For lawyers, the importance of mentoring is well established. In the legal workplace, mentoring promotes learning and development within the context of a personal relationship. It occurs when a lawyer (or other experienced individual) takes an interest in someone less experienced and provides information, guidance, and support.
While many research studies have examined the barriers to mentoring for women and minority lawyers, few have investigated how these lawyers enter into successful mentoring relationships. MCCA® commissioned a study to examine how women and minorities are able to find, form, and sustain meaningful mentoring relationships across gender and race. The study was conducted in the spring and summer of 2003 with volunteers from law firms and corporate law departments throughout the United States.
The findings of Mentoring Across Differences: A Guide to Cross-Gender and Cross-Race Mentoring points the way for women and minority attorneys to get the most of the mentoring process. Most importantly, the study found that women and minority lawyers who understood the value of mentoring and actively sought mentors were able to find meaningful mentoring relationships. In fact, they were able to find multiple mentors of different genders and races to meet different needs and goals throughout their careers.
Successful women and minority mentees appreciated that every mentor, regardless of race or gender, can be valuable in some way. Having a variety of mentors was especially enriching. Mentees in the study, including white males, had mentors of both genders and various races. Minority mentees had mentors from different minority groups, and both male and female mentees had mentors who were women.
Mentoring Across Differences also confirmed prior research that has shown that mentoring is one of the keys to improving the retention and advancement of women and minorities. All participants agreed that mentoring is important to a lawyer's development, and a large group believed that mentoring is "essential" for minority and female lawyers. One female mentee in the study stated plainly, "I wouldn't have stayed in the law if it had not been for my mentor. He makes me more enthusiastic about working at the firm. I feel more vested for the long term."
However, many women and minority lawyers said that in their early years of law practice, they knew little about mentoring or its importance. Their appreciation of mentoring grew as they experienced the benefits of mentoring relationships. Mentors, on the other hand, had clear expectations for potential mentees right from the outset. They viewed their time and energy as expensive assets, and the mentoring process as an investment. They preferred to invest their time and energy in lawyers whom they believed would produce a high return; for example, those whom they saw as "winners" or "keepers." The picture in their minds of how "winners" performed and behaved was very clear.
This image included not only working hard and producing a high quality work product, but also appearing confident and assertive. Mentors looked for lawyers who showed drive and ambition, were sociable and involved in office activities, and had work habits that were compatible with their own. Many women and minority lawyers were not aware of those expectations. Lack of knowledge about what mentors expect may be one of the key reasons why women and minorities do not experience mentoring to the same degree as white males. Mentoring Across Differences proposes numerous recommendations for mentees, mentors, and legal employers interested in promoting diverse mentoring relationships. Some of these recommendations are set forth below.
Recommendations for Mentees
- Participate in mentoring programs. If your employer has a mentoring program, make use of the formal mentoring relationships available to you. Many bar associations, especially minority bar associations, also offer mentoring programs.
- Identify needs, goals, and mentors who can help you. Whether or not you participate in a formal mentoring program, look for other mentors on your own. The first step is to identify a professional need or goal. For new lawyers, it might be learning legal skills. For more experienced lawyers, it might be attaining partnership or promotion into management. Then look for a mentor who can help you toward your goal.
- Look for mentors in many places. Supervisors are the most common source of mentors. Other sources include individuals in the same or a different department who work with you on special projects, or professional networks and bar associations. Look for mentors of different races, genders, and cultural backgrounds; do not limit your search to people who look like you.
- Be alert to mentoring opportunities. Recognize and accept mentoring overtures that come your way. Potential mentors need to get to know you personally. Invitations to office social events, lunches, client meetings, or professional conferences might indicate that the person inviting you is interested in being your mentor. Be receptive to such invitations and explore the mentoring possibilities as your relationship grows.
- Determine the mentor's expectations. The more you understand what a mentor expects from you, the more you will be able to meet those expectations. To determine what those expectations are, observe the mentor and others who work with that individual. Study the organization's performance standards, and ask questions of the mentor and others in the organization.
Recommendations for Mentors
- Explain expectations. Mentors may make mistakes in assessing a lawyer's suitability for mentoring if they apply the same "unwritten rules" of success to everyone, regardless of gender, culture, or background. Mentors who assume that every new lawyer understands those unwritten rules usually do not explain them. However, women and minority lawyers who come from cultures that value behaviors unlike what mentors expect (for example, deference rather than assertiveness) may not know – and therefore, may not demonstrate – the desired behaviors. Consequently, they may not attract mentors.
