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APRIL 2012 NEWSLETTER - Mentoring
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ABA Women Leaders: On the Importance and Impact of Mentoring 

by M.C. Sungaila

 

For the winter issue of the Woman Advocate Newsletter, a select group of ABA women leaders were asked to describe how both male and female mentors had positively impacted their development as lawyers and leaders, and to pass on some of that advice to newer women lawyers. Here are their stories and advice:

Laurel Bellows, ABA President-Elect; former chair of the House of Delegates; former chair of the Commission on Women in the Profession; former chair of the Finance Committee of the Board of Governors; and founding partner, Bellows Law Group (Chicago, IL)

Q: Who was the biggest influence on your career; what was the best career advice you received from them or others?

A: Biggest influence: Joel Bellows, who trained me as a trial lawyer, and whom I eventually married. Things he taught me that I now share with others: The practice of law is not a popularity contest. Your job is to represent your client, not to be liked by the other side. When they come for your client with flamethrowers, the only place for you to stand is in front of your client. Always ethical, never a gray line, but always a zealous representation of the client's interests.

Q: If you were mentoring a young woman lawyer, what advice would you give her about career advancement and fulfillment?

A: Be true to yourself. Understand what you want out of life in any given moment to obtain personal satisfaction; recognize what that is and strike a balance between working hard to assure yourself economic independence currently and in the future while retaining a commitment to family and friends and enjoying life. I have found balance, or managed chaos, because I have combined a lot of aspects of my life.  You need to go to work feeling good about yourself and what you do every day; if the kind of law you are practicing does not do this for you, find a new way to do that.  Take control of your career. It is your responsibility to make sure you are doing work you want to do and at which you excel, and that you are receiving assignments that help you advance. Seek stretch assignments and work with partners who can introduce you to key clients. Cultivate relationships that can both bring you joy and business.  We have not removed the barriers to equal opportunity for advancement; they persist. It is important for young women to recognize that barriers still exist. But please don’t opt out before you opt in. Women need to establish and maintain their own economic independence or they willpay a price down the road.  Learn to lead. Take leadership courses. Find women in the corporate environment who are being groomed for leadership. It is not complicated, but it is a mindset that is not taught in law school.  Be a dealmaker and a problem solver, and seek to achieve your client’s objectives. Get creative and make it happen.

 
Roberta D. Liebenberg, cochair of the ABA Section of Litigation’s Strategic Planning and Implementation Task Force, former chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession; a founder (and current Vice-Chair) of Direct Women, an ABA initiative to prepare women lawyers for service as directors on corporate boards; and senior partner, Fine Kaplan and Black (Philadelphia, PA)

Q: Who was the biggest influence on your career and what was the best career advice you received from them or others? Have you ever had a mentor or sponsor who made a genuine difference in how your career turned out?

A: I have been very fortunate to have had a number of wonderful mentors who had a significant impact on my career. When I first started practicing antitrust law at a large firm, one of the senior partners, Seymour Kurland, took me under his wing. He made sure that I was given substantial responsibility on major matters for significant clients. He also saw to it that I developed a broad range of litigation skills and helped me navigate my way through the maze of large-firm politics and culture. The most valuable advice he imparted to me was to take risks and to always seek out greater responsibility and challenges. I was also privileged to work with Jerry Shestack, a former ABA President. Jerry was instrumental in my becoming more actively involved with the ABA and, in particular, the Commission on Women in the Profession. Jerry was a role model and mentor not just for me, but also for countless other lawyers throughout the country and the ABA. He taught me the importance of bar association involvement and the need to give back and serve as a champion and advocate for others.

Another one of my mentors was Judge Norma Shapiro of the District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Judge Shapiro has been a trailblazer for women lawyers and has provided sage counsel to me for many years. For example, when I chaired the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession, she helped us to identify the most significant and pressing issues confronting women lawyers and provided invaluable assistance in formulating concrete solutions to help women to advance. She always emphasized that it is imperative for women to reach back to help other women to climb the ladder to success, and that admonition has served as a lifelong inspiration to me.

