While mentorship is widely viewed as an important driver of job satisfaction, retention, and promotion throughout the course of one’s career, for women and people of color, mentorship and sponsorship are especially critical to career progression and success.
I know this all too well as an African American woman and partner in Big Law since 1994.
Most mentorships focus primarily on career satisfaction and advancement, but for me the relationships that have had the greatest impact, as both a mentor and a mentee, have been those that are more personal.
These relationships—for me, first with a senior associate and later with a partner, as well as my own ongoing mentoring of up-and-coming colleagues—focus on not just
An Informal Relationship Based on Genuine Interest
As a young attorney starting out in the practice of law over 27 years ago, there were few formal mentor-mentee relationships to be had; however, it is the informal mentoring that I have experienced throughout my career that I attribute to my longevity and continued success as a partner in Big Law. I was fortunate to have had two such relationships.
As a first-year associate at Cadwalader in 1995, I quickly formed a relationship with one of the senior associates who had been instrumental in recruiting me to come to the firm as a summer associate. She was intelligent, thoughtful, great with clients and, most importantly, a good human being.
She went out of her way to include me in the matters she was working on and allowed me—in fact, encouraged me—to ask all of the dumb questions that you need to be able to ask to get up to speed quickly as a new associate but are often afraid to ask.
We quickly formed a lasting friendship, and she was very forthcoming with me about her experiences as a young woman in Big Law, including prospects for partnership, navigating the firm, her family life, and maintaining work-life balance—a term that wasn’t nearly as prevalent in legal circles as it is today.
Her openness and willingness to take me under her wing as both a friend and colleague had a significant impact on the trajectory of our relationship. It provided for me a model of how to show that you are genuinely interested in understanding your mentee, which is critical to provide useful and effective advice—and not just career advice—along his or her journey.
After she had her first child, I watched her navigate motherhood and Big Law quite successfully but was not surprised when she made the decision to leave it for an in-house position with more predictable hours. Despite the fact that she was not able to assist me in navigating my career long-term, having her as a role model allowed me to see what could be possible.
She later became one of my best clients, and we remain close friends today. I have even had the opportunity to mentor her on various occasions, a wonderful turn of events which has been quite fulfilling.
My Mentor Showed Compassion and Kindness
My most important mentor was a partner who I had the pleasure to work with over a 15-year period at Cadwalader (he retired 10 years ago). He wasn’t one to schedule formal weekly calls to discuss my career trajectory or partnership potential, but when I needed assistance with a substantive issue or any other for that matter, he was there to offer advice, guidance, and support.
I was invited to all of the important calls that often times happen behind closed doors, consulted on staffing and billing matters, and sent out to client offices to close deals on my own after just three short years of practice. Looking back, I think he saw things in me that perhaps I didn’t even see in myself at that point in my career.
But what I remember most is that I was always treated with compassion and kindness. After having my first of three children as a mid-level associate, I approached him while still on maternity leave with a request to telework—yes, that’s what we called it back then—at least one day per week in order to spend more time with my daughter. That request was instantly granted despite the fact that at that time there was no precedent at the firm to do so.
A few years later, when I marched into his office after a deal closing to jokingly inform him that our clients had inquired as to when I would be promoted to counsel, his very short and concise response was, “Let me look into it.” And he did! Three months later I was promoted to special counsel.
Despite the fact that he was not a mentor in the traditional sense of the word or in the way that we formally identify mentors and mentees these days, he certainly helped to pave the way for my success by creating an atmosphere that made it possible for me to succeed and thrive at the firm while raising a family. Simply put, he found a way to balance the needs of the firm and the clients and yet always kept my best interests at heart.
Experiences Shaped My Relationship with Mentees
Looking back, these incredible personal experiences—in an industry that has made great progress in recruitment, retention, and promotion but still has a ways to go—have in every way shaped how I mentor and form relationships with my associates and mentees.
Not only am I intentional about providing the same informal relationship, support, and positive work environment that was afforded to me, but I am also cognizant of the fact that I can also provide more of the formal mentoring experiences that are vitally important to longevity and success in Big Law.
While I do think that formal mentoring programs can be successful and play an important role in both personal and professional development for young lawyers, I firmly believe that it is the one-on-one informal mentoring and relationship building that is the most meaningful. Two amazing mentors taught me that.
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.
Cheryl Barnes is a capital markets partner at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP in Washington, D.C., with nearly 30 years of experience in structuring innovative and complex securitization transactions. She represents investment banks, commercial banks, government-sponsored enterprises and other financial institutions in private and public securitization transactions, as well as asset-based lending.