The Importance of Female Mentorship: Tips for Lawyers on the Rise


By Ann E. Lemmo

Clark Hill PLC

For the past 20 years, law schools have seen a roughly equivalent number of men and women enrollment. It was not until 2016 that more women were enrolled than men. However, as is obvious from your first few months as a new attorney, law school is not reality. Women remain a minority in the courtroom and as leaders in practice areas. According to research conducted by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, women lawyers, and especially women of color, are more likely than their male counterparts to be interrupted, to be mistaken for nonlawyers, perform more office housework and to have less access to prime job assignments.

This reality isn’t exclusive to attorneys. According to a study conducted by the Harvard Business Review, 65.9% of all interruptions on the U.S. Supreme Court were directed at the three female justices on the bench (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan).

Thus, the importance of finding a woman sponsor is essential for a young woman’s successful legal career. A sponsorship is when a sponsor uses her clout to advocate for a professional’s advancement within her organization. While an ordinary mentor relationship provides guidance on practicing in the field, building a book of business, and handling clients, a women sponsorship includes guidance on the unspoken rules of the job such as navigating a field of only men, the correct appearance for the courtroom, and the many other roadblocks that a regular mentor/mentee relationship may lack. A sponsor is key because they not only are a teacher, but an active advocate for the advancement of a young lawyer’s career.

Qualities to Look for in a Sponsor

When seeking a sponsor, consider the following qualities.

  • A hands-on teacher. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” While law school teaches you the substance of the law, a mentor teaches you the practice of the law. The more a sponsor can involve you in their practice, such as a point person for clients, invitations to networking events, and drafting articles, the more you will gain out of the experience. A recent study by UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business found that women actually benefit more from such mentoring than men. A sponsor can expand professional networks by building social skills, providing a guide for the appropriate social skills and providing access to organizations and networks.
  • A pathfinder. There is no reason to reinvent the wheel; a good sponsor shows the pathway that you may not have known existed to success as a young lawyer. As a new practitioner, it is always helpful to see the possible pathways for your career from someone who has already been through it. Sponsors are key to helping you get to where you intend to go.
  • An objective adviser. What is important for growth is recognizing personal flaws. Recognizing personal flaws is harder to do when it relies on self-evaluation. Sponsors provide that third-party view to tell you areas you can improve. Sponsors also provide advice regarding specific hurdles regarding being a woman in a male dominated field. A part of the realty of this advice for women includes appearance and executive presence. For example, some judges have preferences for whether a woman wears a skirt or pantsuit. Another example is that jurors pay specific attention to women attorney’s outfits, and thus women need to consider the importance of the color, make and style of your outfit and how it can detract or add to your case when presenting it to a jury.
  • An advocate. Nowadays, mentoring may not be enough. Women need women with clout to help elevate them in the work field by advocating her mentee for the high-stakes assignments that are a prerequisite visibility and a promotion.

In addition, you can be an asset and not a burden to your sponsor. You can be a soundboard, provide points of view, and have respectable discussions and exchanges that can help your sponsor assess projects they are working on, or even work-life hurdles that they experience.

Finding a Sponsor

The first important step for finding a sponsor takes some self-reflection. It is important to determine your goals and what you would like to gain out of the relationship. The best way to do this is to think about your end goal. What is the type of law career you are looking for?  Next, who do you look up to? Whose job would you like to have in the next five, 10 or 15 years? Do you have a role model where you work? Sometimes this person is outside of your practice group.

The best resource for finding a sponsor may be your firm. See if your firm offers mentor/mentee programs or women specific programs. If there is no program, besides encouraging your firm to begin one, seek out opportunities to connect with the potential sponsor you identified. Ask for a call, a meeting, or get involved in the activities that the mentor is involved in.

In order to succeed, young women attorneys need not only an adviser and pathfinder, but a trusted advocate. This way, maybe law school will for once actually reflect a reality and women will be less of a minority in the legal leadership roles.

Ann E. Lemmo is an associate in Clark Hill’s banking and financial services group, focusing on consumer financial services regulatory and compliance. She provides consultation, litigation and regulatory advice to financial institutions, law firms and credit reporting agencies. She also provides advice to venture capital firms in the fintech area. 

Reproduced with permission of the author.