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Why Mentoring Matters: Morgan Lewis’ Debra L. Fischer

April 20, 2022, 8:00 AM

The times are changing, but it has been the case that women lawyers needed to be scrappier about finding clients. When I first came back from maternity leave as a new partner (almost 25 years ago, at a different law firm), I had few clients, no women role models or mentors, and no one to help me along. If I wanted to survive as a partner in a top law firm, I had to dig in.

I tried everything back then, from making lengthy lists of potential clients and learning about them, to driving for hours to prospects and providing free seminars, reading books on how to be an effective adviser, and holding events where I would bring women executives together—something not so common two decades ago.

Luckily, at the time, I had no idea how difficult it would be to grow a practice on my own and was undeterred by the challenge before me. But having the benefit of hindsight, I can now see how having the right mentor in place would have saved me a lot of trial and error. That is a huge motivator to me now to be a resource to other lawyers to share what I learned the hard way in hopes of making their roads a little easier.

Not Invited to Golf Outings

I remember attending a going away party for a male partner, when another male partner commented that he would miss their “partner meetings on the grass.” It was then that I realized that the male partners had been getting together to play golf, without me.

At those outings, they were strategizing and helping each other. It hit me that not only had I not been invited, but I had no idea it was happening—for years. This experience motivated me to do two things at Morgan Lewis.

First, I focused more on mentoring and collaborating with women inside my firm.

Second, I decided to change up the traditional male business development model of getting together for drinks or playing a sport or inviting a male client to a ball game—all of which are fine things to do if the client has an interest.

But with women clients, I think about their limited time available outside of work and family, focus on their actual interests, and spend a lot more time talking about what they do outside of work. And while I was told by a fellow partner when I was a new mom to hide my family obligations, I now freely share news about my family and keep up with my clients’ kids and family activities.

Especially because of the pandemic where there was much less division between work and home life, I found that sharing stories from my life outside of the office helps create an open space for my mentees to share pieces of their personal lives. And more often than not, those stories are where we find common bonds. It’s also an important skill to apply to networking with clients, as everyone wants to work with good people, and not just good lawyers.

Sharing and Supporting Is Networking

While I am proud of the practice I built, I’m glad to say that networks of women supporting each other is much more common now. So many of my women colleagues, clients, and friends are happy to share their experiences and help the women coming up behind them.

After Covid-19 hit, I established a series of virtual workshops for women lawyers at Morgan Lewis called “Keys to Success During Uncertain Times.” My goal was to help my colleagues with the increased strain of being separated from our clients, as well as growing and maintaining a practice in the face of so much uncertainty.

I would gather virtually with women lawyers and I would share, along with other women partners, our personal experiences and lessons learned.

I also created and helped launch a regular series of client conversations at my firm, where female clients, both executives and in-house counsel, share their advice and career stories with our women associates and partners. The series has been well received by everyone involved—both the speakers and the attendees—as it is fun and a rewarding way for my mentees to make new connections and hear that there is not just one magical way to succeed.

I’m Still Learning

The best part is that, even as someone who has set up these events with people in my own network, it’s not just for the benefit of my mentees. I learn something new each time.

I learn from these successful entrepreneurs how to think outside the day-to-day “box” in which we live—for me it has been my dining room table for the last two years. And seeing how quickly these women volunteer to share their stories and lessons learned with other women, many of whom they have never met, reinforces how precious it is to build relationships, especially with those outside of the people we interact with every day.

And in this virtual world, the hurdles one must overcome to do so have only increased. Our younger generation of women have to be even more creative to find a way in.

Women Are Stronger Working Together

To become valuable to the clients we cultivate through our network, we have to train ourselves to identify a problem before it interferes with the client’s business. More importantly, as women, we must draw on our experiences, rely on our intuition, and help them find a solution that is consistent with their business goals. As important as it is to teach my mentees how to network, those relationships will only take you so far if you don’t provide value.

I say this all the time, but it is really true—in order to be trusted advisers, we must understand and become a part of our clients’ business.

When I try to share with the next generation of women lawyers the lessons I’ve learned on how to build networks, grow a practice, and accomplish goals, I am reminded that we are better and stronger working together. We teach one another what we have learned as we strive to be creative problem solvers who are indispensable to our clients’ businesses.

If we are lucky, we may also make some lifelong friends along the way.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

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Debra L. Fischer is a partner at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP in Los Angeles. She has developed a niche nationwide employee mobility practice, advising on and litigating unfair competition and trade secret issues that arise when employees change employment.