‘Mentoring Circles’ Provide Supportive Space for New Attorneys and Law Students

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In January, the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois, the Illinois State Bar Association’s Women and the Law Committee, and the Chicago Bar Association’s Alliance for Women launched an informal mentoring program for law students and attorneys early in their careers.

During the Mentoring Circles program, law students and new lawyer mentees gather in a circle to ask questions and seek guidance from experienced attorney mentors in a low-pressure and supportive environment.

The program aims to create authentic social connections for Chicago-area law students and attorneys early in their legal careers, which will hopefully continue after the event, said WBAI President Whitney K. Siehl.

The second Mentoring Circle meetup is Thursday, April 4, from 5 – 7:30 p.m. at Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP in Chicago.

Law students and new attorneys are encouraged to sign up as mentees. Mentees attend for free. The WBAI, ISBA, and CBA are also seeking experienced attorney mentors to participate.

To submit your application as a mentor or mentee, click here.

Why ‘Mentoring Circles’

Head shot of Whitney Siehl
Whitney Siehl

The Mentoring Circles program is the brainchild of Siehl, who said it has been “a dream for years” thanks to the “phenomenal mentors” she has had throughout her career.

“Each one of my mentors had a large impact on my life, and their lessons led me to the values and each initiative as President of the WBAI,” Siehl said.

The collaborative program enables law students and lawyers early in their careers to meet and form what Siehl hopes are lasting relationships with more experienced attorneys who may be outside of their law schools, workplaces, or bar associations.

“Our mentors understand the practice of law is challenging and look forward to providing guidance, support, and strategies for success,” Siehl said. “It is my goal to make the road a little easier for those who come after me and Mentoring Circles is a wonderful program for mentors to help the next generation of lawyers.”

Personalized mentoring

Head shot of Erin Wilson
Erin Wilson

The program’s small groups are designed to make it easier to connect with experienced attorneys, which can be a challenge at large and traditional networking events.

“Because the program is designed to be more personalized, it lends to mentees feeling more comfortable and open to having discussions with mentors,” said Erin Wilson, Chair of the ISBA Women and the Law Committee.

Rebecca Westrom

Participants say this personalized attention really matters.

“Mentoring Circles is different from other events because the groups were smaller, and you could tell how intentional the attorneys there were about helping law students,” said Rebecca Westrom, a 2L at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Law.

Head shot of Betsy Pisabaj
Betsy Pisabaj

Betsy Pisabaj, a 3L at DePaul University College of Law, said she has maintained a connection with an attorney from the January meetup.

“We met up for coffee and she gave me great advice on how to approach job interviews, networking, and general career advice as a woman in the legal field,” Pisabaj said. “I gained so much insight from the people involved in Mentoring Circles and feel grateful for such spaces, especially as a first-generation law student.”

Creating authentic networking opportunities

Head shot of Chandler Caswell
Chandler Caswell

Chandler Caswell, Co-Chair of the CBA Alliance for Women, said Mentoring Circles encourage mentees to step “out of their comfort zone,” work on their networking skills, and ask attorneys about different types of law.

“By meeting new people and learning from different perspectives it helps to broaden [mentees’] horizons and develop valuable interpersonal skills,” Caswell said. “Not only does this allow law students to network with lawyers, but it also allows them to meet other law students and foster relationships within the local Chicago community.”

While attending a networking event can be daunting, Julia Korzeniowski, a 1L at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Law, said that attending Mentoring Circles was well worth it.

Head shot of Julia Korzeniowski
Julia Korzeniowski

“It can be intimidating to walk into a room full of people who you don’t know, but you quickly realize that [Mentoring Circles] is a warm and welcoming environment,” she said. “I even made some connections with WBAI members that led to me getting some of my first job interviews.”

Korzeniowski noted that the “inclusive approach to mentoring,” which includes participants from varying experience levels and diverse backgrounds, fosters “rich discussions” and networking opportunities as well as a “broader understanding of the legal profession where junior associates, seasoned attorneys, and law students share insights and support one another.”

Elizabeth Morgan, a 3L at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Law, echoed this, stating how impressed she was by the diverse backgrounds and practice areas of the mentors who participated in the Mentoring Circles.

“I’m a non-traditional student pursuing law as a career change so networking has been so important for me because I haven’t followed the traditional path of three years of law school, summer associate, then job,” she said. “I’ve attended school part-time while working so this event was a great opportunity to meet people I wouldn’t have met otherwise and learn about different agencies and firms.”

Connecting with other law students and new attorneys

Head shot of Elizabeth Morgan
Elizabeth Morgan

In addition to gaining career advice and establishing connections with experienced attorney mentors, Mentoring Circles provide an opportunity for mentees to discuss their experiences with attorneys and law students at the same stage of their careers.

“In my circle, a third-year student expressed nerves about starting their first position after graduation,” Siehl said. “Other participants shared they had the same concerns and our mentors provided guidance and encouragement. That supportive moment is exactly what Mentoring Circles is about.”

Morgan agrees, and said she learned that other students “expressed the same concerns and insecurities that I have been having as I enter the legal field. Once we expressed those concerns, the mentors were able to step in and offer their own experiences. That helped us gain some perspective.”

Building lasting relationships

Mentoring Circles are a first step in laying the foundation for attorneys who prioritize mentoring throughout their careers.

After graduating from law school and passing the bar, Illinois attorneys in their first five years of practice can participate in longer-term mentoring programs—while earning CLE credit—through the WBAI, ISBA, CBA, and other organizations.

These year-long mentoring programs pair mentors and mentees for a unique legal professionalism-based curriculum developed by the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism. The program provides attorneys with practice guidance and support in building ethical careers based on integrity and professionalism.

Head shot of Eva Nobel
Eva Nobel

Caswell said she hopes that one day today’s Mentoring Circle mentees will become lawyer mentors, which would be “a full circle for Mentoring Circles.”

And it sounds like the Mentoring Circle participants are looking forward to returning the kindness.

“From frank discussions on approaching opaque firm payment and promotion structures, to finding the right workplace fit, everything I learn makes me feel a little more prepared for my legal career,” said Eva Nobel, a 2L at the University of Chicago Law School.Like the many female attorneys who have helped me by being generous with their time, wisdom, and connections, I hope to pay forward the benefits I have been lucky to receive.”

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