Mentors, Sponsors, and Dismissing the “Mean Girl” Mentality: Finding Success as a Woman in IP

I am used to being outnumbered by men. I studied chemical engineering in college and intellectual property in law school. According to data from the American Society for Engineering Education, in the year that I received my bachelor’s degree, only 25% of the bachelor degrees awarded in any field of engineering from my alma mater were to women. Because an engineering or hard sciences degree is required to sit for the patent bar, the number of women with these technical backgrounds who then go on to practice patent law is similarly limited.

This all culminates in women attorneys being underrepresented in intellectual property law. The retention and promotion of the women who do make it into this area of law is markedly challenging. I was aware of these statistics when I made the choice to work in IP, and women attorneys are indeed outnumbered by men at the firm where I’ve worked since earning my J.D. However, in the relatively short time since I’ve joined my firm, a large percentage of women attorneys have been promoted to contract or equity partner. How did so many of our women attorneys break into not only partnership, but equity partnership? Am I on that track? And how can we ensure that the momentum continues? These are the questions I asked myself recently.

The answer is perhaps not a surprising one. The women at my firm have developed great mentor and sponsor relationships. I have found mentor and sponsor relationships to be critically important to my IP law practice and to my desire to remain in this practice. I made partner at my firm a few months ago, and looking back at my career progression and what I’ve learned, it’s apparent to me that to succeed—and to be an attorney that a firm will actively seek to retain—a woman lawyer needs to establish formal and informal mentor relationships early on, work hard to grow and foster those relationships, and continue to develop new ones. It’s also important to diversify those relationships—to ensure that they are not limited to all women, all men, or even all senior lawyers. A mix of formal and informal mentors, sponsors, and what I’ll call “peer” mentors has proven vital to my own personal growth and continued success while navigating my way through my career.

How Can You Be Mentored? Let Me Count The Ways

One: Formal Internal Mentors

Like many firms and companies, my firm has a formal mentoring program in place. A formal internal mentor is a great resource for figuring out what it takes to succeed so that you become someone your firm aggressively seeks to retain. My firm’s mentorship program paired me with a partner who met two criteria: (1) he had recently joined the firm’s equity partnership; and (2) he was not someone with whom I usually worked.

The first criterion is important because it means that the mentor remembers what it’s like to be in your shoes. The simple fact is that times change, and the problems and issues that confront the current generation of lawyers are in many ways very different from those that confronted lawyers 25 years ago. For instance, back then, new lawyers didn’t struggle with the concept of “face time” and how working from home might impact their career. A formal mentor who encountered and overcame the very obstacles you are now facing cannot be underestimated, since they are more likely to connect with the issues at hand and be able to offer meaningful advice.

The fact that you don’t typically work with your mentor ensures that you have someone to go to if you need to raise an issue or grievance that you cannot discuss, or do not feel comfortable discussing, with partners that you do interact with on a daily basis. Ideally, your mentor will be able to offer advice on how other associates have successfully worked through similar problems or provide other tips on a politically correct way to handle your particular issue.

If you are assigned a formal mentor as part of a mandatory firm or company program, take advantage of it! My assigned mentor and I meet every few months, usually over lunch, to check in on how things are going. Most people wouldn’t think of a lunch as requiring prep, but I do prepare for those meetings. I make a list of questions that have been percolating in the back of my mind over time, but weren’t important or pressing enough to bring up previously. These may include questions about the firm’s policies (“Will I get any credit for non-billable hours spent writing an article on mentors?”), specific concerns about workflow or assignments (“How do I get assigned to the next big project with Client X?”), or even bigger-picture career concerns (“Now that I’ve made partner, what do I need to do to position myself correctly for the next step?”). Use these meetings to gather as much information as you can about whatever aspect of firm life concerns you. Your mentor’s institutional knowledge and experience can help you avoid political pitfalls and set you on the right path.

Two: Informal Internal Mentors

Many of the best informal mentoring relationships happen without your even realizing it. I consider no fewer than eight attorneys at my firm to be my personal informal mentors, although I never overtly asked them to be, and in fact, they might not even see themselves in that role. Rather, they have become mentors over time, as our working and personal relationships have grown. I tend to approach each person for different reasons, depending on their practice specialty, their level of experience, their current availability, and even whether they’re male or female (for instance, most of my male mentors likely would not have been keen to discuss my anxiety of traveling across the country for a deposition as a still-nursing new mom). Having a number of informal mentorships in place will ensure you’ll have a ready resource available should the need arise. At the same time, if the topic is important enough, you can ask multiple informal mentors for feedback. The combined responses reflecting their unique and varied experiences will yield a range of advice that is ultimately far more valuable than just one point of view.

Three: Informal Peer Mentors

This is a subset of internal mentors, but is so crucial that it deserves its own category. When people think of a mentoring relationship, the young/old or amateur/expert dichotomy naturally springs to mind. But some of the most important, if not the most important, mentors (and sponsors, discussed below) that I have are the other women attorneys at my firm, who (with one exception) have not been practicing law for 25 years. They don’t couch their advice with statements like “I know because I was doing this before you were born.” On the contrary, they started down the same path that I’m on not that long ago. They each experienced struggles as they cleared the path for themselves—and for those of us following in their footsteps. They truly appreciate the hard work it has taken, and the hard work that is yet to come. And I think because of that, they each genuinely want one another, and those coming up behind them, to succeed.

I was at a networking event recently where a few women attorneys commented that, in their experience, women simply do not help other women professionally. They expressed genuine surprise that my women colleagues and I were so supportive of one another. This was not the first time I had heard about such a “mean girl” mentality—that women are just as cut-throat in their competition to succeed as their male counterparts, if not more so.

The women at my firm don’t possess the mean-girl mentality, and it’s not simply luck that they don’t buy into it. It takes a conscious effort among your female peers to promote and champion one another, and the women at my firm do just that. For one example, we have a standing monthly lunch to ensure that we all make time in our schedules to connect. Often the lunches are purely social, but with an increasing frequency, we discuss how to market ourselves, what efforts we’re each taking to develop business, what has worked and what hasn’t, how we can help each other to generate, refer and obtain business, and, ultimately, how we can get the women at our firm a seat at the table. Undoubtedly, women attorneys at other firms are doing this as well, recognizing that if we don’t make a conscious effort to support one another, we may never be successful at retaining women in any area of law.

Four: External Mentors

If you don’t have an internal formal mentoring program, you may reap similar benefits by participating in a formal mentorship program offered by an outside organization. Many state and local bar organizations offer such programs; the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility lists a number of state bar mentoring programs on its website.

A number of specialty bars also offer mentoring programs.

Two additional types of external mentors have been valuable when I need an unbiased outside perspective: (1) lawyers at other firms or companies, and (2) business professionals who are not lawyers. I’ve spent my entire legal career with one firm, and my colleagues there are fiercely loyal (typically a great asset). But when I’m in need of a 10,000-foot view or even just a quick reality check, I turn to my outside mentors to gain a different perspective.

Bar associations also can be great resources for informal external mentors. The more active you become, the greater the opportunities are to connect, sometimes in unexpected ways. I remember being repeatedly told in law school to get involved in a bar organization early on in my career. I initially largely ignored that advice (as I’m sure many young lawyers do), only getting involved tangentially. But then, after becoming more actively engaged in a national IP law organization, I was brought together with some bright, like-minded local IP professionals, and we were inspired to cofound a new Chicago-based organization intended to connect, promote, and advance women in IP. Although the organization is still officially less than a year old, it is already clear that the relationships I have established through this group—with in-house and private practice lawyers as well as other IP professionals—will be greatly beneficial to me, both personally and professionally. Personally, I have connected with some amazingly accomplished women whom I am learning from each day. Professionally, I am finding business development opportunities on behalf of my firm and my own practice. Getting involved in such an organization will naturally lead you to develop relationships with fellow members who can serve as external mentors to you.

Five: Sponsors

While every sponsor can be a mentor, not all mentors have the ability to be a sponsor. A sponsor can definitely affect your career trajectory more powerfully than a mentor can. Sponsors offer advice just as mentors do, but they also have the stature within the firm to champion you and use their influence to help you rise through the ranks. Sponsors become actively invested in your success. They not only call attention to your strengths and skills, they help you get to know other key partners and clients. In my view, sponsors are like super-mentors.

Although a sponsor relationship may start informally, at some point, you have to make the “ask.” For the most part, people aren’t mind-readers, and can’t help you get what you want if they don’t know you want it in the first place. So, you have to make it known to the right person what you want, prove to them that you deserve it, and inspire them to push for it on your behalf. My sponsors likely advocated for me because I worked hard and earned their trust over time. They likely know that I have a slightly over-the-top color-coded task list that means I’m not going to miss a deadline or put in a half-hearted effort on a project, no matter what its size. They know I’m going to keep them updated on any project they give me, and ask questions to ensure we stay on track and on budget. To retain that trust in the future, I’m going to continue to make my task lists, make my deadlines, and keep an open line of communication. My goal is to give them ample reason to keep sponsoring me and fighting for me at that decision table, until I am seated at the table myself someday.

Making It All Work: Rinse and Repeat

I don’t intend to stop seeking out mentors and sponsors just because I already have a strong group in my corner. As my career progresses, opportunities will arise to develop additional relationships that will undoubtedly assist me in new and diverse ways. And I am committed to paying it forward by eventually becoming a mentor to other women attorneys, both at my firm and through the organizations to which I belong. It is only through concerted efforts to support our women colleagues that we will finally achieve professional growth and advancement equivalent to that of our male counterparts.

About the Author

Nikki Little is a partner at Fitch, Even, Tabin & Flannery LLP, a national intellectual property law boutique headquartered in Chicago. She is a cofounder of the women’s bar organization ChiWIP (Chicago Women in IP). Nikki can be reached at

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