Advocating An Effective Mentoring Program

Monday, January 31, 2011 - 01:00

Editor: Susan, please describe your practice at McCarter & English. What are your plans to promote diversity in your role as New Jersey State Bar Association (NJSBA) president?

Feeney: I am a partner in the State & Local Taxation area within the Tax & Benefits group. My practice includes local property tax and New Jersey state tax planning and litigation. To promote diversity as NJSBA president, I intend to fill at least one-third of the leadership appointments I make with people of diverse backgrounds. In the next few months, I intend to meet with diversity and specialty bar leaders and get their feedback and suggestions for active members of their associations who might be good candidates for these positions. I shall be assuming the presidency in May, but now is the time to start thinking about committee appointments and other initiatives for my year.

Editor: Stephanie, please tell our readers about your appointment as firm-wide Diversity Partner as well as your other practice areas at McCarter & English, LLP.

Cohen: I am a partner in the Business & Financial Services Litigation Practice Group. My practice involves complex commercial litigation with an emphasis on sales practices litigation. McCarter has well-established Diversity and Women's Initiative Steering Committees. In the past, I served as co-chair of the Women's Initiative. Recognizing the time commitment that is truly necessary for diversity and inclusions efforts, however, McCarter recently created the Diversity Partner position. In this position, I will coordinate the implementation of various initiatives designed to enhance the recruitment, development, and retention of women and attorneys from diverse backgrounds and act as a liaison between McCarter's Diversity Committee, Women's Initiative Steering Committee and Executive Committee to ensure that the firm is meeting its strategic goals.

Editor: What are the most important considerations when developing a diversity policy?

Feeney: Diversity programs must be in place not only to attract people of diverse backgrounds but also to retain them by ensuring they remain interested and engaged at the firm. Successful programs need mentoring programs, which attract diversity candidates and provide infrastructure for professional and personal development.

Editor: Tell me more about McCarter's mentoring program. Is it women to women? Or is it a senior partner mentor? Or someone who is of counsel?

Cohen: McCarter actually has a few different mentoring programs. All first-year associates are assigned both a partner mentor as well as a senior associate mentor. This assignment is not gender specific and mentors can be either male or female. In addition, the firm's Diversity Committee oversees "Mentoring Circles." In lieu of the more traditional one-on-one approach to mentoring, McCarter invites diverse attorneys to join circles of five to seven attorneys for dialogue and development of personal and professional relationships.

Editor: How does a law firm balance the need to recruit and retain the very best candidates (including those in the "majority") against important diversity considerations? How well do mentoring programs compensate for differences of background and training?Cohen: While a commitment to increased diversity may require consistent attention to diversity factors as an integrated part of the hiring process, this does not mean that an individual diverse candidate is not, in fact, the very best candidate for the position. The point is that firms need to recognize that diversity itself can make them stronger and that the "best candidates" come from all backgrounds.

Feeney: You can hire the brightest people from the best law schools; however, regardless of their background, they are not going to be successful without substantial support. Law firms need effective mentoring programs to provide the tools necessary to be a successful practicing attorney, including mentoring in areas of substantive law, business development and personal skills. Diversity candidates, in particular, need to feel confident that the firm genuinely supports diversity. They need to see colleagues who are African Americans, Hispanic/Latino, Asian Pacific, LGBT, women and Native American in leadership positions at the firm.

Editor: What diverse groups remain underrepresented in the legal profession?

Feeney: When I began my career 30 years ago as a tax attorney, there were not very many women practicing in the tax area, so my mentors were men who made sure that opportunities opened up to me despite the fact that I was a woman. Two whom I can think of in particular were married to female attorneys. Their efforts ensured that I felt comfortable with client relationships, business development and bar association activities. These men brought me to meetings and events and taught me how to be successful. It is no different today - you need experienced mentors to take new attorneys under their wing and bring them along.

Cohen: Diversity surveys reflect that under-represented groups continue to be African American, Hispanic/Latino, Native American, Asian/Pacific Islander, and openly LGBT. Although women constitute close to 50 percent of law school graduates (and have for some time), they remain sorely underrepresented in leadership roles in law firms.

Feeney: For women, retention is the key issue. When you look at the statistics four or five years down the pike, you begin seeing women drop out of law firm practice. Across the country, employers are developing retention programs, such as flex-time, to enable women to advance professionally while also managing family and other important aspects of their lives.

Editor: Are the hurdles to success different, depending on a person's diversity status?

Cohen: In a perfect world, a person's diversity would not be a hurdle to success. However, the reality of law firms is that becoming equity partner requires a big book of business, and diversity factors can play an inhibiting role. Business development is largely contingent on friendships and influential contacts. As long as diverse attorneys remain underrepresented in the ranks of equity partners - those who control and hand out business - they will encounter difficulty advancing. This fact highlights the importance of addressing diversity and inclusion at all levels, from diverse hiring practices to mentoring programs that include business and network development.

