Supporting and Mentoring Female Estate Planning Attorneys

Dec 13, 2022 | Business Planning, Diversity, Equity & Inclusivity, General Estate Planning, Podcasts

“Supporting and Mentoring Female Estate Planning Attorneys,” that’s the subject of today’s ACTEC Trust and Estate Talk.

Transcript/Show Notes

This is Toni Ann Kruse, ACTEC Fellow from New York. According to demographics on estate planning attorneys, nearly 55 percent of practicing attorneys are women. Families with children struggle to juggle children’s needs and career expectations. ACTEC Fellow Ann Burns from Minneapolis, Minnesota joins us today to share her recommendations on work/life balance and how to support younger employees in her firm. Hi, Ann. Welcome.

Ann: Hi, Toni Ann. Thanks so much for having me.

Toni Ann: Of course. So, my first question for you is:

Do you think that this area of law is a good career for women? What drew you specifically to practice in the field of estate planning?

Ann: I think estate planning and trusts and estates work is a wonderful field for women. It’s also a wonderful field for anyone who’s interested in giving back to the world and making the world a better place.

One of the great things about estate planning as a career is that you are helping people during difficult times and during the best times in their family’s lives. And so, you become a real part of their family, of their community, which gives the estate planning attorney a sense of belonging and a sense of value and worth.

One of the other reasons that it’s a great area to go into, particularly for women looking to balance full lives with a meaningful and proactive and positive career is that estate planning generally gives you a little bit more control over your schedule than a practice like mergers and acquisitions or litigation, or something like that, where your day is not necessarily your own.

I went into estate planning for a couple of reasons. I have two backgrounds that are seemingly very different from one another but they came together and that is that on the one side, I’m an attorney and an accountant – a CPA – and so, that kind of led me into the tax world. And that’s a fun thing about estate planning is it’s a very sophisticated, challenging area of law.

But additionally, I was raised by my parents, who were a child psychiatrist and a social worker in private practice. So, family relationships, family dynamics, and communication was another area that I was strongly interested in.

And those two sides of me came together around estate planning about 40 years ago, and I’ve never looked back. I absolutely love it.

Toni Ann: Makes perfect sense. Very similar to my interest and reasoning for getting into the field – just to have that pairing of the cerebral and psychology and all of it is such a nice mix.

Ann: It’s very rewarding.

Toni Ann: It is. So, I’ve been practicing for 14 years now and I have two young children, ages seven and almost four, and I understand that you have grown children. So, I’d love to hear some words of wisdom from you, like:

What are some of the important lessons you’ve learned over the years of what worked and what didn’t?

Ann: Well, I’m happy to share them. I always caution my remarks whenever I’m speaking to younger attorneys with “I can’t promise you the world hasn’t changed since I did this, but I can at least give you my tips that worked for me.” The world has changed a lot, both for the better and maybe a little bit for the worse.

For the better is that we’ve got a lot more flexibility today with the ability to work remotely and the ability to log on during odd hours of the night and day or whenever you need to do it. And that’s helped a lot.

The first time I went home on bedrest during one pregnancy, I literally had a fax machine and a telephone. So, it dates me a little bit. But a couple of the tips that work well for me and I think have been good advice for others is I’ve always said right from the start – I worked full-time; I had two children – I had my first child the year that I made partner at my law firm. I kind of held my breath through all of that, but the firm supported me and it was just terrific.

But one of the things was: get a really good daycare that you trust so that when you go into the office, or you turn on your computer, or whatever you’re doing, you don’t have your head in two different spaces.

I think one of the things that women will frequently say when they’re trying to work- whether it’s full-time or part-time and also parents at the same time– is you feel like you’re failing at both. And I say: Don’t do that. Don’t feel like you’re failing at both. You’re actually doing a great job at both. You have to set your expectations so that they’re reasonable. And good daycare can really help you with that because then, you can know that when you’re being the best lawyer you can be, you’re not neglecting your children. And then, when your home, you can give them your all.

