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Retaining Diversity Through Mentoring: Theory And Practice 

by Ms. Margaret Costello

Published: March, 2007

Submission: May, 2007


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.” 
Assigning a mentor often results in a few lunches between two people who may or may not have anything in common. In order to be successful, a mentoring culture must be established that will be rewarding for attorneys in the workplace.  

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?”
Mentoring in the legal profession has been described as, “the means by which the legacy of intergenerational excellence is bequeathed. It involves a uniquely qualitative dimension by which the mentee acquires not just the science but the elusive art of lawyering. It is how one learns the unwritten but often outcome dispositive protocols of the profession.”2

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
The following list identifies the critical components of a successful mentoring program and the role that mentors must be willing to assume to ensure that success:
• Leadership and support from upper management.
• Input from the associate/junior attorney in selecting the mentor.
• Regular meetings between the mentor and mentee.
• An open and honest relationship between the mentor and mentee.
• Confidentiality in the mentoring relationship.
• Commitment of both parties to the mentoring relationship and to the success of the mentee.
• Activities designed to build a network of mentors for the mentee, including introductions to contacts in the legal and business community.
• Facilitation in discussing race and gender issues.
• Education/training for all lawyers about mentoring.
• Written guidelines and goals/expectations for mentors and mentees.
• Encouragement/facilitation of informal mentoring.
• Inclusion of a group mentoring component (lunches, seminars or other group opportunities for discussion of specific issues related to mentoring).
• Early involvement of interns, summer associates and new hires in the mentoring program.
• Coordination, oversight, and monitoring of the mentoring programs, including regularly scheduled training/feedback/discussion sessions for the mentor.
• Confidential exit and post-exit interviews for attorneys who leave.
• Meaningful recognition of mentors for participation in the mentoring program.
• The mentor must be willing to make a minimum two-year commitment to the relationship; although the mentoring relationship can be terminated if it is not working.
• The mentor must be a positive role model.
• The mentor must be a technical advisor.
• The mentor must be an advocate/ champion, both within and outside the firm or corporation.
• The mentor must work with the mentee on a professional development plan aimed at the progression and success of the mentee.
• The mentor must identify any problem areas or “red flags” and assist with remediation/intervention. 

Considerations for mentoring minority attorneys.
Effective mentoring often is considered more critical for minority attorneys because they may come from backgrounds different from those who historically have been in positions of power at law firms and corporations. There is at least the perception that there is a “culture” in law firms, to some extent, in corporations, and that it is harder for attorneys of color and for women to break into that culture. There is some divergence of opinion as to the importance of same-race or same-sex mentors. As a practical matter, there currently are not sufficient attorneys of color, and in many cases, women attorneys, to make a samesex and/or same-race match possible.

Nevertheless, it appears that race and sex matter, and must be taken into account in any effective mentoring relationship. In his article, “The Truth bout Mentoring Minorities – Race Matters,” David Thomas points out that, “research shows that crossrace (as well as cross-gender) relationships can have difficulty forming, developing, and maturing.”6

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
As a mentor with a mentee interested in specializing in the area of product liability litigation, it is important for the mentor to find opportunities for his mentee to observe respected product liability lawyers practicing their art. Mentees should be given the opportunity to observe experienced product liability attorneys taking and defending depositions, working with experts, arguing motions and trying cases. It is also important to identify specialized groups and organizations which offer opportunities for professional growth and networking with other product liability lawyers. One example of such a specialized group is the ABA’s Product Liability Committee of the Section of Litigation. It is often helpful for a mentor to accompany the less experienced product liability attorney to such meetings, introduce him, and promote him. To further assist a young lawyer in developing their niche in the field of product liability, a mentor should assist with the development of their mentee’s professional skills and experience, provide the mentee with opportunities to work on product liability cases in a significant role, and take the time to introduce and promote the mentee to clients.

The successful implementation of a firm-wide or corporate-wide mentoring program requires an investment of time and resources. Although the evidence is primarily anecdotal, it is believed that a comprehensive and monitored mentoring program results in the retention of talented diverse attorneys and the creation of a workplace environment with greater career satisfaction and higher morale.

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 – Chicago, Illinois; Washington, D.C.; San Francisco, California; and Houston, Texas.
2 Cooper, C. G. & Strouss, C.O., Trends in Law Firm. Pro Bono I:Synergy at the Intersection of Diversity and Pro Bono, 56-57What’s New In Law Firm Pro Bono, 1,6 (2004).
3 Schuyler, N., Beyond the Basics of Mentoring: What Makes It Work, MCCA Skills Development (2003), available at www.mcca.com/site/date/inhouse/skillsdevelopment/mentoring.htm.
4 Lloyd M. Johnson, Jr., Sandra Phillips: The Five Dimensions of Mentoring, available at http://www.mcca.com/site/data/magazine/ 2005-07/mentoring0705.shtml.
5 It is acknowledged that “mentee” is not found in the dictionary. However, as it has been used in other publications; I will take the liberty of using it here.
6 Thomas, D.A., The Truth About Mentoring Minorities – Race Matters, Harvard Business Review (April 2001) 26.

Margaret A. Costello is a member of the Detroit office of Dykema Gossett PLLC, where she practices in the areas of litigation and dispute resolution, including bankruptcy and international litigation.

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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