Resources Newsletter Archive Does Your Firm's Mentoring Program Really Address the Needs of Women Lawyers? (March 2009)

Does Your Firm's Mentoring Program Really Address the Needs of Women Lawyers? (March 2009)

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                            Issue #57
                          March, 2009

What Determines Women's Advancement to Equity Partnership?

What determines whether a woman attorney in a law firm at the senior associate, of counsel or non-equity partner level will be promoted to shareholder? Is it technical competence? No -- she would not have made it this far if she hadn't already been judged capable of excellent legal work. Even a book of business is necessary but not sufficient (unless it exceeds $2 million). Some successful business developers have not been promoted whereas others with less business "of their own" become equity partners.

During my ten years of coaching women lawyers to achieve partnership, I've learned many secrets about how to cross this threshold. Women lawyers consistently say that exclusion from informal networks and lack of mentoring are among the most significant obstacles to career advancement. Firms have tried to address this by creating all varieties of mentoring programs: formally assigned mentor-mentee programs, mentoring circles and group mentoring are common. Still, the percentage of women partners in large law firms remains stalled. 

I've written elsewhere about the multiple barriers to the advancement of women in their firms (see Beyond the Billable Hour archive.) From my perspective, one very significant reality is that having a mentor does not guarantee career progress. This is very troubling. As surprising as it may be to those firms that have paid consultants to design elaborate mentoring programs - to say nothing of the costs of the time invested in actual mentoring activities - it comes as an even greater shock to the woman lawyer who has been a dutiful mentee only to discover she is not being considered for promotion.

Not All Aspects Of Mentoring Lead To Career Success

Mentoring may serve many different functions. It can enhance an attorney's career prospects by increasing her human capital, that is, helping her develop job-related knowledge, skills and abilities. Prior to the establishment of the current law school curriculum, this is how most lawyers were trained. Many of the woman lawyers I've coached over the years have found excellent mentors, either within or outside of their firms, to assist them in refining their analytical and writing skills. However, studies of mentoring in law firms indicate that this aspect of mentoring is insufficient to enable women to reach the highest levels of law-firm leadership.[1]

Mentoring can also help integrate attorneys into the workplace. Lawyers whose mentors "show them the ropes," by helping them negotiate the organization and providing insider information about organizational politics, benefit from this kind of support. Given the enormous work burdens and time constraints facing most senior attorneys, this mentoring function is now typically provided by more senior associates. Many firm mentoring programs assign "buddies" to new attorneys to help them more quickly and easily become integrated into the firm. However, there is no research evidence that this kind of mentoring is significantly associated with career advancement or compensation.

Having A Sponsor Is Crucial

A third function of mentoring is that of increasing the protégé's social capital. No less an expert than Robert J. Grey, Jr. (ABA President, 2004-2005) once told me that the 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.[2]

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.[3

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.[4]  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.

I have often observed this male-sponsorship effect. Yet many women lawyers who hope to become firm shareholders don't have a sponsor. There are probably many reasons for this, including the absence of a clear picture of what constitutes good mentoring. Perhaps the sponsorship role of a mentor is like many things about which outsiders to informal insider networks remain ignorant.  How can you know what you're missing if you've never experienced it?

A woman lawyer without a sponsor is at a disadvantage. Research indicates that women with senior male mentors are more likely to advance and to receive higher compensation. In contrast, the career attainment of male lawyers is not significantly affected by having a senior male mentor.[5]

Furthermore, formal mentoring programs are unlikely to help women reap the benefit of this mentoring function. Rather, the voluntary selection of a protége by a senior male signals to other firm leaders that she possesses those qualities believed to be requirements for success.[6]

The disparity in the representation of men and women in the upper levels of law firms may well begin early in the career cycle.  Research on mentoring suggests that sponsors select "rising stars" as protégés - that is, individuals who have already demonstrated that they are motivated, high performers on the "fast track." [7]  This is consistent with the finding that at mid- to senior-associate levels, male and female lawyers may be equally likely to find senior men to mentor them.  It is possible that senior men only mentor women who seem to be doing well beyond this critical juncture.[8]

At the junior associate level, women may have a more difficult time obtaining needed sponsorship.  Mentors report using ability, performance and potential as criteria for selecting a protégé.  They are also more likely to choose protégés who are similar to themselves.[9] Without the presumption of competence afforded their male colleagues and with their mistakes more easily remembered and their successes less likely to be viewed as signs of potential, junior women, as well as minority attorneys, face significant hurdles in obtaining the sponsorship needed to demonstrate that they can be "rising stars."  High attrition among women and women of color during their fourth and fifth years at firms may well be in part a respopnse to their difficulty obtaining needed sponsorship. 

