Send down the ladder

13 Mar 2019 / Law Society Print

Send down the ladder

If you are searching for career success, organisational psychologist and DCU academic Dr Melrona Kirrane advises that you observe other people who are good at what you want to do.

Dr Kirrane was the main speaker at a recent talk for women lawyers at the Distillery Building in Dublin. She urged the lawyers present to “visualise who you want to be. Find a role model and see them a lot”.

Women routinely underestimate the importance of a mentor or sponsor, she added. The difference between the two? “A sponsor does something for you. A mentor, on the other hand, guides you in what to do.”

And being sponsor- or mentor-worthy demands both loyalty and ability, she said. It requires intense interaction and valuable, meaningful and purposeful conversation: “Ask your mentor how they think you are doing.”

Female careers tend to be labyrinthine rather than linear, she said. And women must never forget that, if they are to achieve career success, networking is, in fact, work.

Networking is a valuable tool in the arsenal for discovering a professional identity, Kirrane advised, but first you have to figure out the type of person you wished to become.

Addressing the topic of networks, she distinguished between three types:

  • Operational networks that help you do your job,
  • Personal networks of people who re-energise you, and
  • Strategic networks of those who have done it before you, but are still on the circuit and available to give a high-level overview.

Law and Women programme

And the Law Society is now taking a major lead in assisting women to network more effectively. It is organising a solicitor-specific mentoring programme as part of its relaunched ‘Law and Women’ mentoring programme.

The Society is inviting applications for both mentors and mentees on a countrywide basis for this year’s mentoring programme. In addition, it is in the process of hiring a dedicated trainer to drive the programme. Training will start in early April 2019. (To find out more, email LW@lawsociety.ie.)

Proactive

Kirrane urged women to be proactive in progressing their careers. She brought valuable insights from academia and applied them to ‘real life’ in her talk, which examined the ebb and flow of women’s careers.

She recommended elevating your public profile by attending events and following up afterwards with the people you meet. It is a good idea to mix with people of all ages.

“Capitalise on your network, but diversify,” she advised, “because we are drawn to people who are the same as ourselves, but we can end up in an echo chamber.”

Balancing demands

She explained that the idea of evenly spaced steps on a career ladder was something of a misnomer. Women encounter different phases in their lives, so shouldn’t hold on to a ‘male’ model of career, since men, generally, have fewer breaks in service or gaps in delivery of performance.

When women established their work identities, she said, accomplishment and achievement were central features. If those women subsequently had children, their focus might shift to balancing competing demands, rather than exclusively focusing on professional presence.

A fulfilling career has four strands, she said: competence, self-efficacy, authenticity and influence. Happiness emerges from living a meaningful life, complete with competence and self-efficacy, and these come from knowledge and practice.

Platform

Authenticity is underpinned by an internalised moral perspective, and women lawyers should interact with people from a solid, unchanging platform: “A thread of uniformity should permeate all your interactions with people,” Kirrane said.

The Law Society is now actively inviting applications for both mentors and mentees for this year’s ‘Law and Women’ mentoring programme. Training begins in early April. For more information, email LW@lawsociety.ie.

The Society’s ‘Law and Women’ mentoring programme is attempting to put all this solid advice into practice. The programme started in 2015, with 11 mentee/mentor pairs, which has increased to 25 pairs over the past 12 months.

LK Shields’ partner Jeanne Kelly (pictured above) is a mentor. She got involved because she wanted to figure out why women weren’t advancing to a career level that made the sacrifices of private practice worthwhile.

As a senior lawyer, the programme gave her valuable insights: “In some ways, I think I gained more from it than my mentees did, but I hope they benefitted too,” she offers. “Younger women now take real ownership of their careers, pretty constantly measuring where they are versus where they want to be.

“There is good and bad in that, for sure, but I think it’s mostly positive,” she said. Too much focus on the speed of advancement, however, could mean missing out on what she terms “accidental good fortune”.

“The people I have learned the most from aren’t always the people at the very top,” she reflects.

Aideen Ryan (pictured above) from DAC Beachcroft is also an accredited trainer to public and regulatory bodies. She finds that one of the challenges of the ‘Law and Women’ programme is striking the right balance between giving advice and allowing the mentee to reach their own conclusions.

Mentor’s purpose

“A mentor’s purpose is not to solve all of a mentee’s challenges, but to support and guide,” she says. “Discretion and good communication are the key skills.”

Aideen O’Reilly, (pictured above) who was a senior lawyer in both the National Treasury Management Agency and the National Asset Management Agency, says that she feels a duty to ‘send down the ladder’ to the next generation of women.

“To offer yourself as a personal resource to a colleague is hugely rewarding in itself. Seeing the ‘Aha!’ moments that happen from time to time is truly life-affirming,” she says.

“To be a mentor is to have the opportunity to tell the mentee that thing they need to know at that particular point in their career,” she says. “I tried to recall a mentor in my own career, and there wasn’t one.”

SIRO general counsel Audrey O’Sullivan (pictured above) was fortunate, however, to have good mentors and she wants to give something back through her involvement in the programme. She says that the time commitment is a challenge, but the process is its own reward.

Empathy and confidentiality are the key traits to bring to the table, Audrey believes.

“I constantly learn from my mentees, and they always challenge me to be better at what I do,” she says.

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