ALPS, a professional liability insurance provider, interviewed me about why it is so important for lawyers to find and to be champions. The discussion ranges from the need for more sponsorship of women in law firms to examining how solo attorneys can benefit from mentorship. Listen to the podcast and comment here on the blog, on our Facebook page or either of our Twitter feeds (@ALPSCorp or @NewLawyerPost) to be entered to win a signed copy of one of Ida’s books, Sponsoring Women: What Men Need to Know or The Lawyer’s Guide to Mentoring, 2nd Edition which was recently published by The National Association for Law Placement, Inc. (NALP).
ALPS In Brief, The ALPS Risk Management Podcast, is hosted by ALPS Risk Manager, Mark Bassingthwaighte.
Hello, I’m Mark Bassingthwaighte. I’m the Risk Manager with ALPS and welcome to another episode of ALPS In Brief. I am sitting in the corporate office here in the beautiful Florence Building in downtown Missoula, Montana. And I am so pleased to have as my guest this morning Ida Abbott. Ida is from the Oakland area in California and has done some interesting work in mentoring and sponsoring, and has done some writing on the topic.
But before we talk about some of the issues that have been so important and that you’ve been working on, Ida, can you take just a brief moment and tell our listeners a little bit about yourself, your background?
Sure, and thank you. It’s really nice to be talking with you, Mark. I am a lawyer. I practiced … I was a litigator at a large firm for about 20 years. And left there and started a consulting business that’s been about the same amount of time. I’ve been doing work in the area of legal talent management, lawyer’s professional development and career development. I specialize in mentoring and sponsorship and also now I’m doing a lot of work helping lawyers transition into retirement and helping firms develop ways to ease that transition.
Interesting. And very, very important stuff. One of the things I’ve been fascinated by, and I’ll be honest and say in my 20 years in terms of working in risk management with lawyers here, I’ve really not come across this whole notion of sponsorship. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about what this is all about the work you’re doing here?
Sure. And the reason you haven’t heard about it is because it’s a relatively new concept. In fact, let’s start with what mentorship is and then we can distinguish them. A mentor is … First of all mentoring today is much more collaborative where both parties are involved and learn from each other and help each other. But traditionally a mentor was somebody who was older and wiser and more experienced, took you under his wing, helped teach you the ropes, understand what the profession was about, how to be a lawyer, what it meant, what it meant to be a professional, made introductions and basically helped you in any number of ways in the course of your career.
That was sort of the old fashioned concept of mentor. What happened, really in the ’50s and ’60s, last century, was people started to study organizations and realized that there was a role for this within an organization. So they started promoting mentoring and started mentoring programs. And in the law mentoring programs became popular in the ’90s and as we moved into the 2000s. And because a program necessarily is bringing people together in a way that’s not the same. If you and I were working together informally, as a supervisor you might give me the kind of work and the kind of feedback and support that would help me learn and develop.
But when we’re matched in a program then necessarily there are some expectations within the program. The relationship … We may know each other to begin with or we may never have met before. And so you’ve got a much narrower range of activities that are expected and it kind of diluted the concept of mentoring into something that was more programmatic.
And what actually happened was because people were being matched and anybody could be matched as a mentor. As long as I had a little more knowledge and experience than you, I could be your mentor. But what it meant was that the kind of mentoring that actually helps you move ahead, that gets you a promotion or a raise, or an appointment to an important committee, or an introduction to somebody, to a critical client, that kind of mentoring was usually not within the scope of a program.
So people had to rely on it to happen informally. And as organizations got bigger and mentoring was seen in a narrower way, people started to wonder what was happening. And when they studied this, and it was only about five or six years ago that the first research was done on this, they found that what was happening was that men were being sponsored. They gave it a new term, this idea of helping somebody advance in their career as opposed to develop professional skills and understanding.
That kind of mentoring was not happening for women. And so they called that aspect of it, the advancement piece, or the advocacy piece, they called that sponsorship. And that’s why when talking about it as something different I see it as the high end of the continuum. But a lot of people might talk about it as something separate.
It’s interesting. What I hear and what I like about this is, again, the old school model if you will on mentoring is helping even … I think of the rural attorney just trying to hang up a shingle out of law school. And you find somebody else to help educate, get you started, teach you the basics. But what you’re really talking about here is, in terms of a different way to phrase this, having someone groom you for professional success.
Is that really where you’re going with this? Is that … Am I getting the idea of sponsorship?
Yes and no, because even when we’ve developing, even if you’re a brand new lawyer, I want to groom you for success. But the kind of needs that you have have to do more with basically learning what it means to be great lawyer, and how do you run an office, or how do you run a practice. But what I’m talking about happens later in your career. It can happen early. Let me just say we can all use a champion. We can all use an advocate at any point in our career. And a sponsor is that.
But when we talk about it the way we do in terms of professional development, it becomes more important once you’ve already established the basics. You have the platform. You have the skills. Now what you need is to move up. To move forward whether it’s within an organization you want to be the president. Within a firm you want to be the biggest rainmaker or the person who runs the place. Or you just want to get more money and more clients and be better.
But where there are fewer slots or fewer resources available and more competition for them as you move ahead and you become more senior, that’s when you really start … This becomes more important. But there’s no question we could use it from the time you’re a kid you know.
Absolutely. I understand. I see the value of this in terms of to the attorney that’s being sponsored. I get that. What would the value be for a firm to look at this more formal, pivoting into this type of a model.
Well, the issue is really one about fairness and diversity. The reason this has become so central is because when you look at the profession at the entry level you have equal numbers of men and women, or close to it. You have fairly good numbers at the entry level of diverse lawyers, people of color and people with other characteristics that place them in an underrepresented group.
