Mentoring Programs for Minority Lawyers: A Word to the Wise
This is the first of six articles that will be written this year as a continuation of the Mentoring Across Differences column, which will highlight mentoring issues and spotlight how lawyers of different racial, gender, and cultural backgrounds can build successful mentoring relationships. Ida O. Abbott, Esq. is the principal of Ida Abbott Consulting (www.IdaAbbott.com), which helps clients create systems and environments where professionals flourish, excel, and advance. She specializes in mentoring and lawyers’ professional development.
Additional information about mentoring and diversity can be found in MCCA’s Mentoring Across Differences: A Guide to Cross-Gender and Cross-Race Mentoring.
Mentoring and diversity are each receiving a great deal of attention in the legal profession. The two directly intersect when mentoring programs are designed specifically for minority lawyers. The value of mentoring as a process for developing, retaining, and advancing lawyers, especially minority lawyers, is well established. So some firms are making mentoring a centerpiece of their diversity initiatives by implementing mentoring programs that assign formal mentors to minority lawyers, who often have more difficulty finding mentors informally. The reasoning behind these programs is that effective mentoring relationships can help minority lawyers become more respected, valued, and accepted in the firm, which increases the likelihood they will remain and advance to partnership. But mentoring programs just for minority lawyers are highly controversial and must be approached with caution.
Mentoring programs provide associates a personal connection to the firm when someone is charged with keeping an eye on their work assignments and work environment. Too many minority associates run into problems early in their law firm experience that, if left unattended, lead to high rates of attrition. Left unchecked, these problems may result in heightened feelings of isolation, alienation, or a lack of "connectedness" to others in the firm. But the intensity of law practice, coupled with inadequate supervision, means that those problems typically go unnoticed until it is too late, and minority associates "fall between the cracks." Mentors do not guarantee a minority associate's success, but mentors are responsible for helping minority associates understand what it takes to succeed, and reassuring these associates that the firm wants them to succeed by attempting to eliminate any unfair institutional impediments to success.
A well-designed and carefully implemented mentoring program for minority lawyers, with clear, specific, and realistic goals, can support a firm's objectives of retaining and promoting more lawyers of color. But firms that are contemplating a mentoring program for minority lawyers need to proceed carefully. Such programs are risky and may have profound negative repercussions. However, for many firms, the desire for greater diversity and the critical need to ensure mentoring for minority lawyers outweigh those risks. If your firm wants to move in this direction, the points set out below offer guidance.
- A culture that supports mentoring and diversity is a prerequisite for the success of a mentoring program for minority lawyers. Mentoring is a developmental process based on a personal relationship in which one person helps another to learn, grow, and achieve professional goals. Mentoring cannot be forced; it must be voluntary and valued by mentor and mentee alike. When the culture of a firm supports mentoring, a mentoring program can build on and expand the informal mentoring, ongoing learning, and mutual support that occur naturally. But when individuals do not willingly engage in learning relationships, and the firm does not reward such behavior, even the most carefully crafted program is destined to fail.
Mentoring programs for minority lawyers are more likely to succeed in law firms where all associates have mentors. Such programs are then just an additional dimension to a benefit available to every associate.
These programs will also be more readily accepted in firms where the commitment to diversity is well-established. This means that the mentoring program is not the only item in a diversity initiative, but follows or is coextensive with diversity training and other activities. Lawyers who realize how racial and ethnic differences may adversely affect minority associates' everyday work experience are more likely to appreciate the rationale for a mentoring program designed for associates of color.
- Mentoring programs can facilitate the cultural changes required for diversity initiatives to succeed. The ultimate outcome of a diversity initiative should be a culture of inclusion. In most law firms, this requires changing the way people treat and interact with each other, the behaviors that are rewarded, and the way individuals' differences are perceived. In a mentoring program for minority associates, participants can become effective agents for cultural change. The program can open lines of communication between minority associates and the predominantly white partners who manage and lead the firm. Firms with few minority partners have much to learn about the experience and perspectives of minority lawyers. Mentoring is, after all, a process of mutual learning. Through regular, ongoing, one-on-one communication, white partners can better understand what is needed to make their firm more hospitable and supportive to minority lawyers—and this awareness may make them more likely to act on that knowledge.