Firms committed to retaining diverse talent may need to augment mentoring programs with training for mentors to help them become aware of the "rising star" phenomenon as well as the ways in which stereotypes and unconscious biases may blind them to the potential of young women and diverse attorneys.  Mentoring programs might also include training for junior associates in proactive approaches to career management, including the need for sponsorship, ways of accessing good assignments and obtaining constructive feedback, and methods for building needed social capital.

Women Need More Than Sponsors

Either way, women also need to know that while the sponsorship of a powerful senior male attorney is likely to facilitate career advancement, it does not appear to prepare women well for assuming the role and identity of partner, nor inspire the confidence and satisfaction it is supposed to bring. The lack of women at the highest levels leaves many new women partners without a clear picture of how to "act the part." [10]  Without models for self-presentation, women can become less confident and more anxious. In addition, male mentors typically fail to provide a fourth function of mentoring: the "psychosocial" function, which includes social support, role-modeling and advice concerning role ambiguity and work-family conflict. Research indicates that this function is better served by women mentors.[11]

Unfortunately, the scarcity of women partners can make finding this kind of mentoring even more difficult than obtaining career-advancement sponsorship from a man. In addition, many junior women do not identify with the work-family models offered by senior women. And senior women are often concerned about the risks to their own career of spending political capital on someone unproven. Work and family demands may also place much more burden on their time.

Peer mentoring can address this gap. Sometimes women can obtain this kind of role modeling and support through women's bar groups or women lawyers' leadership coaching groups. Since 2004, 6 - 8 women attorneys have been participating on a bi-monthly conference call that I facilitate ("Leadership Excellence From the Start".) They receive coaching, support, advice, models and alternatives to assist them in developing their identity as leaders and their effectiveness in managing others. "Graduates" have gone on to lead practice groups, build satellite offices for their firms, and increase their leadership responsibilities in corporate legal departments. Every one either had already developed a mentoring relationship with a senior male sponsor or used the help of the group to do so. And having grabbed the brass ring, their peers in the coaching group helped them take on and feel confident in their new leadership identity.*

1.   Ramaswami, A. (2008) The Interactive Effects of Gender and Mentoring on Career Attainment: Do Female Lawyers Need Good Counsel? Submitted for publication.

2.   Robert J. Grey Jr. personal communication.

3.   Ibarra, H. (1997) Paving an Alternative Route: Gender Differences in Managerial Networks. Social Psychology Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 1, 91-102.

4.   Schipani, C. A., Dworkin, T. M., Kwolek-Folland, A. & Maurer, V. G. (2008) Pathways for Women to Obtain Positions of Organizational Leadership: The Significance of Mentoring and Networking. Ross School of Business Working Paper No. 117.

5.   Tharenou, P. (2005) Does Mentor Support Increase Women's Career Advancement More than Men's? The Differential Effects of Career and Psychosocial Support. Australian Journal of Management, Vol. 30, No. 1, 77-108.

6.   Ramaswami, A. (2008) Ibid.

7. Singh, R., Ragins, B. R. & Tharenou, P. (2009) Who Gets a Mentor?  A Longitudinal Assessment of the Rising Star Hypothesis.  Journal of Vocational Behavior, 74, 11-17.

8. Ramaswami, A. (2008) Ibid.

9. Singh, R. et. al. (2009) Ibid.

10. Ibarra, H. & Petriglieri, J. (2007) Impossible Selves: Image Strategies and Identity Threat in Professional Women's Career Transitions. INSEAD Faculty and Research Working Paper.

11. Wallace, J. E. (2001) The Benefits of Mentoring for Female Lawyers. Journal of Vocational Behavior, Vol. 58, 366-391.

*A version of this article was published in the March 2009 issue of The Complete Lawyer.

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