But as you move toward leadership, partnership, seniority you have fewer and fewer people who are diverse. And what you have are a lot of straight white men running the world. For firms that are concerned about why they’re losing women and minorities, then you have to take a look at whether sponsorship is happening in a fair way. What the research shows is that women, for example, get plenty of mentors. And most women today, most lawyers coming into the profession are fairly savvy. They’ve been told since they were kids the importance of mentoring. So they know to look for mentors and I think people are more conscientious about being mentors.
What they’re not getting though, what they find is that women can get mentors, but they don’t get sponsored because most of the people … One of the critical characteristics of a sponsor is it’s got to be somebody with some power. It’s got to be somebody with power, influence, some sort of clout that can help you actually make a move forward or up.
Most of those people are men, and most men sponsor other men. And they don’t sponsor women for a whole host of reasons. Sometimes it’s just they overlook women. Sometimes it’s deliberate. They want to avoid women. Today we’re having a lot of issues about men being afraid to be too close to a woman.
Absolutely. I get that. It seems to me too there’s an element here that … You started talking, some of the work you’re doing is [inaudible 00:11:12] planning and these kinds of things. It seems to be long term viability of a firm … A firm would also benefit to have diversity of thought, and diversity of client base that women and diverse races and what not. In terms of these kinds of programs I just think it’s going to add to the bottom line and the success of a firm overall. Do you think there’s anything to that?
Absolutely. And there’s loads of research on this. That’s one of reasons why people are concerned about diversity. I think a lot of firms have a superficial interest in it. They need to meet numbers. They need to satisfy … But I think the major reason for that is you need diversity in a whole host of ways to keep the thinking vibrant in an organization.
If your firm is only composed of people who were successful 20 years ago and that’s where they learned how to be great lawyers … When you take a look at the profession today, somebody who doesn’t have current skills or look at the world in a different way and bring new thinking to the table, a firm is going to stagnate.
When you look at national data in terms of the number of lawyers and the size of the firms they practice in and these kinds of things, a significant percentage of lawyers practice in the solo and small firm arena. In my years, and I’ve been at this for 20 years and doing a lot of consulting myself all over the country … It’s been fun and interesting to come across a number of all female firms as an example, and smaller firms. It is a different just feel. And I love to go into these kinds of settings at times.
But thinking about that we have a significant number of women in the solo, small firm space. Do you see … Can these women avail themselves of the kinds of opportunities? How does sponsorship play into this space? Can it? Does it?
Well, it does. In a slightly different way though. When we talk about this it tends to be within the context of an organization where people are trying to move up within an organization. In a small firm obviously you don’t have a lot of the same dynamics. The larger the firm the more isolated individuals are and the more they need this sort of thing.
But still you can’t really be successful on your own in any organization. Even when it’s a solo, you still depend on other people. You depend on people sending you business. You depend on getting your name out there. That goes back to building a strong network, and within that network you need people who will be your champions. Who will send you referrals. Who will nominate you for positions in the bar association or some professional organization or business organization that you want to be prominent in.
I know how many lawyers still just graduate law school and hang out a shingle and don’t realize how important it is to be connected professionally to other people. I think the general mentor model is more important because you need somebody who’s also going to help you understand what it means to be a professional, and a valued and trusted advisor. The sorts of things that you may not learn in law school.
So the traditional model of mentoring I think is more important, but once you’re out there and you really, you want to go for it. You want to be the most successful lawyer in town in your field. You need to have people working with you to help you.
One of the things that we encourage everyone to do is to have a constellation of mentors. People call it things like a personal board of advisors because one mentor isn’t enough anyway. Some mentors are really great at some things but not at others. And so as you go through your career there may be many different ways that someone can be helpful to you.
Keep in mind this is a very, very much a reciprocal practice. And when I talk about mentoring I emphasize the collaborative and reciprocal nature. This is not a gimme, gimme, gimme. This is a practice and the people who have really good mentors tend to also be generous with their time. And they mentor and support other people. That’s a big part of this.
But the advocacy role that a sponsor plays, it is important but it happens, again, later in your career. And when you’re starting to think about positions within the community or within an organization of some sort. I think that’s when it’s more important.
Yes, excellent, excellent point. I really like this one in terms of multiple mentors. I think so many people sort of go out and try to find one and we call it good. And that’s not, no.
Ida, this has just been wonderful. I love the work that you’re doing and I love hearing your thoughts. If any of our listeners were interested in finding out a little bit more, how can they find out more? Do you have email? Do you want to share book materials out? I’m happy to give you a moment. How can they contact you?
Well, I have a website, idaabbot.com. My email address is idaabbott@AOL.com. So all that’s pretty easy. There’s a lot of material on my website that they can download and my newsletters and articles. I’ve written several books. The two that might interest your listeners in terms of our topic, one is called Sponsoring Women, What Men Need to Know. And the other one is coming out next week, actually. It’s a totally updated version of my first book. It’s The Lawyer’s Guide to Mentoring, and this is the second edition.
Both of them … Well, the publisher of the mentoring book is NALP. And that, as I say, will be available in another week or two. But that will be on the NALP website and in their bookstore, and also on my website at some point right after that. And the sponsorship book is published by attorneyatwork.com. There’s a link to that on my website as well.
I think I’m going to need to take a look more in depth at these. I’m looking forward to reading this. I really want to take a look at this one just coming out. Sounds exciting.
To my listeners, I hope you found something of value today. It is certainly a pleasure. And, Ida, thank you. Thank you so much. If any of you listening have topics of interest that you’d like to hear us talk about in future, please don’t hesitate to reach out at me here at ALPS. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s it. Thanks for listening.
And thanks for having me.
You’re welcome. Thank you, Ida.