One of the most valuable things you can do as a mentor is explain to women and minority lawyers what is expected of them as a lawyer and employee. This information allows junior lawyers to show that they are capable, committed, and worthy of a mentor's attention. It is also important to acknowledge that one model of success does not fit everyone.
Gender or culture-based differences may simply reflect alternative ways of achieving the same ends. In some circumstances, these differences may be more effective than the usual or expected approach. Instead of viewing differences as aberrant, question your own assumptions. Treat all lawyers as individuals, and learn and benefit from their individual differences.
- Reach out. Strong personal connections in the workplace increase the chance that women and lawyers of color will stay, excel, and move onto levels of higher responsibility. Without a personal link to others in the firm or corporation, lawyers find it easier to leave. Outreach by mentors creates these links, not just with new lawyers, but also with law students and summer associates or interns. As a mentor, take the initiative by showing your sincere interest in the mentee's development as a lawyer. Help newcomers learn how the legal workplace operates, and make an effort to learn their aspirations and concerns.
- Take the lead in discussing diversity issues. Trust and mutual respect are necessary for any successful mentoring relationship.
Even where trust and respect exist, discussions of race or gender issues are often perceived as too risky to undertake. Some mentees in the study avoided such discussions because they feared being rejected or ignored by the mentor, or being perceived as incompetent or complaining. Mentors who were reluctant to engage in these dialogues feared their comments would be misinterpreted as racist or sexist. Some of those mentors believed they did not have sufficient personal experience or knowledge to offer meaningful advice to women or minority lawyers.
The reluctance to discuss diversity issues need not prevent male mentors from being mentors to women, or white mentors from forming mentoring relationships with minorities. Instead, mentors and mentees must accept some discomfort and make an effort to understand each other. Given the power differential in the relationship, the mentor must take the lead. As one mentor in the study said, "A mentor has a real opportunity to learn, especially if someone has a really different background. We have to be open enough and curious enough to explore that part of the relationship. I tell my mentees that if I say anything offensive, let me know."
Recommendations for Legal Employers
- Educate all lawyers about diversity and mentoring. Having a broad-based diversity and mentoring education program creates an environment conducive to cross-race and cross-gender mentoring. Teaching lawyers mentoring principles and skills increases their ability to be successful mentors and mentees. Diversity training can help lawyers move beyond awkwardness and discomfort in dealing with race and gender differences. Cross-cultural communication workshops help lawyers develop the knowledge and ability they need to competently engage in diverse mentoring dialogues.
- Provide mentoring and networking opportunities. Encourage lawyers to become involved in internal networking events and outside professional activities where they will be able to interact with potential women and minority mentors and mentees.
- Ensure that lawyers receive good, challenging work, as well as coaching and feedback. It is in your organization's interest to have high-performing women and minority lawyers. Ensure that these lawyers receive a wide range of increasingly complex work, consistent with their demonstrated ability. First-rate work experiences will promote their learning, build their confidence, and enhance their visibility. Coaching and candid feedback will help them excel. One mentor explained the importance of mentoring for lawyers' development this way: "It's an investment in the institution – if we don't develop good lawyers, we can't do well as a business."
- Make effective management an imperative. All supervisors are potential mentors, and most mentoring centers on the mentee's work experience. Therefore, it is important to increase the effectiveness of partners and managers in supervising lawyers and managing work. In addition, define performance expectations clearly and apply evaluations fairly and without bias.
Law firms and their corporate clients are equally distressed by the lack of diversity in partnerships and the upper ranks of management. The number of women and minority role models, mentors, and leaders remains less than desirable. However, this study shows that with sufficient information, support, and initiative, women and minority lawyers can find the mentors they need and become the role models, mentors, and leaders of tomorrow.
For a more detailed analysis of the study's findings and recommendations, read the full report available on MCCA's web site (www.mcca.com) or contact MCCA for a copy of the report.
Ida O. Abbott, Esq. is principal of Ida Abbott Consulting, which helps legal employers manage, develop, and retain lawyers. She is the author of numerous books and resources on mentoring and professional development, and publishes a quarterly e-newsletter, Management Solutions. She can be reached at IdaAbbott@aol.com or www.IdaAbbott.com.
Rita S. Boags, Ph.D. is the principal consultant at Leadership Technologies, LLC., a firm that specializes in the implementation of diversity and mentoring programs. A review of its program offerings can be found at www.leadershiptechnologies.com.
From the January/February 2004 issue of Diversity & The Bar®