Q: If you were mentoring a young woman lawyer, what advice would you give her about career advancement and fulfillment?

A: My advice to a young woman lawyer would be similar to what was given me––concentrate in a particular area of the law, hone your legal skills, and become involved in activities that will give you visibility within your firm and your community.  I would advise that you should think about what you would like to do with your career as early as possible and develop a business plan for yourself. If you would like to try to eventually make partner in your firm, develop short-term and long-term business development goals for yourself.  Take advantage of business development training or coaching opportunities. Seek out assignments that will let you work with different partners and develop relationships with clients.  This same advice holds true if you are working in government or in corporate practice. While it sounds corny, try to visualize where you want to be and what you want to do in the next 10 years and take steps that will help you implement your plan. Taking a long-term view of your professional development helps you to set realistic goals. You may not be able to do everything at once, but it is important that you start. Once you have established your goals, don’t be afraid to reevaluate them and make changes. Moreover, it is important not to get discouraged by setbacks; learn from mistakes and never let fear of failure hold you back.  It is also important that women attorneys believe in themselves and that they promote their accomplishments. Many times, women face a catch-22––if they tout their achievements, they run the risk of being viewed negatively as a braggart or aggressive self-promoter. Conversely, if women don’t promote themselves, they may not receive the compensation or credit they deserve for their work.  Finally, each woman must ultimately determine for herself what will constitute career fulfillment and success. Make the choices that you think are best, and don’t allow yourself to be pressured by others or feel guilty about your decisions. Also, it is very helpful to have a circle of friends who can act as a strong support system and lifeline as you try to balance personal and professional obligations.

Q: How do mentors or sponsors continue to play a role in advancing your career?

A: Mentors or sponsors can play an invaluable role helping you to achieve success, no matter the stage of your career. My longtime involvement with the ABA has enabled me to meet a number of incredible, talented men and women from around the country who have become my close friends, referral sources, and sponsors. They have promoted me to positions of leadership within the ABA, enabling me to work on the issues of greatest importance to me. In fact, a highlight of my career was being appointed to serve as Chair of the ABA Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary and then Chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession.  Not only have my sponsors promoted me within the ABA, they have also introduced me to a vast network of contacts and organizations outside the ABA where I have continued to work towards increasing diversity within the legal profession, the justice system, and society as a whole. I am enormously grateful for the support of those who have sponsored me, and in turn I am always looking to mentor and champion other women as well so that they can achieve success.


Patricia (Trish) Refo, the elected ABA state delegate from Arizona and current board member of the American Bar Endowment; former chair of the ABA Section of Litigation; former chair of the Standing Committee on Membership; former chair of the American Jury Project; and Litigation Partner, Snell & Wilmer LLP (Phoenix, AZ)

Q: Who was the biggest influence on your career; what was the best career advice you received from them or others?

A: I was fortunate to have many mentors as a younger lawyer, and I still do! Surely, one of the biggest influencers of my career was Joan Hall, a senior partner at Jenner & Block when I joined the firm out of law school. She was and still is an amazing person and an extraordinary lawyer; she genuinely cared about the women who came up behind her. Throughout the years, she has given me zillions of tips on topics big and small. Keep in touch with everyone––you never know who may one day send you a case; pearls, real or not, are always a good accessory. The best advice she gave me was this: The most important business development work you can do is to do an outstanding job on whatever task you are working on right now for an existing client. There’s truth in that for every lawyer, new or seasoned.

Q: If you were mentoring a young woman lawyer, what advice would you give her about career advancement and fulfillment?

A: Find a part in the practice of law that you love. Keep looking until you find it! This is an extremely diverse profession but in all of it, doing well means working really hard. You won’t be happy working really hard if you don’t love, or at least really get a kick out of, what you’re doing.