The other thing that was really helpful to me was I had to be pretty rigorous about scheduling my day. And that’s not always possible, especially when you’re an associate, you don’t always have control over your day. But to the extent that you can do that and say, “I may have to go at 5:00 because I’m picking the kids up at daycare,” and I want to do that every day. I want to be that parent. But I’ll log back in after they go to sleep, and I’ll do an hour of email in the evening, and partner or client – you can count on me; I will be there. But there will be these times when I need to be doing these other things.

And I think you’ll learn and, if you have good support around you, people will learn to adapt to schedules like that and you’ll find that people are very supportive.

Toni Ann: Thank you. It was another funny coincidence, Ann, that I also made partner the year that my firstborn was born. So, just another funny thing we have in common.

Ann: Oh, that’s great!

Toni Ann: Yeah. So, our next question:

As a leader in your firm, could you please share some of the best practices for supporting your younger colleagues?

Ann: I would be happy to. Again, this is an area that is in flux and changing as well. And I do have to say, I was very fortunate to be with my firm. Even, let’s see, my older son is 35. So, 35 years ago, having my first – even back then, even in the dark ages – my firm was very supportive. We had a pretty decent maternity leave policy – parental leave policy at the time and so on.

I think some of the best practices that firms have today are that and more. So, first off, I think a good strong paternity leave policy is key and critical. And one of the things that I recommend to people when they’re working at law firms to join – particularly law firms. That’s what I know – is the private practice of law – is to find out what the paternity leave or parental leave policy is and find out if men are taking it. Because I think that speaks volumes.

There are some law firms that will have a parental leave policy that applies to both women and men – mothers and fathers – but guys don’t take it. It’s just not done. And that tells you a lot about the organization.

At our firm and at others that I’m well familiar with, the men take the leave as much as the women – sometimes not as long a time or they might break it up a little bit more and take a little on the frontend and a little on the backend, but it’s truly supported at the firm that parents should be with their young children and that taking advantage of a parental leave policy is not frowned upon, it doesn’t set you back in your partnership track, etcetera.

And then, the other things that we have today that are even light years ahead of where my firm was back when I was having my children was that part-time is available, that permanent part-time – temporary part-time is available. The fact that we can work remotely helps a lot, as I said.

The other thing that we’re finding is that a firm that truly supports its’ parents of young children, let’s say, also can help them find ways to stay connected with their mentors in the group. First of all, they have mentors in the group and, secondly, that they can stay connected with those mentors in a meaningful way even while they’re on leave if they choose to or while they’re working part-time.

Because one of the difficulties with part-time is you just have a lot less time either in the office or however it is that people are interacting with each other today. And so, you quickly feel more disconnected, and that’s just such a critical time to stay close with your mentor, your practice group, the other people that you work with. And firms that do a good job of helping people stay connected, I think, are the ones that are, quite frankly, having the best success at retaining their talent. Which for all of us, as people in management at law firms, retaining our key lawyers – our talent – is top priority.

Toni: Absolutely. And so, I think you sort of have touched on this a little bit, and I think I could predict your answer:

How important do you think it is for firms to have formal mentor programs in place for their women lawyers or for all their lawyers?

Ann: So, I start with the fact that I think mentorship is absolutely critical to the success of any lawyer in a law firm. Probably any lawyer anywhere, but as I said, law firms are what I know. So, having a mentor and having maybe even more than one mentor is really critical.

In a lot of cases, it happens organically. It’s very natural. You, either because as an associate you start working more with one partner or another, or two people gravitate together because they share other interests. So, a lot of times, mentorship can happen organically. But it doesn’t always. And the more we learn about what keeps people engaged and feeling connected, and feeling like they belong to an organization – whether you’re doing this in the context of diversity and equity and inclusivity, or you’re just doing it to retain all of your good young lawyers, a formal mentorship program is key.

