Reflecting on the Importance of Professional Mentors
Holland & Knight's Diversity Council and Asian/Pacific Islander (API) Affinity Group are proud to celebrate Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month and pay tribute to the generations of Asians and Pacific Islanders who have enriched America's history and continue to play a role in its future success. This year, we took time to reflect on how we could better support our API colleagues, sitting down with attorneys and staff to have important conversations about racial justice and allyship. Throughout the coming weeks, we will be presenting a video series showcasing some of these conversations. We hope that the stories conveyed in these videos help advance dialogue around API Heritage Month as well as lead to further discussions of how we can be better allies to our API friends, family and colleagues.
In the eighth episode of this series, Partner Anna Sankaran talks about the important role mentors play in an attorney's growth and success. Anna has been involved in several bar associations throughout her career, from founding the South Asian Bar Association of Greater Boston in the aftermath of 9/11 to becoming the first South Asian member of the State Bar of Texas board of directors. She shares how a memorable encounter with another South Asian woman attorney at a bankruptcy conference led to a mentor relationship that continues to this day, and she emphasizes the significance of having mentors who recognize the roles and stereotypes assigned to different groups while actively working to combat those perceptions and find opportunities for visibility for their mentees. Anna concludes with a few pieces of advice for young lawyers.
Anna Sankaran: My involvement in bar associations started when I was about a fifth-year associate practicing law, and at that time, September 11th happened. Before that time, most South Asian lawyers were members of Asian bar associations, both local chapters and the national chapter, but after September 11th, we realized two things: that there was a critical mass of South Asian attorneys that had some separate needs and [that] because of September 11th, there were a lot of South Asians that were facing hate crimes and various forms of prejudice in small ways and large ways that needed to be addressed. And so in a number of cities, South Asian bar associations started, and I helped launch the South Asian Bar Association of Greater Boston. And through working through that organization, I became part of the leadership of the national organization and eventually became its president. And it has been a very important piece, I think, of both building leadership skills as well as helping address the needs of the profession and the community. I think bar associations can give very young lawyers, especially affinity bar associations, can give young lawyers leadership opportunities at a much earlier stage and help them develop their public persona and leadership skills. And then when I moved to Houston about 11 years ago, the Houston chapter of the South Asian bar had become defunct. And so I decided I would launch it again, but I didn't take a leadership role specifically because I wanted to make sure some young leaders or potential leaders in the community had that opportunity and then they could use that platform as a way to highlight themselves in their firms, in the community, in the legal profession. So that's essentially been my experience of bar associations. You know, I went on to join the State Bar of Texas board of directors, and I was the first South Asian to ever sit on the Texas State Bar board of directors. But I think it's been a great experience. I personally enjoy bar service quite a bit, and I think it's given me a lot of opportunities to build my own platform as well as help other people and mentor other people.
I was really surprised once when I went to a bankruptcy conference in Rhode Island and this young Indian woman came running up to me and she's like, "Oh my God, you're my idol. I have pictures of you all over my office. Every article about you I cut out. We went to the same law school, and it's so nice to know that someone who looks like me could achieve so much success." And I was so surprised by it, having been a first. Like, I didn't even know that anyone knew who I was really, and I ended up mentoring her starting there unofficially. And to this day, I still mentor her, and she's become a partner at her law firm. We've had cases against each other, even tried a case against each other. But I learned from her that there's something immeasurable about having people who look like you or have gone through similar experiences or are going through similar experiences to not just look up to but mentor you and help you through difficult situations and explain how they did it so they can give you a path and maybe a leg up. You can learn from their experiences and avoid, you know, maybe some of the pitfalls they went through or the challenges that they faced. Sometimes Asians are considered diverse in that like, "Oh, you know, you guys haven't had the same struggle as maybe Hispanic attorneys or African-American attorneys." It's just a different struggle. We have a different set of experiences and a different history within the country and a number of different histories within the country. I think Asian Americans might face this question or this situation. And I faced this in court, at depositions, in meetings, in person where people have literally said to me, "Wow, you speak English really well." And I'm always so surprised, like, well yeah, you know, I grew up in the U.S. and went to Boston University, so I'm not surprised by that. But it's just a question that comes out, you know, I think out of nowhere a lot of times, but it does come. And people will sort of assume roles for different people, whether you're female and you're going to get sent to go get coffee for the conference room or you're the Asian who's going to stay up all night and do the all-nighter and get the brief done. It's good to have mentors who recognize that, whether they are of the same ethnicity or diversity that you are or not. And I will say my two best mentors were white men who made sure, when things like that happened, that they made sure I had the right opportunities to get visibility within the firm, to get working on very big cases so I can make a name for myself or if things were being said about me to be able to correct those perceptions. You know, there are some unique experiences being an Asian American attorney, but if you're a young lawyer, I think, own your career and treat your career as if it was a business, that you're the CEO of that business. Make a business plan for yourself, and when I say that, it doesn't mean like, oh, I'm bringing in 10 clients when I'm a first-year attorney. Make defined your goals for yourself, make a plan for yourself and own every piece of that plan. Make a brand for yourself. And as you're going through that process, reach out to people who have done similar things or are facing similar situations. And you will find different mentors in life for different aspects of your career. You don't necessarily always have to stay with the same person, and you'll have many mentors and many people who look up and out for you. You know, I know that my parents have said, look, your work will speak for itself, but that's not always the case. And so get comfortable with talking about yourself, but in a way where it's comfortable for everyone around you. I think people are happy to hear about your success if they're invested in you, and you don't sound like a used car salesman that way when you talk about yourself. And also find champions who want to talk about you. It sounds even better when someone else is singing your praises. So that would be the couple tidbits of advice I would pass on.
More Videos in this Series
Episode 6: Becoming an Ally with Jennifer A. Mansfield
Episode 8: Reflecting on the Importance of Professional Mentors (You are currently viewing Episode 8)
Episode 9: Explaining the Model Minority Myth