A concern that I hear frequently from women lawyers is the lack of recognition and compensation for those partners – often women – who devote time to building up the human capital in their law firms. This includes time spent mentoring younger lawyers or working on the firm’s education, articling or associate development committees. When it comes to dividing up the partnership profits at the end of the year, it is typically only billable hours and collected revenue that counts and not time spent ensuring a stronger future for the firm.
For many women lawyers, this is frustrating because mentoring is one of the activities they most enjoy about working at their firm. Not only is assisting junior lawyers personally rewarding but mentoring also creates a more welcoming and collegial community within the firm – the kind of work environment these women want to foster. Many women also know that mentoring is the best way to ensure that young women lawyers stay in the profession and advance to partnership.
While some firms foster mentoring through formal programs, most mentoring happens informally. Typically, women have less access to the kind of informal mentoring that will occur naturally between male lawyers who will spend time chatting in the hallways, are together on the golf course or at a hockey game or have lunch or drinks after work. If there is no formal mentoring program in place, some women may receive no mentoring at all.
One young female associate at a small firm told me that her male colleagues were regularly asked (often in front of her) to have lunch with the partners while she was excluded from these invitations. She believed that the male partners simply were more comfortable socializing with the younger men in the firm. When she left the firm, the partners were surprised. They said she was a fine lawyer whom they had expected would stay. She was frustrated at her lack of informal mentoring around both legal issues and career development. More importantly, she did not want to become a partner at a firm where she felt excluded and invisible. A good mentor would have ensured that she was fully accepted in the firm and had the same opportunities as her male associates.
Even where law firms have good mentoring programs in place, these programs often do not address the issues that drive women away. Returning from maternity leave and ramping your practice back up; developing business in a male dominated industry; harassment by a client; staying awake during the day when you have been up all night with a sick child or elderly parent – these may be issues that a male partner has never encountered. Women associates are often reluctant to raise these challenges in case it signals that they are not coping.
On the flip side – I hear partners say that they have mentoring programs in place but the women still leave. This is because the mentoring is not addressing the issues that are causing the women to leave. The women do not want to burn any bridges or criticize the firm by asking for better mentoring.
Too often mentoring is seen as social conversations over lunch about what happened on the weekend or vacation plans. While building a relationship between a partner and an associate is important, if the conversation never moves beyond social chitchat, it is not mentoring. Similarly, answering a question on a file is important but neither is this mentoring. In a mentoring relationship, the partner actively supports and takes an interest in the broader professional and career development of the associate. This requires a bigger conversation where the associate feels that the partner is on her side and will support the associate on an on-going basis rather than just the occasional lunch.
So how does a law firm know what their associates need to become better lawyers and future partners? How will they know if their female associates (or associates from different cultural backgrounds, for that matter) have different concerns than their male associates?
The firm must start with an anonymous survey (preferably of both partners and associates) about what they believe the current mentoring situation to be. Is it working? Unless the survey is seen to be anonymous, no associate will provide honest feedback about the partner mentors. Women associates are particularly reluctant to raise any issues that may single them out as not coping as well as the men.
Responding to the issues raised in the survey should lead to written guidelines setting out expectations for both partners and associates; training for both partners and associates on what constitutes good mentoring and follow-up to see if the changes are working. While none of this need be complicated or bureaucratic, it does need buy-in from the top and visible partner leadership. It also requires recognition and some type of reward for those partners who take mentoring seriously and devote time to it. Mentoring does not need to be part of the always-contentious compensation criteria, however it does need to be a reward that is sufficiently motivating.
As there are fewer women at the partnership level in Canada, there are fewer good female mentors available to mentor younger women. While female role models are important, not all female partners (or male partners, for that matter) make good mentors. A female partner for example, may have chosen not to have children so that she could devote more time to building her practice. She may be unsympathetic to a female associate returning from maternity leave and feel that no special accommodation should be given to a woman who has chosen to become a mother.
Male partners can be excellent mentors especially when they can assist a young female associate better navigate the male business world or understand law firm politics.
One solution to the lack of sufficient female partners is to use mentoring or peer circles. There is a different dynamic when only women are in the room. Women (like men) do not need to be as guarded or concerned that they will be misunderstood. This can lead to a freer discussion where associates can learn from shared experiences and support each other. Mentoring or peer circles can be organized around specific topics like returning from maternity leave or business development.
Male associates should have access to a formal mentoring program as well. Even though men typically receive more informal mentoring than women, it is important that all associates feel that they are being treated fairly. Also, most female associates will be uncomfortable if they feel singled out or if they face resentment from their male colleagues who feel that the women are getting an unfair advantage on the road to partnership.
While mentoring is good for the bottom line in all law firms, it is crucial in assisting women to stay in the practice of law. However, it must focus on the issues that drive women away. To determine what those issues are and to encourage open and frank dialogue to solve them requires a commitment on the part of partners to be the best mentors they can be. Mentoring is not difficult. We owe it to our clients, our younger lawyers and ourselves to do this well.