Susan Smith Blakely

Mentoring is Critical to Career Success for Women Lawyers

I write a lot about leadership in law firms.  In fact, my last book, Best Friends at the Bar:  Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers, is all about that subject.   In that book, I address the elements of effective leadership by presenting examples of good leadership and bad leadership.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of examples of bad leadership to fill those pages.

An important part of effective leadership in law firms revolves around mentorship.  Mentoring young lawyers and helping them to develop their career paths and identify and maximize on their talents is key to career success for the young lawyers and long range success for the law firm. 

However, far too many law firms do not have effective mentoring programs.  That is especially true of large firms.  Small and medium sized firms may not have formal mentoring programs, but the nature of those practices as team oriented tends to produce many more mentoring experiences than in large firms.

The failure of law firms to take mentoring seriously is a boon to my business because the kind of mentoring and career counseling that should be going on in law firms falls to career counselors like me.  But, still, I am complaining.  For you.  I know the value of effective mentoring, and I want all of you to have that advantage.

All mentoring programs are not equal.  Effective mentoring programs are different from mentoring programs that are designed for recruiting value and not given much priority in practice.  Firms often view mentoring as too time intensive, and that does not have to be the case.  

Some kinds of effective mentoring are so fundamental and take so little time that it is mind boggling that firms pay so little attention to them.  Things like having periodic conversations with newbie lawyers about their lives ---weekend activities, the ball game, vacation plans and myriad other topics that can make a young lawyer feel like an integral part of the organization.  Things like providing feedback on work, especially when that feedback is positive.  Things like explaining to a young lawyer his or her role in the case or the matter to assign value to that young lawyer's efforts. 

The truth is that too many associates sit in their offices day after day without any conversation with senior lawyers.  That does not go far in making them feel like the lawyers they want to be and inspiring them to come to work every day with positive and hopeful attitudes.

If you are a law student, ask about mentoring programs in your job interviews, and give special value to firms that not only talk the talk but also seem to walk the walk.  To be sure about what you are hearing, ask young associates at the firm about their experiences with mentoring.  If you are an associate lawyer and not having a good mentoring experience at your firm, talk to a senior lawyer about it.  Firm management should be happy that you care about your career path and developing your skills enough to want guidance from experienced professionals.  And, if you are a firm leader or manager, make sure that your firm steps up in the mentoring arena.  Set the example and establish goals and objectives for an effective mentorship program.

For more on mentoring, read this article.  It is written by a partner in Big Law, who experienced valuable mentoring as a summer associate at the same law firm and has made mentoring junior lawyers a priority because of his own positive experiences.

So, you don't have to believe me.  Get it from the top!

Susan Smith Blakely is the Founder of LegalPerspectives LLC and an award-winning, nationally-recognized author, speaker and consultant on issues related to young women lawyers, young women law students and young women interested in careers in the law.  She is author of Best Friends at the Bar:  What Women Need to Know about a Career in the Law (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers 2009), and Best Friends at the Bar:  The New Balance for Today's Woman Lawyer (Wolters Kluwer Law & Business 2012), which addresses the work-life struggle for women lawyers and includes twelve profiles of women who have successfully transitioned from one practice setting to another.  Her new book, Best Friends at the Bar:  Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers, will focus on the responsibilities of law firm leaders and will be released by Wolters Kluwer Law & Business in 2015.

 Ms. Blakely frequently speaks at colleges and universities, law schools, law firms and law organizations, and she has been featured in media including Corporate Counsel Magazine, the LA Daily Journal, National Jurist, Washington Examiner Newspaper, Forbes Woman, DC Spotlight, Lawyerist. Com, Daily Muse and Huffington Post Business.  Ms. Blakely also is a frequent guest speaker and panelist at conferences on women's issues in business and the law profession, and she has been a featured speaker at the US Department of Justice, Civil Division.  She is the recipient of the Ms. JD 2015 "Sharing Her Passion Award" for her work on behalf of women in the law, and she is the recipient of a Lawyer Monthly Women in Law Award 2016.

 Ms. Blakely graduated from the University of Wisconsin with distinction and from Georgetown University Law Center where she was a teaching fellow. She is a member of the CoachSource global network of leadership coaches and a career coach for the Indiana University Marshall Goldsmith Leadership Development and Executive Coaching Academy.   For more information, please visit 

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