Retaining Diversity Through Mentoring: Theory And Practice
It is generally accepted that mentoring is important to the retention and professional development of attorneys – particularly minority attorneys. However, despite touting their mentoring programs, it appears that few, if any, law firms and corporations “get it right.”
While it is true that most successful women attorneys and attorneys of color will point to mentoring relationships as critical to their success, such mentoring relationships have not been achieved on a large scale by law firm or corporate programs. A study conducted by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA®) concluded that there were few (if any) minority attorneys at the partner level who acted as mentors in the representative law firms.
Thus, minority associates (and in many cases, women associates) lacked access to those who could act as mentors and advocates for their upward mobility – i.e., those who had “been there” and therefore were “vital sources of information, strategy, advice, encouragement, desirable assignments” and could provide “access to informal networks.”1 Nevertheless, effective mentoring relationships do exist in law firms and corporations, and these relationships are often cross-race and cross-gender in nature.
What is a “mentor?”
Mentors have been described as advisors, role models, sponsors, champions, coaches, teachers and friends. Successful attorneys who refer to their mentors describe them in a variety of ways. One point of view is that a mentor should be a technical and/or stylistic advisor, and that other individuals should serve as sponsor or coach.3 It is generally agreed upon that at least one mentor is essential and multiple mentors are beneficial.
In a recent interview for Diversity and the Bar, 4 Sandra Phillips, Sr. Vice President and Associate General Counsel at Pfizer, Inc., described her relationship with two key mentors and emphasized that a common thread in effective mentoring is a personal investment in the success of the person being mentored, i.e., the mentor must see herself as a stakeholder in the career of her mentee.5 Ms. Philips believes that the key to effective mentoring relationships is to have a number of different mentors.
Critical components of an effective mentoring program
Considerations for mentoring minority attorneys.
He acknowledges, nevertheless, that mentoring often must be across race and gender, and believes that such mentoring can be effective if the people involved are aware of, and work to overcome, potential obstacles. In cross-race and cross-gender mentoring relationships, the parties must understand and acknowledge that race or sex is a potential barrier, and openly discuss such issues. In such relationships, the mentor should pay particular attention to his/her limitations to serving as a role model, and help the person being mentored to identify other appropriate people, and to help build a large diverse network of relationships. This includes relationships with individuals more junior than the person being mentored, as well as with peers and supervisors.
Mr. Thomas also discusses an interesting phenomenon which may account, at least in part, for the exodus of promising minorities. He has found that whites tend to “fast track” early, while minorities often need more time and nurturing at a mid-level before they eventually “catch up,” provided they stay motivated and do not leave. Although this finding is based on research involving managers and executives in corporate settings, it may have some application to lawyers in large firms and corporations.
Considerations for mentoring minority and women product liability lawyers
1 Creating Pathways to Diversity: A Set of Recommended Practices for Law Firms (2000), available at www.mcca.com. Focus groups of law firm attorneys were conducted in four major regional cities –
This article was first published in Products Liability Newsletter of the Section of Litigation’s Committee on Products Liability Litigation, Volume 18, No. 1, Winter 2007. © 2007 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.
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