ORLANDO, Fla. — The importance of mentorships and sponsorships was the topic of discussion at a recent luncheon, hosted by Thomson Reuters’ Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law (TWLL) initiative, earlier this month in Orlando, Fla.
TWLL is fostering an ongoing dialog among female executives in both corporate legal departments and law firms to discuss their perspectives on women advancing in the legal industry and the challenges women face moving forward in the legal profession.
In Orlando, five senior women and seven associates from large and midsize law firms attended the lunch. The senior partners were asked to bring an associate or two whom she mentors or sponsors. The goal of the lunch was to discuss what mentor and sponsor programs are working, and encourage the associates to leverage their mentors and sponsors to advance their careers.
“We need women sponsoring other women and leading the charge — we need to make sure we support each other so we keep women advancing in the practice of law after they start having families.”
While the firms represented at the lunch all had mentorship programs of some sort — both formal and informal — the programs varied among the law firms. Some of the firms have formal programs based on practice area, whereas other firms required that the mentor be outside of the mentee’s practice area to avoid a potential negative impact during the review process. All of the women agreed that the gender of your mentor is irrelevant, noting that most of the women had male mentors early in their careers. However, as Sarah Pape, Shareholder at Zimmerman, Kiser, Sutcliffe, P.A. mentioned: “We need women sponsoring other women and leading the charge — we need to make sure we support each other so we keep women advancing in the practice of law after they start having families.”
Women sponsoring other women will also help level the playing field when it comes to origination credit. If men are passing along business to other men, women should focus on trying to sponsor women and pass along business to them.
The group also discussed the importance of understanding their firm’s structure and how to climb the ladder and advance in the firm. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of focus on knowing the firm’s structure, the group conceded, and advancing in the firm as a woman isn’t always as straightforward as knowing the right people and doing the right work. “It’s also understanding the steps to take to become partner,” said Suzanne Gilbert, Partner at Holland & Knight. “It’s not just put in your time, and you’ll be partner. There are intermediate steps that will help you — like chutes and ladders. If you get to the right point and don’t take the right step, you might slide back. If you take a good step, you might jump ahead a few levels.”
Another senior counsel mentioned how she proactively reaches out to partners in offices outside of hers to share her brand and help increase her name recognition within the firm. The women agreed that whenever possible, it is important to proactively seek out face-time when making those connections.
The women also discussed importance of having mentors or sponsors outside of their firms — not only to have someone to share insight unrelated to the practice of law, but also to generate more business. Group members said they prefer to refer matters to other female lawyers when their firms are conflicted; so, if associates reach out to mentors and sponsors outside of their firms, it would help them create a pipeline for future referral business.
The members of the group who are mentors and sponsors agreed they need to continue their part in advancing women in the law. “Women who have benefitted from mentorships or sponsorships have an absolute obligation to pay it forward, not an option,” said Jessica Parker Malchow, Partner at BakerHostetler.