In 2009, Kansas City attorney Denise Henning, through sheer force of will, began pairing young female lawyers with mentors within the legal community. Ten years later, and three years after the untimely death of its creator, the program remains a labor of love.
Athena Dickson, Aubrey Gann-Redmon, Kelly McCambridge, Kate Nolen and Beth Phillips are just five of the 115 women who have taken part in what is now known as the Denise Henning Connections Program. Yet their experiences encapsulate the passion and commitment that have kept it going strong.
Connections, run in connection with the Association for Women Lawyers Foundation, features classes of five mentors and five mentees, who rotate among each other during a five-year period. Gann-Redmon, Nolen and McCambridge were mentees in the Connections program’s inaugural class. Starting in 2014, the three women, joined by Dickson and Phillips, began serving as mentors to a new five-year class of young women hungry for advice and camaraderie.
“Ending the program after 10 years almost felt like being orphaned,” Gann-Redmon said. “I had never really practiced law in my career without the Connections program.”
Despite the time commitment involved, the program has expanded through the years. The first year, there was just one class of 10; as of the program’s 10th anniversary in March 2019, there were five simultaneous classes, representing 50 women in all. And while Henning personally recruited participants in the early years, potential mentees these days go through an application process to be admitted.
Dickson, who also serves as the program’s coordinator, said Connections now is shifting to a three-year program, with two groups of three mentor-mentee pairs at a time. Dickson said she hopes that expanding the number of available slots while reducing the time commitment by two years will make the program more sustainable — especially after the loss of its founder. Henning died from cancer in 2016 at age 50.
“Denise was the driving force that kept the program going,” Dickson said. “I try to be as persuasive as possible, but it’s harder to get people signed on for such a long commitment.”
Dickson, of Siro Smith Dickson, and McCambridge, of McCambridge Law, both have personal injury and employment practices; Gann-Redmon’s AGR Legal Services concentrates on probate and estate work; Kate Nolen is of-counsel at Lathrop Gage, and Phillips is a federal judge in Kansas City. That diversity of experiences among the mentors is typical, as the program’s organizers want to give mentees a broad view of women’s careers in the legal field.
“The struggles that younger attorneys potentially face early in their careers have similarities, regardless of whether you’re in a big firm, small firm, public-sector practice or private practice,” Phillips said.
But the program doesn’t just offer professional advice for its participants.
“We have done weddings, births, deaths, divorces. We’ve been through all of that,” McCambridge said. “I thought it would be more of a just professional mentoring program, and I’ve been so pleased at how much is concentrated on work-life balance or whatever it is the mentee needs that year.”
Participants meet monthly, sometimes as a group, sometimes individually. Nolen said the structure of the program helps mentees to overcome the natural reluctance to seek advice.
“Sometimes those mentor relationships happen naturally, especially if an attorney is just outgoing and finds it very easy to ask for help and go to events. But sometimes they don’t,” she said.
Nolen added that, even as her formal participation in Connections has ended, she still feels like a part of it.
“As the group continued to meet, these relationships grew, and these lifelong friendships started to form,” she said. “I think that was Denise’s vision all along.”