By all accounts, the legal profession is facing a crisis: “Too many great minds are leaving the profession….Everyone needs to care about that — not just women, not just men.”[1] Although women comprise 45 percent of associates, they only account for 19 percent of equity partners in private law firms.[2] Gender inequity is a “multifaceted problem which has its roots in implicitly held, even if explicitly disavowed, beliefs about sex differences, beliefs whose consequences are played out daily. Gender schemas cannot be changed over the short run. But their mode of action and their deleterious results can be understood and countered.”[3] More than 30 years ago, the American Bar Association (ABA) Commission on Women in the Profession concluded that the lack of mentoring opportunities and relationships was just one of the ways in which law firms discriminated against women.[4] Due to this lack of mentoring opportunities, women were excluded from those relationships among law firm members that are critical to success and the ultimate attainment of partnership. Since that time, mentoring has been well documented as an effective tool that can help women advance within organizations.[5] Moreover, many women who have achieved a high level of success in organizations frequently mention the presence of a mentor as one of the reasons for their success.[6]

Mentoring relationships are intended to facilitate the personal and professional development of the less experienced individual.[7] Mentors are believed to provide two distinctive forms of mentoring functions: career development and psychosocial support.[8] Career development refers to actions that advance the mentee within the organization, such as coaching, sponsorship, exposure, protection, and teaching the norms and practices of the institution.[9] Psychosocial support refers to the interpersonal aspects of the mentoring relationship, such as counseling, friendship, acceptance, and role modeling behaviors.[10] Mentoring is as critical to advancement in law as it is in any other profession.

Leadership Academy

In 2013, Eugene Pettis, The Florida Bar’s first African-American president, created the Wm. Reece Smith, Jr. Leadership Academy, named after the late chair emeritus of Carlton Fields, with its aim to train future leaders of The Florida Bar and the legal profession. Since 2013, the Leadership Academy has had more than 200 graduates (academy fellows). Incoming classes are 74 percent female, and more than 100 academy fellows serve on Florida Bar committees.[11] The fellowship is a one-year term, during which fellows enhance their professional development, hone their leadership skills, learn about the inner workings of The Florida Bar. The application period opens each December.[12]

Section Fellows

In conjunction with efforts to increase diversity and inclusion within the legal profession, as well as eliminate gender bias, The Florida Bar and two of its sections, the Business Law Section (BLS) and the Real Property Probate and Trust Law Section (RPPTL), have developed formal mentoring and fellowship programs designed to assist young lawyers in their professional development.

• Business Law Section Fellows — In 2011, the Diversity Committee of the BLS issued a strategic plan designed to increase diversity and inclusion within the section’s membership, as well as the section’s leadership.[13] In furtherance of this goal, the BLS created a fellowship program to provide a two-year subsidy to eight qualified applicants (BLS fellows) who express an interest in becoming active in the substantive work and leadership of the section. Each fellow is assigned two mentors: a social mentor and a substantive mentor. The social mentor, who is a member of the executive council, assists the fellow in maximizing their experience in the program while attending section meetings and events. The substantive mentor assists the fellow’s active involvement in the substantive committee that most closely fits the fellow’s legal practice area with the goal of maximizing professional development.

Since its inaugural class in 2013, the fellowship program has graduated 14 fellows and currently has 12 fellows still completing the program. Eighteen of the 26 past and present BLS fellows are women. Three BLS fellows currently have leadership roles within the BLS. The application period for the 2019-2021 BLS Fellowship Program opened in January, and applications are due March 29. The application can be found on the BLS website.[14]

• Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Fellows — In an effort to supplement and support the efforts of the Membership and Inclusion Committee of the RPPTL section, the section created a two-year fellowship program for four positions; two real property positions and two probate and trust positions. The RPPTL fellowship is a two-year program that offers financial assistance for attending the section’s executive council meetings. Fellows participate in substantive committees during their program participation, receive leadership training, work closely with leading attorneys in their field, and are paired with mentors to guide them through the executive council process. The application period for the 2019 Fellowship Program opened in February 2019.[15]

Overcoming Gender Inequity

The Leadership Academy, the BLS Fellowship Program, and the RPPTL Fellowship Program are excellent examples of how institutional mentoring programs can help provide women access, opportunities, and strategies to overcome and confront gender inequity. Christina Taylor, a 2016-2018 BLS fellow, described her experience with the BLS Fellowship Program as follows: “Before becoming a BLS fellow, I had no idea of the work that was being performed behind the scenes by The Florida Bar in general, and the BLS in particular, on behalf of their members. Without the BLS Fellowship Program, I would not have known how to get involved, and now not only have I gotten my foot in the door, but I have walked right inside. I have also used my experiences to encourage and inspire other young attorneys to become actively involved in the Business Law Section.”[16]

Mentoring programs can open doors that have traditionally been closed to women. As stated by Michelle Suarez, a 2016-2018 BLS fellow and the second vice chair to the Inclusion, Mentoring & Fellowship Committee of the BLS: “Being selected as a BLS fellow gave me the opportunity I would not otherwise have had to actively immerse myself in several substantive committees within the BLS that directly affect our state laws, influence the legislature, as well as engage with leaders on a local and state level. The relationships I have built and projects I have been able to participate in, since becoming a fellow, have continued to flourish, even after my fellowship ended, and have directly influenced the way I practice law. It has been, and continues to be, one of the greatest professional experiences of my career.”[17]

[1] Liane Jackson, Why Do Experienced Female Lawyers Leave? Disrespect, Social Constraints, ABA Survey Says, ABA J. (Aug. 3, 2018), available at

[2] Mark D. Killian, Why Are Women Lawyers Leaving the Profession?, Fla. B. News 7, July 15, 2018, available at

[3] V. Valian, The Cognitive Bases of Gender Bias, 65 Brooklyn Law Rev. 4 (1999).

[4] ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, Unfinished Business: Overcoming the Sisyphus Factor (1995); ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, Report to the House of Delegates (1988).

[5] B.R. Ragins, Gender and Mentoring Relationships: A Review and Research Agenda for the Next Decade, Handbook of gender and work 347-370 (1999).

[6] B.R. Ragins, B. Townsend & M. Mattis, Gender Gap in the Executive Suite: CEOs and Female Executives Report on Breaking the Glass Ceiling, Academy of Management Executives 12:28, 42 (1998).

[7] E.J. Mullen, Framing the Mentoring Relationship as an Information Exchange, 4 Human Resource Management Rev. 257-281 (1994).

[8] K.E. Kram, Mentoring at Work: Developmental Relationships in Organizational Life (1985).

[9] See id.

[10] See id.

[11] Jan Pudlow, Leadership Academy Turns Out ‘All-Star’ Lawyers, 44 Fla. B. News, Sept. 15, 2017, available at

[12] The Florida Bar, Leadership Academy,

[13] The Diversity Committee is now known as the Inclusion, Mentoring & Fellowship Committee. The Strategic Plan can be found at

[14] Business Law Section of The Florida Bar, Fellows,

[15] Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Section of The Florida Bar,

[16] Interview with Christina Taylor, attorney, Latham, Shuker, Eden & Beaudine, LLP (Aug. 3, 2018).

[17] Interview with Michelle Suarez, partner, Florida Entrepreneur Law, P.A. (Aug. 7, 2018).

Article written by Mariane L. Dorris for The Florida Bar: