How mentorship supports diversity in the legal profession

Kara Wen | July 20, 2022 | Articles

Mentorship programs provide ways to support and grow diverse talent. Employees who have a mentor to guide their professional development are more likely to stay at your organization. In fact, retention rates are 50% higher for those with a mentor than those without, according to Training Magazine.

This is especially true for people of color, women, LGBTQIA+ folks, people from low-income backgrounds, and those with disabilities who have historically been left out across firms and in-house teams — and still are.

After surveying 225 law firms, the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) concluded that little progress has been made since 2010 to improve the representation of minority groups in law offices. 2021’s results show:

  • The number of Black/African American attorneys grew by less than 1%.
  • The number of female attorneys grew by less than 5%.
  • 0% of those surveyed reported to be non-binary, and only 3.9% said they were a part of the LGBTQ+ community,

Targeted mentorships can help address these disparities head-on and help people from marginalized communities advance in the legal profession.

Gives underrepresented lawyers a career advocate

All law students come out of school with a solid legal education, but not everyone has the support to navigate a legal career. Juan Arteaga, partner and diversity council co-chair at Crowell & Moring LLP, put it simply in an article for Columbia Law School, “Associates of color do not have access to enough mentors and sponsors who have firsthand knowledge of the unique challenges they face within Big Law and who can help them achieve their professional goals.”

That’s compared to children of lawyers who are 17x more likely to go into law than another profession and often have a built-in “guidance counselor” — mom or dad. Mentorship can help bridge the equity gap by creating a bona fide initiative to give people from underrepresented backgrounds the information and network needed to grow their careers.

Regular meetings with a dedicated professional who has the time and capacity to instruct and advocate for a person’s career growth are critical. A good career advocate will identify the mentee’s goals, provide regular feedback on their performance, and identify opportunities for growth. And most importantly, they will leverage their influence within the organization to help them achieve their dreams.

Whether or not the mentor is from a minority group themselves can make a big difference, too. As Arteaga mentions, white men are unlikely to intimately know the challenges a Hispanic female lawyer faces, for example, so it’s important to match-make carefully. If you can, pair up folks from similar backgrounds, but if you can’t, then you’ll need to train your team on topics like cultural sensitivity, so they can approach the relationship with a high degree of empathy and understanding.

Puts allyship to practice

Mentorship programs set an example for leaders and employees across organizations to advocate for colleagues from marginalized backgrounds. By affirming the unique challenges diverse lawyers face in the industry — and actively working on behalf of individuals to fight these challenges — your company will encourage allyship.

Allyship, as defined by the Anti-Oppression Network, is an active and consistent process of unlearning racist norms and when people of privilege work in solidarity with marginalized groups.

Mentorship formalizes allyship by pairing underrepresented lawyers with leaders who have power and influence. This can involve small steps, like reviewing a cover letter or writing a letter of recommendation, or bigger actions, like advocating for a promotion for the mentee or finding them a role outside their current organization. Above all, a good mentor and ally acknowledges the struggle of underrepresented lawyers and works to change it.

“Allies can also demonstrate support by creating a safe space for attorneys to be their authentic selves, normalizing mental health and wellness issues, and suggesting diverse attorneys to be speakers or panelists,” Sharon Meit Abrahams and Jasmine E. Guy, two DEI experts, wrote in an article for Thomson Reuters.

Ultimately, allyship is critical to building a positive, supportive work environment and retaining diverse talent. By encouraging strong allyship through mentorship, you’re creating a workplace that fosters meaningful connections and values people’s authentic selves.

Prepares underrepresented talent to become leaders

A consistent and lasting relationship with a mentor can improve the pipeline of diverse talent to legal roles outside of law firms and accelerate the path for outstanding talent to become partners and firm leaders. Mentorship supports underrepresented talent from the beginning of their career by equipping them with the tools they need to succeed in the early stages.

Law firms and corporate legal departments have improved diversity when it comes to the number of diverse young associates and new hires, which has increased over the past decade. Where they struggle the most to promote diverse talent is with equity partners and leaders. 88% of all partners in the 2021 Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) Law Firm Diversity Survey identify as White or Caucasian.

This presents problems for everyone in the industry. First, it’s a challenge for in-house teams because they often seek more senior lawyers from law firms to fill in-house roles, which means they’re dealing with a less diverse pool of potential candidates. This also means their partners and leadership teams aren’t reflecting the make-up of the associates they hire. This is made particularly challenging because many corporations are requiring that their outside counsel be a diverse group.

Organizations can identify young, diverse talent and pair them with a senior leader early on in their career. That way, they can receive regular feedback and learn key leadership skills. When diverse talent can grow in their careers, there are more well-prepared lawyers from all facets of the population in leadership positions. Having more diverse mid-career talent at your organization can lead to more diverse leaders across the company.

Diversity in the legal profession must improve

When talent from underrepresented backgrounds is paired with seasoned leaders, companies are equipping them with the tools and professional networks they need to grow their careers. They’re also given an advocate, someone who can recommend them for a promotion or point them toward opportunities to become the very best at their role.

To hire and retain diverse talent for the long run, both law firms and in-house teams need mentorship programs that pair mentors and mentees carefully, dedicate time for mentors and mentees to meet consistently, and measure mentorship outcomes, like mentee satisfaction and employee retention, to assess the program’s effectiveness. With a solid program in place, you’ll support greater diversity within your own in-house team while building and retaining top talent.

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