March 18, 1999
Vol. 18 No. 12

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    [Melina Patterson, Michelle Lawner, Laura Kotanchik]Left to right, Melina Patterson, Michelle Lawner and Laura Kotanchik participate in the mentorship program offered in the Law School. All three women said they have benefited from their mentors, who are professionals working in the field of law and alumnae of the Chicago Law School.

    Mentorship programs guide students in professional schools

    By Jennifer Vanasco
    News Office

    Law has long been a field dominated by men, with women often struggling to carve a place for themselves in the hierarchy. In 1992, three Law School students identified a need for female mentors of female students and started a program to do something about it. Six years later, the Women’s Mentoring Program is thriving, linking first-year women law students at the University with female alumnae.

    This year is one of the program’s most successful ever, with 71 out of 72 first-year students participating. Additionally, many older alumnae have become involved for the first time, giving the mentoring relationship an added maturity and wisdom.

    “Alumnae take great pride in our school and it’s great to have one-on-one contact with them,” said Michelle Lawner, a second-year law student and one of the three co-chairs of the Women’s Mentoring Program. “We’re getting a rigorous education and it means a lot to talk with someone who’s made it through.”

    The program has received strong support from the administration of the Law School, with Dean of Students Ellen Cosgrove and Assistant Dean and Director of Career Services Alison Cooper helping to recruit Chicago-area alumnae and organize the major events.

    Each quarter, co-chairs plan one major event. A cocktail party, to which all mentors and mentees are invited, is held every Fall Quarter. During Winter Quarter, the pairs gather in groups of six to have lunch in downtown Chicago. And in Spring Quarter, the co-chairs organize a panel of alumnae to speak about how to prepare for working one’s first summer in the legal profession.

    The panel, which covers topics of interest to first-years––such as how to survive in a legal environment or what a career in public law is like––is fascinating, the co-chairs said, because of the diversity of opinions the alumnae express.

    “You learn that there is not one type of female lawyer; there are 70 types of female lawyers. One woman’s experience doesn’t have to be your experience,” said third-year student Laura Kotanchik, one of the co-chairs.

    A good mentor, the co-chairs said, is one who will take the initiative, since many young Law School women are intimidated by attorneys in downtown firms.

    “They also remember what it is like to be a student, are interested in listening to the experiences of their mentees and are responsive to calls and e-mails,” Kotanchik said. “They’re someone on the outside who can understand the law school experience in a way your family and friends can’t.”

    “Some mentors and mentees will spend time on the phone and talk over e-mail at least once a week,” Lawner added. “Mentors provide advice, listen to our anxieties and reassure us. Your mentor is one of the only people you can talk to about your fears. And when you learn what life is like for lawyers, your horizons expand.” Mentors bring law students to plays, operas, ball games and lunches in their firms. They discuss everything from how to survive the first year of law school to what colors to wear to an interview.

    All three co-chairs have stories about the best advice their mentors have given them. For example, from mentor Gretchen Winters, who heads the Law School”s alumnae association, co-chair and second-year Melina Patterson learned that “you can always do more. Gretchen is one of the busiest people I know. Whenever I think, ‘Oh, I’m too busy to do one more thing,’ I think of Gretchen and reconsider. If you never try to do anything, you’ll never get anywhere.”

    Lawner’s mentor, corporate attorney Dawn Schiller, told her not to lose sight of who she was before she came to law school. “People here tend to forget why they came because there’s pressure from other students to all apply to the same type of firms and do the same type of work,” Lawner said. “You’ve got to remember what brought you here in the first place.”

    Though not all of the mentoring relationships work out, many mentors and mentees stay close even after their official relationship has ended. “Women bring different concerns to the table than men do, and those concerns aren’t always reflected in the structure of firms and companies,” said Kotanchik. “It’s important to have a role model in the field who can help light the way.”

    The Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies and the Graduate School of Business also operate mentoring programs for students at the University. While these programs differ from the Law School program, all three programs are based on providing support and guidance to students, typically first-years.

    The Harris School celebrated its mentoring program’s 10th anniversary in October 1998. The program, which pairs students with more than 100 business and community leaders from the Chicago area, honored some of its mentors who have been with the program since its inception in 1988. One of those decade-long mentors is Harris School philanthropist Irving B. Harris, for whom the school is named.

    The Graduate School of Business has a mentoring program that involves second-year students who mentor first-year students.