It’s not a big surprise to anybody that oftentimes your strongest mentor relationships are the ones that develop organically, but you can’t assume that that will happen in any situation. So, you have to have a formal program of matching people up- and we can talk more about what that looks like- but one of the critical pieces, I think, is not just to have one and to match people up, but to check back in with both the mentor and the mentee periodically to say, “Are you getting what you need from this relationship?”

Because there’s no shame in saying, “This isn’t exactly what I need right now. This isn’t exactly what I was looking for.” An example of that is early in your career, you might need a mentor who’s just good at telling you how to navigate the law firm – how you get your timesheets in on time, and “How do you manage your day?” and “How do you manage all the work you’re getting from six different partners?” and “How do you prioritize?” and things like that.

But as you grow in your practice, you need somebody that will help you with client relationships, for example: “How do I do a better job of communicating with clients? How do I handle a family meeting, or a client meeting, or that sort of thing?”

And then, as you continue, and – especially – approach partnership, then, you might need a mentor that’s even more adept at business development and, “How you get out into the marketplace? How do you meet referral sources?”

And it’s lovely if your one mentor from day one can do all those things for you, but there’s also no shame in it if you say, “That mentor was great for me at that time in my career. That worked really well, but you know what? Now, I need somebody a little bit different. Somebody with more of an emphasis on a different area like business development.”

So, I think not only do you have to have the program in place and match people up, but you have to keep checking back to say, “What is it that you need now?” We call it your path to success, which also kind of means your pathway to partnership. And your pathway to success at a firm is going to take turns and it’s going to go down alleys that you never expected. And so, the firm has to be, I think, flexible in order to really meet the needs of its young lawyers.

Toni Ann: That’s a good point. So:

Who mentored you, Ann, if you don’t mind me asking? And who have you mentored over the years?

Ann: Well, I love talking about my mentor because you talk about something happening organically and the first thing I say to people is “Don’t assume your mentor needs to be a woman. If you’re a woman attorney, don’t assume your mentor needs to be a woman.” I know there are a lot of law firms and there are a lot of circumstances in which women, even today in 2022 or 2023, still feel like women in the firm are not getting the same opportunities that men are getting to meet clients, to get into management at the firm, etcetera.

Thankfully, I’m not at one of those firms. It’s been a great, great place for me. But my mentor through all the years that I was growing up, and he just, God rest him, he died last year, was Larry Henneman – he was an ACTEC Fellow.

He was the one who sparked my interest in ACTEC right from the get-go – the American College of Trust and Estate Council, which was a part of my professional life that’s been very rewarding to me. But more than that, what he did as a mentor and I never fully appreciated it until I watched him do it, and I’ve adopted it as my style as well- he truly took more pride in my achievements than in his own.

And I said that at his funeral when I spoke because it was so notable to me that he was very much in the background. He would give me opportunities, he would give me advice, he would introduce me to clients, he would take me to lunches with him and introduce me to the bankers and trust officers and the life insurance agents and all the people that estate planners need to know in the world. And then, he would sit back quietly and just watch whatever I might do with it. And he always encouraged me to take any introduction he made and kind of run with it.

I think partly, he was an amazing mentor because his ego– he was one of those people who just checked his ego at the door. So, I learned a lot from him. I met a lot of people, I got a lot of opportunities and I wouldn’t be where I am today without him. And then, I felt because of all that he did for me, if I could give even half of that back to the rest of the world, that’s what I would do. So, I’ve mentored many people over the years, many of whom have stayed in private practice, many of whom have not stayed in private practice, but all of them landed somewhere that was perfect for them.

And it’s really difficult when you mentor somebody and then they leave the law firm. It’s hard not to take it personally, and it’s hard not to be disappointed, like you feel a little bit like, “Oh, maybe I wasted a lot of time,” but as I look around and I see where all these people have landed, I think, “No. None of it was a waste of time. Everybody landed in really good places.”

