Mentors can make a new lawyer’s career. They play a critical role in guiding and advising young lawyers, helping them make critical decisions about practice areas, professional development, and negotiating firm politics. Mentoring a lawyer from a diverse background is a crucial way to expand your firm’s talent, but how do you recruit this type of mentee? What impact does it make? Where can a young lawyer find a mentor?
ACTEC Fellows Sandra J. Chan and Stephanie Perry reflect on their experiences as young lawyers in the trust and estate profession. Both women had few role models that looked like them. Learn more about their pathways to success and their recommendations to mentors and mentees.
How to Increase Diversity in the Legal Profession - Advice on how to increase diversity in the legal profession, law firms, mentor, sponsor, recruit and retain diverse people.
ACTEC Fellow Terrence M. Franklin: One of the goals of the “Planning for a Diverse and Equitable Future” video series is to discuss topics that impact our profession and to offer practical recommendations to improve the future. Diversifying the Law profession, opening the aperture, expands our understanding of the law and clients’ needs. Mentoring a person from a different background and helping them navigate the complex process of becoming valued lawyers is one way to improve the profession. As women and persons of color, these ACTEC Fellows have worked hard to prove themselves in a profession where few people look like them. They join us today for National Mentoring Month to share their experience and offer recommendations to both young and experienced lawyers on the value of mentoring.
ACTEC Fellow Sandra J. Chan: When Stephanie and I were preparing for this video, her story about how she discovered the trusts and estate practice sounded much more compelling than mine. So, I thought she should tell you about her experience first.
ACTEC Fellow Stephanie Perry: I was introduced to trusts and estates as a law student. When I started law school, I had no idea what estates and trusts was, and it was until my second year of law school, when I took an estates and trusts course, that I was introduced to the area. My professor, Jeff Pennell, who, as you know, is also an ACTEC Fellow, was incredibly compelling (he could have been teaching anything and that’s probably what I would be practicing today). And he actually ended up being a mentor to me. After taking his course, he introduced me to the probate court judge in Atlanta and she hired me for a clerkship. I was with her my second year summer and throughout my third year and that’s how it started for me.
Sandra, how did I discover the trust and estates practice?
ACTEC Fellow Sandra J. Chan: Two words -Serendipity and Timidity. I remember that I wanted to join the tax department of my firm but there were other first year associates competing for the position. The only other related option was a slot in the Trusts and Estates department. I remember the position was not desirable among the first years because the department was located one floor below the firm’s main floor. Even in my first weeks of practice, all the first years knew that if you wanted to interact with the power partners in the firm, you had to be on the firm’s main floor.
Anyway, not having to compete for the Trusts and Estates slot suited my personality and I joined that department. I vividly remember that those fourth-floor offices seemed to be danker and darker than the fifth-floor offices. Nonetheless, it turned out to be an area of practice that satisfied all of my professional desires. Trust and Estates law was Intellectually stimulating, gave me a lot of client-contact and gave me the gratification of helping individuals solve their problems.
Importance of Mentors
ACTEC Fellow Sandra J. Chan: Although the fourth floor of my firm was not as lively as the fifth floor, I decided to stick with the trusts and estates practice because of two people, my mentors. One was an associate who was just a couple of years ahead of me, and the other was a practitioner who entered the legal profession after retiring from a successful accounting practice.
My associate mentor was invaluable in training me in the nuts and bolts of the practice. That training did not involve law per se. She took me to the huge cavern of the Los Angeles County Court house and showed me:
- where the probate attorneys’ office was,
- where to get certified copies of documents,
- how to find documents that had been filed with the court but had not yet made it to the court files,
- how to navigate the Court’s archives,
- where the offices of the legal notice publishers were, and
- where the offices of the bonding companies were.
She also introduced me to all the court clerks she knew. These introductions served me well throughout my years of practice in Los Angeles. My associate mentor was also an excellent writer, and generously and patiently shared those skills with me.
I’m not sure why my senior mentor chose me, but I became a beneficiary of his then unique ideas about drafting, communicating and packaging estate planning documents for clients. Those were the days before computers. Estate planning documents had to be produced almost from whole cloth for each client.
- My mentor introduced the concept of having pre-printed sections of “standard provisions” to reduce document preparation time and to reduce errors,
- He also helped me develop pre-printed forms for consistent and accurate data collection, and
- pre-printed diagrams of estate plans that I used to explain the contents of complicated trust documents to clients.
I still wonder why my white male mentor thought I, as a then young Asian woman, would be an effective emissary of his ideas, but he adopted me whole-heartedly, and paved the way for my becoming an ACTEC Fellow and a member of the planning committee of the USC Trusts and Estates Conference.
Without either of these mentors, I do not believe I would have been able to enjoy the practice I had.
ACTEC Fellow Stephanie Perry: Like you, Sandra, my practice would not be where it is today without my mentors. From Jeff Pennell who introduced me to estates and trusts law, to the senior associate who taught me how to be a diligent and detailed drafter, to my deceased mentor and ACTEC Fellow, Nancy Fax, who ensured that I was on the path to become an ACTEC Fellow – they all have had a tremendous impact on me and my practice. I am truly grateful that I had happened upon others who were willing to share their time and talent to help me along.
