At the end of 2011, we reported on the launch of a new statewide mentorship program in New York: the Gillibrand Women’s Mentoring Initiative. At that time, New York’s U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand announced a partnership with the Council of Urban Professionals (CUP) and the Partnership for New York City. The goal: to find 100 senior executives who were willing to share their time and expertise with 100 up-and-coming women professionals.
The mission was accomplished, and in 2012, the first wave of Gillibrand’s mentor/mentee pairs met quarterly, checking in with the Partnership along the way to report on progress. Among the 200 participants were mentor Lori Lesser, a partner at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP, and mentee S. Jeanine Conley, the Hiring Partner for BakerHostetler’s summer and fall recruitment and a member of the firm’s litigation group.
Lesser and Conley participated in The Glass Hammer’s 2011 article, New Women’s Mentoring Initiative Kicks Off Across New York, and when we last connected with them, they had just met for their first mentorship breakfast powwow. “It was more than I even expected after only our initial meeting,” Conley told us at the time.
A year later, as CUP reviews nominations for the second class of leaders to participate in the initiative, we checked in with Lesser and Conley to find out how their mentoring experience unfolded and what they gained through the initiative.
Lesser explains that she decided to serve as a mentor partly because Senator Gillibrand is such an important thought leader on women’s leadership. “Mentoring other women is important to me, I knew many of the other participating mentors, and Senator Gillibrand put her personal stamp on the program,” says Lesser. “So I knew it would be productive and enjoyable to participate.”
Conley says she thought it would be beneficial as a new partner in a law firm to receive advice and guidance from someone who had been successful in the partnership role. “The opportunity to gain a female mentor made the program even more enticing because there are still unfortunately not as many women as one would hope to see in the profession,” explains Conley. “While men and women often deal with things differently just by our nature, I expected that business development would be an area where those differences might come into play, and I felt very fortunate to be able learn about what worked and did not work from someone in the profession who shared so much in common with me.”
The way the program was set up, Conley was generally the one to call and set up formal meetings, but notes that Lesser always found time in her schedule to meet with her mentee. The pair picked a regular meeting place – “our spot” as Conley refers to it – conveniently located between their two offices. “We discussed our careers, issues facing law firms and the legal profession as a whole, and the amusing quirks of being Southerners in New York City,” says Lesser.
In addition to meeting for occasional breakfasts together, they also invited each other to several industry functions political, nonprofit, and bar events which gave Conley an opportunity to network and meet a number of Lesser’s friends and colleagues. Lesser also made introductions that led Conley to join the faculty of the Practising Law Institute and the board of the National Urban League.
As a mentor, Lesser counts the fact that she got to know Conley among the personal benefits of participating. “Jeanine is a terrific, accomplished lawyer and I have enjoyed getting to know her,” says Lesser. “If she were at my firm, we would already be good friends. But the New York legal community is huge, and we needed this program to meet.”
On the mentee side, Conley said she gained a tremendous amount from having a mentor. In addition to helping Conley land a board seat, Lesser facilitated a number of speaking opportunities for her mentee. “She gave me ideas on how to build my network and establish new relationships, particularly through alumni communities,” says Conley. “Just hearing about her experiences as a female partner was enlightening, and I was encouraged by her many successes. I believe we will continue to have a relationship beyond the mentorship program.”
Conley calls the mentorship experience “invaluable,” particularly in such a male-dominated profession. “While I have had a number of male mentors over the years, there is something that we as women can learn from one another, that cannot necessarily be duplicated by a male mentor,” says Conley. “Because of the struggles that we have faced in the profession, I believe it is critical that those of us who have achieved success reach back and help pull those that come behind us so that we can continue to build the pipeline and ultimately increase the number of women in partnership and management roles in the profession.”
Lesser notes that sponsorship is far more important than mentorship for women in any profession. “Your sponsor is going to push for your advancement and make sure you have the right opportunities to demonstrate your talent and dedication,” says Lesser. “Yet mentorship is important as well. Every woman lawyer needs a personal ‘kitchen cabinet’ to consult for career advice, and your outside mentors can give unbiased advice from varied perspectives.”
Both mentor and mentee strongly recommend the Gillibrand Women’s Mentoring Initiative to future participants. Lesser says she is proud to support Gillibrand’s program as a whole because it continues the conversation on the important topic of women’s leadership. She credits part of the success of the program to well-chosen pairings, which she believes is critical. “Good mentoring relationships grow organically when people work together or have common interests,” explains Lesser. “Jeanine and I were a great match because we have a lot in common.”
Conley adds that like every mentorship relationship, it is what you make of it. “If you invest the time and energy into absorbing as much of the great advice as you can from your mentor and then work on employing what you’ve learned, you will see the positive effects that guidance can have on your career decisions and in your life,” says Conley. “Not taking advantage of such opportunities is a real loss, because having the opportunity to learn from someone who has already experienced many of the issues or obstacles that you will confront is so important.”
Contact Natalya Suite-Williams at for more information about the Gillibrand Women’s Mentoring Initiative.