So, today, I’m mentoring both a younger partner in our group who wants to grow her practice and also a younger associate who is working towards partnership. And the mentorship of those two– they’re at very different stages in their career and very different– and takes a different form, but I meet with each of them on a monthly basis, and we talk about what they think they need, and I can give them ideas about what they might try. And, as I said at the beginning of this podcast, I always start with “You have to take anything I say with a grain of salt because I know the world has changed, but there’s a lot of it that’s still the same.” And hopefully, some of that mentorship is valuable to them.

Toni Ann: Yeah. That’s wonderful. It’s always so nice to hear those stories. So, we’ve touched on this in the context of mentoring a little bit, and about how it can relate to employee retention.

What other suggestions do you have to keep and support qualified talent at your firm?

Ann: So, it’s going to be interesting, I think the next few years as we find that a lot of law firms are staying fairly remote– remote working. My firm is. We’re all back one day a week and several of us go in more frequently than that, but it’s not the same as back in the day when we were all there every day and bumping into each other and wandering in and out of each other’s offices.

So, I think we have to be really deliberate about that piece. And whether it’s you just call somebody on the phone, or you call them up on Teams or Zoom, or you arrange a separate coffee. I think face time is still going to be really critical for helping people feel engaged and feel like they belong to the organization. But having said all of that, I think the most critical thing is that people want meaningful work. So, the important thing I think, to retain lawyers with a law firm, is for them to feel like they have meaningful work and they’re operating within a system in a way that their engagement matters.

And so, that means that we’re going to have to fight what I think is a little bit of a natural trend that the more we work remotely, the more people– young lawyers, not everybody but young lawyers- can tend to gravitate into a role of being what I’ve always referred to as a “task lawyer” as opposed to a “relationship lawyer.” So, a task lawyer ticks off tasks on a list, drafts a document, prepares a tax return, files a deed – check, check, check. And that is – It’s good work. You get paid for it and all of that, but that doesn’t fall into that category of what I think of as meaningful work where you feel like you’re making an impact.

And those things come from what I term being a relationship lawyer and that is developing a relationship with the client, being their go-to advisor, being the person that they call with any question they might have and giving the lawyer the opportunity to really think strategically with the other advisors that surround the client.

And so, if the remote work tends to have our younger lawyers gravitating into that category of task lawyers, I think it will be hard to retain them because that kind of work is completely fungible from one law firm to another. But it’s the relationships that give people what I think of as meaningful work.

So, I think that’s where we, as law firms, have to really focus and keep people engaged. And I think you can do that remotely. I think you’ve got to mix it in with some face time. But I think that’s where our focus as a law firm is going to turn.

Toni Ann: Yeah, that makes sense. So, thank you so much for your time today, Ann.

Do you have any final thoughts that you want to share?

Ann: The only thought I would share to kind of wrap it up is: If you’re a young lawyer at a law firm and you don’t feel like you’ve got either the support you need or the mentorship that you need or somebody who’s going to go to bat for you when the time comes. Before you leave, because sometimes when a person’s feeling that way, that’s kind of about the time they’re thinking: “Yeah, maybe this place isn’t for me.” Speak up and ask somebody.

Because ninety-nine times out of one hundred, if you walk into somebody’s office and say, “Will you help me?” “Will you mentor me?” “Would you mind spending some time with me?” “Would you help me make contacts in the community?” Whatever it is that your need is, they’re going to say yes and they’re going to wish they thought of it before you had to waltz into their office, but don’t be shy.

Toni Ann: Great. Thank you so much, Ann. This is such a helpful and practical discussion on how to support and mentor our women estate planning lawyers and I think it has so much broader applicability to other practice groups and everyone in the field really in the field. So, thank you for taking the time. We really appreciate it.

Ann: Thanks so much, Toni Ann. I appreciate you having me on. And good luck to you too. It sounds like we’re facing all the same things.

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