Q: Would you say you ever had a mentor or sponsor who made a genuine difference in how your career turned out? If so, please tell us a little bit about that.

A: In 1996, I switched cities in mid-career when I married my husband and moved to Phoenix. It was more than a little scary to essentially start all over again after 13 years, building a new practice in a new city at a new firm. You don't exactly walk a book of business from Chicago to Phoenix. My senior partner, John Bouma, personally made it his business to ensure that I succeeded. Almost as soon as I started at the firm, John asked me to try a long jury trial with him for a major client, which allowed me to “show my stuff” both to my new colleagues and to the client. As I rebuilt my own practice, John offered me one opportunity after another to handle big and complex cases for his clients. To paraphrase Charles Barkley, John helped put me under the basket, which is where you need to be to score.


Anne Marie Seibel, cochair of the ABA Woman Advocate Committee and Complex Litigation Partner at Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP (Birmingham, Ala.)

Q: Who was the biggest influence on your career; what was the best career advice you received from them or others?

A: I am fortunate to have had many career influences over time. Each individual, almost exclusively male lawyers, with influence over my career path has taken a personal interest in me and my career and encouraged me to take on opportunities that I may not have otherwise sought on my own. Not having any lawyers in my family, one of the first influences on my legal career was a law school professor who encouraged me to find a place to practice where I could be challenged intellectually and still have a family life. Once I followed that advice and started practice, I found that one benefit this professor had foreseen for me was an atmosphere in which senior lawyers sought to develop future partners.  Two partners in particular immediately provided me with client contacts and allowed me to participate in critical strategy decisions. Nothing can replace those discussions in terms of developing a young lawyer’s ability to analyze strategy calls and teaching lessons about how to discuss those decisions with clients. These same lawyers quickly pushed me into court and into negotiations with opposing counsel. In doing so, the lawyers gave me confidence that they trusted my abilities, but were always available for advice. I’m also thankful for sponsors who were closer to my age and were able to give me glimpses into partnership a few years before I took that step. These individuals were also able to candidly assess my strengths and weaknesses and provided advice about career options that matched those assessments.

Q: If you were mentoring a young woman lawyer, what advice would you give her about career advancement and fulfillment?

A: The most important advice I can give is to look at your career as a long-term effort, not as a snapshot in time. It is easy as a young lawyer to get caught up in meeting individual goals for hours or trying to keep up with other lawyers of your same age. A senior female lawyer recently gave me similar advice. She cautioned that younger lawyers too often turn to each other in evaluating their professional decisions rather than speaking to lawyers 25 years their senior. She reminded me that from her perspective she can see how successful her own children are, how happy she is in her marriage, and how fulfilled she is professionally. Further, she noted that many of her contemporaries who stopped working are less satisfied in many of those respects. That may not be true for all people. But, it is a good reminder for me and explains why I continue to seek out the most intellectually challenging work. To find these resources, I would advise a young woman lawyer to seek out mentors in a group like the woman advocate committee. While it is important to have mentors who are in your firm and can sponsor you in that context, it is equally important to find confidants who can provide advice from afar. It is a privilege for me to have friends and mentors across the country from the woman advocate committee with whom I can candidly speak and receive support and mentorship.

Q: How do mentors or sponsors continue to play a role in advancing your career?

A: My mentors are doing two things for me right now. First, they see my future in ways that I would not imagine for myself. And, second, they focus me on the reasons I continue to practice at such a high level. A good mentor looks at a younger lawyer and sees possibilities for her down the road that she does not yet see. The benefit of experience, distance, and interactions with many lawyers allows a mentor to identify paths of personal and professional fulfillment that may be less obvious to the mentee who is focused on present tasks. I am indebted to those who have taken time from their own successful practices to give me glimpses of what they envision me accomplishing in the future.


