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How to find a mentor outside of the office

Updated: Sep 25, 2020

I enjoy speaking to students, corporations, and clients about overcoming the challenges of the workplace. As an attorney and former Human Resources executive, I share my professional advice in my monthly Q&A. To submit your question for a future issue, click here.

Dear Charisse,

I recently graduated from law school and accepted an offer at a prestigious firm in a new city. There are no women, and during orientation, I was assigned a white male mentor. Recently I’ve heard through office gossip that the mentoring program is a trap and my peers told me not to participate because confidential conversations come up during talent reviews with leadership. What should I do if there’s no one in my firm to be my mentor?


Ms. Mentor- Minded


Hi Ms. Mentor-Minded,

Congratulations and welcome to the legal profession! When I was a partner at Ballard Spahr, I mentored a few attorneys at other firm. They felt the culture was like what you described, and did not feel safe confiding in their assigned internal mentors. It is important that you meet regularly with your internal assigned mentor. You can learn a lot about the unwritten rules at the Firm through conversations. When asking for advice, be general and do not raise complaints against your colleagues or partners supervising you. Be very careful about making excuses if you are having challenges.

These programs can connect you to internal champions and opportunities for more visibility. It is also wise to have a personal board of directors with advisors outside of the politics of your particular firm or department. Start identifying potential mentors now and build your network with advisors and sponsors to help you regardless of your current employer. Get involved in Bar Association activities and broaden your network beyond the Firm.

Link to web page to learn more—

In most countries, women make up the majority of law students- outpacing the number of men in law schools. While women are graduating with law degrees and entering legal careers at the same or higher rates, men continue to outnumber women in senior positions. Women’s representation as partners remains low, particularly in equity partners, where it is often less than 20%. As you’ve already noticed, the lack of representation can create barriers to access and can limit your career if you are not careful.

My career is an example of the value of formal and informal mentors. It sounds like your organization has a formal mentor program to connect you with partners and provide visibility to your work for future opportunities. You are right to wonder if this is the appropriate place to share all of your fears, faults and failures. I recommend treating internal programs as a place to build your brand. In your case, it sounds like your mentor will be responsible for advocating for you during important talent decisions. Internal mentors have a unique understanding of your firm’s culture, political landscape and potential land mines. Understanding how to best communicate and can help you get the advice you need from mentors of all different backgrounds. Diversity is key to getting great advice.

  1. Take the lead in the relationship. Judges Green and Higginbotham often made introductions for me, but it was up to me to take the next step and build relationships with prominent people. Don’t expect your mentor to find you. You are in charge of your career. Make the appointments and take responsibility for keeping in touch.

  2. Community service has been the engine of my career. Follow your passion and get involved in issues, organizations that have meaning to you. Expand your network. Service allows others to see you in action outside of the workplace.

  3. Build your brand. Each interaction with your mentor should involve sharing a story he or she can tell to make others want to meet you. Think about your strengths, what you do well and how you have applied your skills successfully. Arm your mentor with the highlights to be shared when you are not in the room.

My path to the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia is a great example of applying my mentoring advice. It started when Judge Green and Judge Higginbotham introduced me to Hiliary Holloway, Sr. the first African American General Counsel of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. As a result of their vouching for me when I was not in the room, and my working hard, establishing a brand and reputation for myself, Mr. Holloway, Sr. invited me to lunch several times over the years at the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank. I didn’t call them “mentoring sessions, “ but I have countless examples of how their advice and belief in me opened doors I would not have foreseen, let alone considered, in my own career. You are smart to understand the value of mentors to your career and personal development. I am eternally grateful to Judge Green, Judge Higginbotham and Mr, Holloway for their mentorship and sponsorship, which ultimately lead to my appointment to the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia and other board opportunities.

Good luck!

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