- Build broad support for a mentoring program for minority associates. Mentoring programs for minority lawyers are controversial because they single out a particular group for "special" treatment. It is important that people throughout the firm understand and accept the reasons for the program. Rather than simply starting a program, take time to gather input and build support for it. Explain the reasons why the firm is considering such a program and invite reactions, comments, and suggestions. It may be helpful to have an outside consultant involved in the data gathering so that lawyers who are reluctant to voice their views publicly can express them without attribution. If you discover a lot of resistance, address it. If it cannot be neutralized, decide whether to move ahead with the program (and possibly risk failure) or to postpone it until you can create a more receptive environment.
It is especially important to invite and consider comments from the minority lawyers you expect to participate in the program. They may not want or need a special program. Even in firms where such programs are instituted at the request of some minority associates, other minority associates may reject the program or simply choose not to participate.
- Face up to the risks of the program. Mentoring programs for minority associates have many potentially harmful side effects. Here are a few. Acknowledge them and be prepared to deal with them.
- The goal of diversity is to create an inclusive culture. A mentoring program that includes only certain groups of necessity excludes others, which can undermine that goal.
- Defining what constitutes a "minority" for purposes of a mentoring program can cause ill will, even when self-selection is employed. Some lawyers who fit a firm's criteria will resent being asked to participate, while others who do not meet the criteria will bristle at being left out.
- Targeting minority lawyers may reinforce negative stereotypes about their abilities and create a perception that minority lawyers need mentoring for remedial assistance.
- A backlash may arise from excluded majority associates who see the program as reverse discrimination; from partners who resent such programs as unnecessary or an extra burden; and from minority associates who feel they are being singled out as "needing help" that they do not really need or want.
- Mentors and minority associates may feel pressured to deal with diversity concerns rather than the associate's individual professional needs. They may have difficulty forming a meaningful relationship if they are overly conscious of their racial or ethnic differences instead of looking for what they have in common.
- Confusion or misunderstanding of program objectives (for example, whether the focus is on general mentoring concerns or just on issues related to diversity) may lead to failed relationships. If mentors and mentees have different expectations for what they should discuss or accomplish together, they may become frustrated and give up.
- The program can undermine informal mentoring. When mentors are formally assigned, some partners believe that mentoring only happens in the program. They rely on the program and stop reaching out to minority associates informally. This can actually result in less mentoring for minority lawyers.
- Many of the difficulties that minority lawyers face result from poor management practices such as ineffective supervision, non-developmental work assignments, and lack of feedback. Mentoring programs are often used as a "band-aid" for these underlying management deficiencies. Instituting a mentoring program without addressing those root deficiencies allows the fundamental management problems to persist.
- Consider less exclusionary mentoring alternatives. A mentoring program for only certain lawyers is necessarily exclusive. Here are some less exclusionary ways to promote mentoring for minority lawyers:
- Provide a program that assigns mentors for all associates who want them, but select the mentors for minority associates with special care to ensure a high level of sensitivity to diversity issues.
- Provide training in mentoring skills and dynamics for everyone, and include specialized training for mentors and mentees in cross-race relationships.
- Expect partners to mentor minority associates informally. Show them how, give them incentives, and hold them accountable.
- Compile a list of lawyers in the firm who volunteer to be mentors for minority associates. Inform minority associates who those volunteers are and provide a non-intimidating method for minority associates to ask one of the volunteers to serve as their mentor.
- Identify minority lawyers who volunteer to assist other minority lawyers with mentoring needs and questions that are specific to their minority status.
- Teach minority associates how to find and build informal mentoring relationships. Explain the value of having multiple mentors of different races and backgrounds to help them deal with different kinds of concerns.
- Sponsor affinity groups through which lawyers with common interests or characteristics (for example, race, ethnicity) can come together to talk on a regular basis. Affinity groups are self-organizing and set their own agendas, although the firm may provide space, refreshments, and resources.
- Promote networking that may lead to the development of mentoring relationships. Hold firm events that bring minority and majority lawyers together in a comfortable environment conducive to conversation. Help minority lawyers find mentors outside the firm (for example, through minority or specialty bar associations that have mentoring programs).
Mentoring programs can provide strong support for a firm's diversity efforts. Firms that wish to provide a mentoring program specifically for minority associates would be wise to anticipate problems, plan thoughtfully, and proceed with care.
From the January/February 2006 issue of Diversity & The Bar®