Networking and Affinity Bars
ACTEC Fellow Sandra J. Chan: Networking and getting involved with the Bar were things that both my mentors encouraged. My associate mentor encouraged me to be a Los Angeles County Bar delegate to the State Bar Conference of Delegates. The House of Delegates was the place where new laws were introduced, discussed and debated for later communication to representatives of the state legislature.
My older mentor encouraged me to become active with the Executive Committee of the Trusts and Estate Section of the California Lawyers Association.
I also became involved with the Southern California Chinese Lawyer’s Association and the Asian Business League of Southern California. In each of these organizations I tried to be an active participant. For example, I became the editor of the California Trusts and Estates Quarterly and served as the first woman President of the Chinese Lawyers Association and of the Asian Business League.
Although being active took an enormous amount of time, I got out of each association as much if not more than what I put it in. Besides the lifelong friendships, I also received a lot of substantive benefits. The editor position gave me the opportunity to learn in depth about all kinds of planning and administrative issues and ideas. The Asian Business League put on monthly programs about various business issues, so I learned a lot about entrepreneurship, finance and management.
As an active participant in the Chinese lawyers Association, I developed a reputation in the local Chinese community as an expert in the trusts and estates field. It also gave me an opportunity to educate parts of the local Chinese community not only about the benefits of estate planning but also about the value of having legal assistance from time to time.
Finally, the exposure to communities not familiar with trusts and estates lingo allowed me to hone my communication skills about our practice area.
ACTEC Fellow Stephanie Perry: There’s only so much time in a day and, as a young lawyer, I found that I had to pick and choose between affinity bars and other state and local bar organizations. We know that African Americans are underrepresented in the estates and trusts practice, and I found earlier on in my practice that if I wanted to be involved in estates and trusts, there wasn’t much of an opportunity for me to do that through affinity bars. One shouldn’t have to pick and choose, and we are working to improve this but that was my experience. Of course, I made the most of networking with others where there was less similarity because while maybe it’s sometimes more comfortable to network with others with whom there’s some affinity, you don’t always have that option.
ACTEC Fellow Sandra J. Chan: Although I haven’t served in a formal mentorship position, I have tried to be available to young practitioners on an individual basis. That includes having periodic meals with younger lawyers and keeping active in a few bar organizations where I can interact with them. I remember how important it was to me to see somebody who looked like me in places where I hoped to be in the future. I also remember how it felt to be the only one in the room who looked like me. Hopefully, I can now be that familiar face to younger practitioners and let them know that there are others like you in the room and that those others are cheering for you.
ACTEC Fellow Stephanie Perry: Like you, Sandra, I have not ever served in a formal mentor role, but serving as a mentor for younger attorneys, especially those within my law firm, has always been important to me. As attorneys, I feel we have an obligation to the profession to help bring others along, the same way that someone likely did for us. Also, I couldn’t agree more with what you said, Sandra, about being present and visible, especially as a minority attorney. Sometimes, just showing up and being a welcoming face and offering conversation to someone who knows no one else in the room means a lot to the attorney on the receiving end.
ACTEC Fellow Sandra J. Chan: Looking back, my bar activities and networking activities were activities that allowed me to expand and hone my skills as a lawyer. Our roles as counselors require us to have a breadth of knowledge about what is going on in the world and in our clients’ communities. Interaction with various groups, especially those outside our area of practice, helps add to that breadth of knowledge. I didn’t consider these activities as business development opportunities. My business development strategy was what my senior mentor taught me, that is, the way to your next matter, is the matter on your desk. In other words, I was taught and strove to serve my clients to the best of my ability. I found that having a satisfied client was the best way to get the next matter or the next client. Although this strategy seems limited in light of all the platforms that are now available to advertise our skills, the trusts and estates practice is one where individual interaction and attention is still appreciated and valued.
ACTEC Fellow Stephanie Perry: Well-said, Sandra.
My final thoughts – to potential mentors - mentoring, even in a small way, can have a huge impact. I encourage you to think of ways that you can help bring others along. To mentees – step out of your comfort zone. Find ways to network in meaningful ways. You never when you will meet someone who could impact the course of your practice.
Websites of three national affinity bar associations: Asian and Asian Pacific Islander lawyers at NAPABA (www.napaba.org), Black lawyers at www.NationalBar.org and, Hispanic lawyers www.hnba.com.
ACTEC Fellow Terrence M. Franklin: If you are a law student, a young lawyer, or simply new to this practice area, there are many resources available online that didn't exist when I was younger to begin your journey of finding a mentor. And to experienced attorneys, please take the time to share your knowledge with a person from a diverse background. Mentoring yields benefits to the mentor as well as the protégé, as it helps forge the bond between the experiences of those who came before and the hopeful spirit and energy of youth.
Please visit ACTEC, actec.org/diversity, for more information on this topic. And make sure you subscribe to ACTEC's YouTube channel to be informed of new videos as they become available.