Barb Dawson, cochair of ABA Section of Litigation Valuing Litigation Taskforce and former cochair of the Section’s Commercial and Business and International Committees; and Commercial Litigation Partner, Snell & Wilmer LLP (Phoenix, AZ)

Q: Who was the biggest influence on your career; what was the best career advice you received from them or others?

A: I had two strong influences––Dan McAuliffe, who was a senior partner who allowed and supportively pushed me to try new things. He gave me plenty of room to learn from doing, for which I am grateful. Clearly, his message was that there is no substitute for experience under the watchful eye of someone who wants to see you succeed; and Judge Roslyn Silver, who was chief of the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona before joining the Federal District Court where she is now Chief Judge. She taught me, through her example, that women can be both strong and feminine, and it is not an “either/or” choice.

Q: If you were mentoring a young woman lawyer, what advice would you give her about career advancement and fulfillment?

A: It is fulfilling to do work that you love; it is a privilege to be asked to assist others in solving their problems; and the law is a powerful tool allowing us to help resolve disputes and help enrich the lives of others. We are fortunate to work in a profession that allows for such opportunities.

Q: Would you say you ever had a mentor or sponsor who made a genuine difference in how your career turned out? If so, please tell us a little bit about that.

A: Each and every mentor or sponsor who has told me the truth about areas where I've fallen short, and then also offered encouragement about ways to improve, has made a genuine difference in how my career is turning out. I am very grateful for such candor.

Q: How do mentors or sponsors continue to play a role in advancing your career?

A: One treat that has come with becoming more seasoned (ok, just getting older) is that many mentors have become real friends and peers as we have now worked together for decades. Given our open-door policy at the firm, a day does not go by without colleagues asking each other for a quick second opinion on various matters. This give-and-take is enriching and always results in a better product. Such team support of people all mentoring each other makes it fun to come to work each day.


Countess W. Price, cochair of the ABA Corporate Counsel Committee and Assistant General Counsel––Litigation, Monsanto Company (St. Louis, MO)

Q: Who was the biggest influence on your career; what was the best career advice you received from them or others?

A: A trial lawyer named Jim Virtel. He took me under his wing when I was a young associate.  The best advice he gave me was to always be prepared.

Q: If you were mentoring a young woman lawyer, what advice would you give her about career advancement and fulfillment?

A: If the opportunity you want doesn’t present itself, then create it.

Q: Would you say you ever had a mentor or sponsor who made a genuine difference in how your career turned out? If so, please tell us a little bit about that.

A: Yes. As a young associate at the law firm I was fortunate to have a mentor/sponsor who provided opportunities for me to actively participate in litigation and try cases. Those experiences set the foundation for me to be able to become in-house counsel.

Q: How do mentors or sponsors continue to play a role in advancing your career?

A: I’m at a point where I’ve just elected not to have formal mentors/sponsors anymore.  However, I do think you’re never too old or advanced to have them and that they can be valuable.


Bahar Schippel, chair of the Partnership Committee of the ABA Section of Taxation; former member of the Council for the Section of Taxation; and Tax Partner, Snell & Wilmer (Phoenix, AZ)

