waste your advisors' time. When you seek their expertise, prepare your questions well and summarize the efforts you've already made to solve the problem.

5. Lay the Groundwork in Advance

The worst time to be constructing your strategic advisory board is when you need it to work for you. It's essential to be proactive and to find ways to build these relationships before you need to call on them for their assistance.

Try to find ways to collaborate with potential information sources. Build credit by offering help and following through.

And don't forget the unique contribution a professional coach can make to your career and personal development. Other attorneys can teach you practical applications of the law or show you the ropes of your firm, but only your coach is dedicated to your success, is an expert in the change process, has no vested interest in your choices, and has special knowledge about how to plan your career without sacrificing the important things in your life.


1. Jay M. Jackman. Quoted in Nichols, Nancy, A. (Ed) (1996) "Reach for the Top: Women and the Changing Facts of Work Life." Harvard Business School Press. P. 81.

2. Thomas, David A. 'Race Matters: The Truth About Mentoring Minorities.' "Harvard Business Review," April, 2001.

3. Abbott, Ida O. "Adapting Mentoring to the Modern Legal Workplace." LexisOne, January, 2001.

4. Kelley, Robert E. (1999) "How to Be a Star at Work - 9 Breakthrough Strategies You Need to Succeed." New York: Three Rivers Press. P. 81.


Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D. and her associates at Lawyers Life Coach (TM) are available for individual and group coaching, seminar and conference presentations, and speaking engagements. We also provide professional consultation to law firms and other legal service organizations. You can reach us at 301-578-8686 or send e-mail to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it





BEYOND THE BILLABLE HOUR™ is published monthly by Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., founder of She brings 20 years of experience assisting women attorneys to her work in Lawyers Life Coach™. is a professional and personal coaching firm specializing in working virtually (by phone with email and fax backup) with women attorneys interested in developing strategies to find greater satisfaction in their careers within the law or in exploring career alternatives for lawyers.

Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D. established to coach busy lawyers who might benefit from the insights gained from 20 years as a psychologist combined with her experience and familiarity with the legal profession.

Ellen holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Rochester and is a managing member of Metropolitan Behavioral Health Care, LLC., a multispecialty, multidisciplinary psychotherapy practice in Washington, D.C. and suburban Maryland.

She is a member of the International Coach Federation and a graduate of the MentorCoach Program™.


NOTE: BEYOND THE BILLABLE HOUR™ is intended for informational and educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for a personal consultation with a mental health professional and should not be construed as a form of, or substitute for, counseling, psychotherapy, or other psychological service.



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Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D.
Phone: (301) 578-8686
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