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President's Message - October 2017
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“Sponsors or Mentors: Getting the Answers”
Olga Álvarez, Lawyers Club President 2017-2018

Mentors are key in rising through the ranks of the legal field. The lack of mentors for women has been identified as one of the major reasons they leave the practice of law. Why are mentors so important? Do women need something more? Or, is it the quality of mentoring or sponsoring that matters? And, what’s the difference between sponsors and mentors?

Mentors are defined as people within a firm/agency or outside the firm who offer advice on how to navigate certain situations or provide a shoulder to lean on. They are counselors who pass along career advice and provide a support system. Some women find it difficult to find mentors or build a relationship with a mentor, because they are unsure of the rules. Must all conversations be case-related? Can I talk about my family? However, even for those women who are paired with mentors, they watch as their male peers move up the ladder of success. These women who are passed by may work just as hard, may be just as capable, and they may follow their mentor’s advice in pursuing the same career strategies as their male counterparts, but to no avail. Why does that happen?
Of course, men have mentors, too. But their mentors are doing more than providing career advice and emotional support. It has been noted that while women are going to business development classes and learning to network with other women, men are invited to business pitches, client meetings, and golf games with influential clients. Even for those men who do not bring in any business, they are still promoted and given high visibility work projects on their presumed potential, while women on the same track are kept in place because she is presumed to be less effective or committed.
What accounts for these disparities? Women are not being provided the same type of mentoring. The mentors for most men have been termed as “sponsors.” While a mentor may help the mentee with a situation at work, a sponsor watches out for the welfare of the individuals whom they have taken under their wing and vigorously advocates for important promotions, established clients, and leadership roles. The research shows that when women have senior-level sponsors, they get promoted at the same rate as men. However, men have twice as many sponsors, and they continue to rise steadily to the top of leadership slots, while women continue to hover at the 15% equity-partner ceiling.
Given the demographics of our field, most female attorneys have had male mentors and even sponsors. But not enough men agree to sponsor women in the legal field. Why? Usually, women are overlooked in favor of male protégés, because men find it more natural and familiar to promote other men. Or, men unconsciously harbor gender biases that women may be less ambitious, less reliable, and a higher risk than men. Further, many still assume that women who have children are less committed to their careers, and hence, less worthy of sponsorship.
Additionally, cultural norms discourage women from boasting about their accomplishments, but this deference interferes with success in a business world where broadcasting achievements is considered good marketing and a sign of high-performance.
Now that we know we need a sponsor, how do we get one? How do we help the large majority of male leaders overcome the bias and the perceived risk? Like any relationship, it takes two people. Lawyers Club is taking steps to educate the legal community on unconscious bias through our Association of Corporate Counsel/ Lawyers Club of San Diego Joint Task force by developing “Hacking Law Firm Practices to Promote Gender Equity,” a program geared to eliminate bias and promote gender equity. The hope is that the program will encourage the leaders in the legal field to take the initiative to retain, develop and advance women in the field. In addition, the Professional Advancement Committee is hosting a panel entitled, “Wind Beneath My Wings – Finding a Mentor & Keeping a Sponsor,” on November 8. Take advantage of this opportunity and learn about finding a sponsor and ensuring that the relationship works. We must all think about creating situations that recognize and value our talents, intellect, and achievements. Now is a good time to start!

Olga Álvarez is co-founder and shareholder of Heisner Álvarez, APC in La Jolla. She is a Certified Legal Specialist in Estate Planning, Trust & Probate Law and is president of Lawyers Club.
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