Business is cruel and navigating the professional workforce is difficult. My experience in the legal sphere is drastically different than in the corporate business sector.
One of my former bosses is a woman; the only one woman I ever worked for, actually. While working for her, she treated me like a secretary. Nothing wrong with a secretarial position, but that wasn’t my job. I was supposed to learn the industry and it was her role to teach me. But she cared little about my own career aspirations. She told me, on several occasions, that she didn’t understand the drive for furthering my own education. You see, she’d assimilated to the ‘boys club’ in the office and there was no plan to include anyone else in that circle, least of all a young Latina working toward potentially surpassing her. I wanted her to be a mentor and, in that desire, I learned several things.
Mentorships are Forged in Friendship
In corporate America, I’m sure there are mentorships. Sadly, my one lady boss was not willing to help nurture my goals. But you know what? We were NEVER friends. She was cold, distant, and looked down at me for not enjoying scotch. So, I branched out, connecting to other individuals. I found a mentor in one of the male figures within the company and did maintain several friendships after leaving that position.
By finding not-so-common ground with this man, I was able to ask questions about career goals, thoughts on a career change, and which leadership qualities may be best to work on for myself. I asked him practically everything under the sun, and he was always willing to answer honestly – which is not something I found often in that office. This mentorship stemmed beyond the corporate field and he even wrote me a letter of recommendation for law school, and further served as a reference for my character and fitness test.
I say all of this to you because sometimes the people you desperately want to look up to, well – they disappoint you. And others will surprise you. Be open to that surprise. A mentor can be someone very close in age to you, they don’t have to be “older” to be wisened. One of my newest friends and mentors is the same age as I am, but she went directly into law, whereas I taught for a few years before attending law school. Her direction and motivation is just as valuable and appreciated in my life, moreso because she’s a woman in the field and has recently experienced what I am about to go through. Be open to the wisdom and the friendship that comes from mentorship.
Mentors Can Have Differing Opinions & That Is Perfectly O.K.
I know this seems completely obvious, but just go with me on this one. I have two male mentors in the legal field who are partners at different law firms and work in the same practice area. They’re amazing individuals, both earned via potluck situations (meaning, through a couple of different, yet organic, circumstances), and their thoughts on my career ambitions vary. I initially thought I’d practice corporate or patent law and have since retained a love of science but gained an interest in criminal litigation.
One felt I should apply for clerkships, the other thought I simply needed to ace the patent bar and enter the job market. One suggested I pursue positions in the criminal law sphere, while the other voiced his concern in me not earning enough money there. These polarizing views helped me ask myself questions and, more importantly, helped orient my goals. Reaching out to these two, asking their opinion on the same question, always gives me something to think about; multiple perspectives is key to making difficult decisions.
The Mentee Needs to Put the Work in First
Law students tend to feel like mere specks in the legal workforce. As a 1L, when you don’t know how to begin or complete any work of merit, asking for help on anything feels akin to wasting someone else’s time. So it should come as no surprise that many law students fail to establish a relationship with a mentor early on in their legal education. My alma mater requires mentoring sessions during the 1L year. Each week, a group of peers meet up with an assigned set of attorneys (who volunteered to be mentors). The goal is to discuss anything of importance or concern among the cohort. In my first year, we spoke about internships, scholarships, and the difficulties of studying and maintaining life balance. Many students didn’t enjoy the group sessions, but I viewed them as an opportunity to get to network. In so doing, I reached out to the attorneys in our group for coffee, lunch, and the occasional hallway chat. They were incredibly receptive and worked around my schedule rather than making me feel like I was a waste of time.
I showed my interest in getting to know them and genuinely enjoy their company. These attorneys were (and continue to be) sounding boards for case analysis, motion drafting, and bar preparation ideas. I highly doubt they would have taken as much of an interest in me though, if I’d failed to establish the direct line of communication. I took it upon myself to reach out, which I know may be difficult for some. But you should know that I’ve never been blown off by a lawyer after reaching out with something specific. In the business world, sure. Among lawyers? Never.
Case in point, when working on my Blockchain Analysis for an independent study course, I looked up a partner at a Big Law Firm in Dallas and sent him a message via LinkedIn. He responded within 24 hours and we met for coffee to chat about the topic of my paper and where I planned on taking my research.
Put yourself out there. Worst case? They don’t respond. Then you’re merely at square one. Best case? They do respond and you’ve got a new connection.
Women Mentors are Scarce
Per the 2018 Census statistics, 38% of attorneys are women. As of 2010, less than 2% of women attorneys are Latina. Forging your way into a new career is tough, so it helps greatly to have someone rooting for you. Someone who’s been there, who knows just how hard and how long you have to work to get where you want to go.
Enter Nora. (And Lara, Loren, Melissa, Jessica, Lauren, Tracy, and Jenny)
These women have fundamentally impacted my life and career. I doubt they even realize it, but I think about their words of encouragement and advice nearly every single day. As I told Nora, these women – and those who came before them – are the reason I am a lawyer (and studying for the Bar). The reason I could even consider the idea of becoming a lawyer at all. They’re the giants whose shoulders we get to stand upon.
Nora Riva Bergman is an attorney and law firm coach who took the time to write several books (because she’s just that awesome). Her most recent one is 50 Lessons for Women Lawyers from Women Lawyers. Between her crazy-hectic schedule she made the time to speak with me about life goals, career options, and what the heck I plan to do after passing the Bar exam. She even offered to connect me with another female attorney who she thought would be an excellent mentor for me. Trust me when I say that most people want to help you. Nora is a prime example of this and I consider myself lucky to know her.
The day I met Nora, I was panicked. Everything went wrong. My technology failed and I was running late for our meeting. I was nervous and flustered because my two dogs chose that particular timeframe to have the zoomies. She let me go on and on about goals and my blog and my worries regarding the Bar exam. Speaking with her was just so easy! She let me talk (and talk and talk) and, when I was all talked out, she shared her own words of wisdom. I’m sure if I asked her, she’d be happy to mentor me. Heck, she already started to mentor me with her book and the lessons she and her friends compiled. Nora is an ally for all women looking to make a positive impact in this world and we need more people like her.
If you haven’t already, I highly recommend you read her new book. I’ve been treating it kind of like a bible in the sense that I flip it open every other day for some inspiration while studying for the Bar Exam. The lessons these women wrote for us are so important to establishing our roles in the legal field. Anyone with the desire to do something, to be a part of something bigger than yourself, should read this book. My current favorite is Lesson #8: Find a Mentor – Be a Mentor.
Your Voice Is Powerful
Mentoring means you make the time to teach and guide another. As lawyers and law students, we are in the unique role of being able to help others on a daily basis. We are privileged in that we can use our voice and know-how to be a platform for others. Remember that. Don’t ever forget how far you’ve come, how far there is still left to go, and the fact that there is always someone in your corner.