Feeney: One positive change is the emergence and success of specialty and diversity bar associations, where attorneys of similar backgrounds can connect and help each other with business development through referrals or other networking connections. Further, corporate America hires attorneys of diverse backgrounds for corporate legal departments. These clients and attorneys insist the law firms they refer work to pay attention to diversity.

Editor: Have women led the way regarding diversity and should they seek out female mentors?

Cohen: Women need mentors from all backgrounds, not just those who are like themselves. They need to create their own personal board of directors, if you will. At the same time, in order to want to remain in a firm, women need to see other women ascending to leadership positions in law firms, meaning equity partnership and representation on executive, compensation and other high-level committees. They need to believe that it is possible for them to succeed too.

Feeney: Those of us already in leadership positions bear some responsibility to help others. Because I had progressive male mentors, I did not appreciate some of the hurdles female attorneys faced until after I became a leader in my profession and other women started seeking my advice on how to be successful. At this point, I am sensitive to this from a gender perspective but also in mentoring candidates from other diversity backgrounds.

Editor: Aside from obvious matters of principle, fairness and equal opportunity, what are the tangible benefits of diversity?

Feeney: Diversity candidates offer new and valuable perspectives, based on family, educational and life experiences. The NJSBA leadership realized this and has taken action to reserve a certain number of positions for underrepresented groups on its board of trustees. Being a white female who grew up in a rather middle-class setting, I appreciate the enrichment that diversity brings to the organizations I belong to. You may not always agree with someone but you better understand what their life experience and perspective is.

Editor: Have women and minorities overcome deficiencies in the area of business development?

Feeney: Business development is critical to success, whether in making equity partner at a law firm or in rising through the ranks of a corporation. For reasons mentioned earlier, women and attorneys of diversity backgrounds find it more difficult to develop business. The traditional ways white men do business - on the basketball court, golf course or through alumni connections from the days when law schools were male dominated - still pose barriers for women and attorneys of diverse backgrounds. Even as this situation changes and more people of diversity enjoy opportunities, networking remains the most effective tool for successful business development. Stephanie can talk about how our Women's Initiative is providing skills and opportunity to network.

Editor: Stephanie, you have a training course in-house?

Cohen: We do. McCarter's Women's Initiative has three separate missions: (i) client/business development; (ii) mentoring/leadership training; and (iii) community involvement. In addition to hosting various client events throughout the year (which facilitates networking among women attorneys and their clients), the Women's Initiative conducts monthly luncheons in which it invites speakers (both internal and external) to discuss topics relevant to the women attorneys. In 2009, the Women's Initiative commenced its Leadership Academy, which is designed to assist senior associates and junior partners in honing their business development skills, while providing valuable development training for junior associates. This year, our Leadership Academy will focus on business development coaching for junior income partners and senior associates.

Editor: Do you think there will ever come a day when diversity policies are no longer needed?

Feeney: We hope so, but that is a long way off and may not happen during my tenure. Therefore, it is important to maintain the current focus on progress in the areas of hiring and establishing effective programs to retain diversity candidates. Change occurs slowly. For example, my Fordham Law School class of 1981 was over one-third female, yet 30 years later, women remain disproportionately underrepresented in the role of equity partner and leadership at major law firms.

Cohen: According to a recent report by the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL), the national average reflects that only a mere 15-16 percent of equity partnerships belong to women - which is out of line since women have been graduating in large numbers from law schools for at least the past two to three decades.

Editor: How has globalization affected law firms' diversity policies?

Feeney: Globalization is very positive because it has broken down geographic boundaries and facilitated greater familiarity with different cultures, which in turn fosters diversity as we all become comfortable working with people of various backgrounds. Many of our clients have locations all over the world. With today's telecommunication technology, it is not unusual to work with people outside the U.S. on a daily basis.

Editor: What advice do you have for women, both those starting out and those seeking to advance in established careers?

Feeney: First, in speaking to women's groups, particularly at law schools, I advise women to strive to be the best in their substantive field and to promote their own careers and individual accomplishments. Men excel at the latter; however, women are afraid to publicize themselves, and their careers suffer. Second, it's very important to find the right team of mentors, including ones to help with advice in substantive areas of law and others for advice in leadership, career and business development. Third, I advise them to be willing to take risks. For example, men have the confidence to accept challenging work that stretches the bounds of their qualifications. I find women need to feel 100 percent certain they can do it and do it well before they will take any risk, which limits their opportunities and competitiveness; thus, I tell women to take risks, and, while it is great to be successful, it is also important to learn from their failures. Our failures actually help us to learn and to be more successful.

Cohen: I want to emphasize the need for women to maintain peer connections. At one of our recent Women's Initiative luncheons, Susan spoke about the importance of becoming involved in bar and community organizations from the time one graduates from law school and increasingly as one's career develops. Passive strategies do not work - especially for women. Women attorneys need to find organizations in which they can remain active and network with each other and potential clients.

Please email the interviewees at scohen@mccarter.com or sfeeney@mccarter.com with questions about this interview.