My background is what you may call less than conventional. I was born in Iran. When I was nine years old, it was no longer safe for our family to be there and my parents sent me to a boarding school in India. I spent the next seven years far away from my family with only their letters to keep me sane. I later rejoined my parents here in the United States and we struggled to make a new life for ourselves. My parents did not know much about the education system here and were not able to provide me with effective career guidance.  Despite the many challenges of my early years, I feel immensely fortunate. One reason is because of the many wonderful mentors I have had along the way. Among them is one of my professors at the University of San Diego, M. Carr Ferguson. He counseled me to pursue a clerkship with the U.S. Tax Court, advice that has made all the difference in my career. Professor Ferguson also helped me choose where to practice after my clerkship and, through his connections, was instrumental in obtaining a position for me at Snell & Wilmer.  I was a good student and used to hold study sessions for other students. Professor Ferguson had noticed this and took an interest in helping me because I was helping others. He taught me that the way to get ahead in my career was by promoting the interest of others rather than by competing with them.  Judge Armen, for whom I clerked at the Tax Court, was also quite influential in my career. His mentoring went well beyond the opinions that we worked on; he took an active role in trying to help me become a well-rounded individual. He was always telling me about a great opera I should see, a good book I should read, or the newest culinary delight I should visit. I learned that being an exceptional lawyer goes well beyond doing good work and that being a good mentor meant really taking an interest in the individual. To this day, Judge Armen sends me clippings of the latest and greatest cultural goings on.  I would be remiss if I did not mention my partner and great mentor Charlie Pulaski––the Boss!–– who, over the years, has treated me like his own daughter. Charlie taught me that there are no easy answers, that it is important to pay attention to detail, and that I should leave the office early when my daughter has a swim meet. Everyone needs someone who has a box of Kleenex in the office just for you, and Charlie has handed me many a tissue when the goings were tough. My experience has been that there are a lot of good individuals in any setting who are willing to go out of their way to make a difference in the life of a young person, but like any relationship, a mentoring relationship requires nurturing. I encourage young women lawyers to seek out and nurture such relationships. Very often, behind the tough exterior of a formidable senior partner is a kind and giving individual who is willing to assist a young lawyer in career advancement and fulfillment. Many such individuals are impressed by a young lawyer’s initiative in seeking out mentoring and are more likely to spend time and effort with such inspiring young lawyers.


Karen Stevenson, Associate Editor, ABA Section of Litigation’s Litigation News and Senior Counsel, Buchalter Nemer (Los Angeles, CA)

Q: Who was the biggest influence on your career; what was the best career advice you received from them or others?

A: The biggest influence on my career was the decision to engage a professional coach to help me clarify my professional goals and make strategic, concrete steps to achieve those goals. As my career progressed, I never felt that I had a mentor or sponsor who could champion my development. The decision to invest in professional executive coaching has made an enormous difference for me in terms of learning how to build my own professional support team, refining and expanding my skills as a manager/team leader, and just increasing my happiness about the work I do each day.  The best career advice I’ve received along the way has been twofold: make sure I am taking care of myself personally through enjoyable activities and relationships beyond the office; and make a written personal business plan each year and review it regularly. Writing down your goals and how you plan to get there is a powerful tool––even when you fall short of the goal, it can be encouraging to look back and see what you have accomplished along the way.

Q: If you were mentoring a young woman lawyer, what advice would you give her about career advancement and fulfillment?

A: The advice I would give young women lawyers is that they must view themselves as the CEO of their own careers. Get clear about what you want and why. It is, of course, essential to do excellent work at every stage of one’s career, but it is also important for young lawyers not to wait for others in their firms, departments, etc., to bring to them the advancement opportunities they want or need to move to the next level. I think every lawyer must spend time reflecting on what she wants from her career, what values are most important for her to have a sense balance and joy in her life, and then we must each be fearless in pursuing ways to achieve that.

Q: Would you say you ever had a mentor or sponsor who made a genuine difference in how your career turned out? If so, please tell us a little bit about that.

A: Until very recently, I have not had a mentor or sponsor whom I felt genuinely supported me.  In the last year, however, I have had a new experience of support from a senior woman partner in my firm and that has made a tremendous difference for me. It is so valuable to have someone who can light the way in front of you.

Q: How do mentors or sponsors continue to play a role in advancing your career?

A: I believe that mentors or sponsors can play an important role throughout one’s career. How those relationships function typically will change over time as we advance in our careers. But there is always value in having those around us whom we trust to give sound advice and to be safe listeners with whom to share ideas, hopes, dreams and, yes, even failures.
 
M.C. Sungaila is a member of WLALA.  Ms. Sungaila is an Appellate Partner at Snell & Wilmer LLP.
 

 *This article was first published in the ABA Woman Advocate Winter 2012 Newsletter.  Reprinted with permission.

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