My image of mentorship is something that I have never really experienced. Starting my career, I always envisioned having a mentoring relationship with another attorney, hopefully Latina, who would be able to guide and advise me throughout my work. Someone who I would touch base with every couple of months that was interested in helping me succeed. There are mentor relationships that are like this, but this isn’t something I have experienced. Instead, I have been really lucky in connecting with professors, lawyers, and other professionals that have given me bits and pieces of guidance and advice. When I look back at the people who helped me, I realize that one person couldn’t have done it all; first, because the number of Latina attorneys are so limited, and because in general, one person can’t be all things to another person. So to me, it makes sense that “My Mentor” wouldn’t be one person, but rather that I have been able to grow and glean advice from multiple parties—many who did care about my professional growth, but didn’t have the time to be fully invested like a mentor might be.
I imagine many Latinas have this experience because it’s very likely that we don’t come from families that are used to networking and building business connections, and so we often don’t know we’re supposed to reach out to older professionals to help guide us.
Being a few years into my practice, I realize the importance of having someone or someones to go to when you need career advice. A mentor can help you walk through problems at work. They can tell you about mistakes they made to help you avoid doing the same. They can also be a voice of encouragement to help you make your next career move (and this is where I argue that a boss can’t be a mentor; I just don’t think it’s good for a mentor to have hire/fire power over you). The help they provide can be so important that I think it’s necessary for a new attorney to seek this type of help and guidance.
Unfortunately, lack of mentors is a huge obstacle that Latinas face in their careers. Not only are there not enough Latina attorneys, we often find it difficult to obtain help from other professionals either because we don’t feel comfortable building that connection with someone that seems so different from us. Other studies have shown that even when women are mentored, they’re not always encouraged and positively advised like their male counterparts.
So on the one hand, mentors are important and make a big difference in a career, but on the other, they are too difficult to find and sometimes they may not provide the right type of benefits. Then what are the right steps to take?
Instead of believing (like I did for too long) that a mentor/mentee relationship only exists in one form; branch out and accept the help and guidance offered by all types of people. For me, informal mentoring relationships have been a vital part of my career growth. The best description of an informal mentor can be seen in the book A Cup of Water Under My Bed. Author, Daisy Hernandez, describes how she ended up applying for an internship for the New York Times:
I e-mail Gail an opinion piece I wrote for an online wire service and she shoots back: “Oye, you should apply for this internship here in the editorial department.”
She doesn’t write “oye,” but she might as well have, because the way she e-mails with such ease is how a woman on the bus tells my mother, “Oye, there’s this factory down on Hudson Avenue that’s hiring.
This type of one-and-done encouragement is a great example of the type of informal mentoring I (and likely many other Latinas) have experienced. I have undergone instances like this, where a person has gone out of their way to help or encourage me in achieving my goals, but it’s not a relationship that ever turned into formal mentoring.
Instead, these informal mentoring relationships can exist in many formats, and can be formative to your career. Perhaps you go to multiple people about different issues you face in your career instead of just one person. Each person provides important advice but independently can’t offer you all the information you need. I can definitely think of my go-to people that I approach for various different problems, but by themselves I would not be able to say they are my mentor because they just help me problem-solve/provide guidance in one area, but like a Planeteer, when I combine all their input, I have bigger and better image of what steps I can take to grow my career.
You can also gain knowledge just by observing and learning from successful people. I learn about the career trajectory of attorneys I’d like follow and try to see if any of the steps they took in their career are suitable for me. You can also learn a lot of what not to do by observing; those lessons can be just as vital and formative as anything else.
If instead, you really crave more direct contact with people then it is worth considering participation in formal mentoring programs. Many schools offer mentoring programs; as do some jobs in the private sector. Some may hesitate to join those groups from fear that you’ll be assigned to someone that is nothing like you. I understand that hesitancy because how can an older man, for example, help me navigate certain situations he’s never faced? But if we remember that no person can be all things, then it makes it easier to accept the benefits the mentor has to offer, and then look for whatever else you need in another formal or informal mentor relationship.
If your job doesn’t have mentoring programs, you can still build relationships with older coworkers (not your boss) that will be willing to listen to and counsel you. If that doesn’t seem possible, you can branch out and join local groups in your community. I loved this story about Latinas doing it together—building relationships and fostering one another as they all grew professionally.
Ultimately, Latinas re often are the ones that have to make things happen in our career so if you don’t find the mentor you’re looking for in the format that you need, then reach out to other similarly situated amigas (near and far) and start a support group so that you can all learn and grow from each other.