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My Problem With Legal Mentoring And How To Fix It With Two Small Changes

If your law firm wants to make an impact in your law firm in the areas of associate well-being, retention, professional opportunities and development, or organizational community and loyalty, one of the most common tools to reach for is mentoring. As a practice, formal mentoring programs recognize the systemic obstacles marginalized and minority groups face in a profession that has grown up without their participation. Opportunities to participate at the highest levels rely on both skill and network -- in order to find and reach those opportunities -- and mentorship programs are meant to give participants access to the knowledge and network that brings professional advancement within reach. It's a noble goal and these programs can yield great results. But I've written before (here and here on the blog; here at Law Practice Today) about my preference for programs and leadership development efforts that focus on law firm culture.


The real problem with law firm mentorship programs is that they are designed to give a 1:1 benefit. A mentor partner meets with a mentee associate and passes on their version of 'the wisdom of the ages.' Certainly, the ideal is that as the relationship is developed, the mentor not only gives the mentee the inside scoop about how to navigate the firm but also passes on useful advice about how to grow as a lawyer and is willing to act as an advocate and sponsor for the mentee. All of this is good and valuable, but it is all of primary benefit to a single mentee.

In most mentorship programs, we compound the narrowness of the benefit by seeking and assigning mentors with a goal of finding a demographic match with the mentee. We find a partner who identifies as LGBTQ+ to mentor our new trans attorney. A woman to mentor the associate coming back from maternity leave. A Black partner to mentor our new Black associate. You get the idea.


The intent behind establishing these sorts of mentoring relationships is a good one - to connect marginalized and minority team members with 'similar' successful exemplars. But with this model we're unconsciously doing four things that are detrimental to the goals of these mentoring programs (in addition to limiting the benefit to a single mentee).


First, we're depriving the mentor of a richer relationship and the opportunity to learn as well as teach in that relationship. Great mentors recognize that they have nearly as much to learn in a mentor relationship as the mentee they're working with. Even so, it can be hard to remember that when the mentee you're working with is so similar to you. You can see your own history in them, and that gives you the sense of thoroughly knowing and understanding where they've been and how they can succeed. Working with someone whose experience has been different from yours forces you to be more thoughtful about how you describe your successes or suggest ways for your mentee to reach the same level. To do it right, you have to be more curious, and that curiosity can open the door to new perspectives. Mentoring someone who is demographically dissimilar creates an opportunity for leaders to reassess their own beliefs in the service of their mentee and with the goal of strengthening the firm.


We're also (inadvertently) perpetuating an assumption that 'similar' people naturally fit together. But guess what? Sometimes [fill in the blank] folks don't automatically get along. As a Black attorney, I can speak for myself -- and I think my experience as a human being is pretty representative -- I don't like or get along with every Black person I've ever met. Same goes for While folks I've crossed paths with. And women, LGBTQ+ folks, neurodiverse peers and colleagues, etc. And I'm sure the feeling has been mutual on occasion. If I only get to mentor Black associates, we're starting from an emphasis on difference between demographic groups, and I'm not convinced the use of difference in this way is positive.


In addition, we're pinning success of the marginalized or minority members of our team on them rather than taking fuller responsibility as a firm for creating equal opportunities for success. In many organizations -- especially over the last three years -- mentoring programs have sprung up in a vacuum. Without other systemic or programmatic efforts, one-off mentoring programs look and feel like an effort to be seen doing something. Unless the organization and its leaders taken ownership of the state of their organization's culture, change is dependent on the people who are often themselves working to get a seat (or the next seat) at the table. When that doesn't happen, organizations can point to siloed mentorship programs and say, "at least we tried."


Finally, within the structure of the firm, we're also perpetuating an organizational habit of keeping marginalized and diverse representation at (or near) present day levels. There is an unspoken assumption that one purpose of mentorship is to find and groom a successor. Limiting mentorship relationships to 'similar' demographic pairings creates and unspoken expectation that "this minority partner is enough, and that one will be available to replace them when the time is right." Breaking out of this mentorship silo makes it possible for the future slate of partners to be from any part of our demographic palette. When we stop operating in narrow demographic lanes, diversity has more room to take root.


With all the good that comes from mentoring, the challenges I've touched on suggest the need for change. I recommend two.


1. Cross-community mentorship. Move away from making mentorship assignments based on same-group similarities. This opens up broader opportunities for the mentee to learn from a potentially different perspective, but also for the mentor to learn about challenges and experiences that come with being a marginalized or minority attorney in a predominantly White male profession. As I noted above, the mentor-mentee relationship should be one that benefits both people. One of the greatest benefits a mentee can offer their mentor is new insight and perspective. Not only are those things useful in helping senior leaders in the law firm practice the skills of continuous learning, but they can also use that curiosity and ability to see and appreciate different perspectives in client relationships. And implementing this can be as simple as removing demographic 'match' from the factors used to assign mentors. Instead focus on professional background and the mentee's goals.


2. Peer group cohorts. One of the clear benefits of 'same-group' mentoring is the higher likelihood of understanding the experience of practicing law similarly. To retain that benefit and to provide marginalized and minority attorneys a 'safe space' to process their experience, law firms should implement cohort-based peer groups. An excellent way to do this is to leverage the community and organization of employee resource groups (ERG)/affinity groups. Empowering these groups with a few extra resources (money for programming; billable hour credits; etc.) can help them establish less formal or less structured opportunities to process, share, and incorporate the experience of individual members and to share relevant information and tips from their mentors. (Sharing what comes out of the mentor relationship should, of course, only be in the context of mutual understanding between mentor and mentee about the privacy of those conversations.) Peer mentoring cohorts further amplify the benefits of 'cross-group' mentoring, especially when facilitated by senior participants in the affinity group/ERG. And our hybrid, geographically disperse experience gives us familiarity with tools (like Zoom, Teams, etc.) that make building a dispersed community even easier.

To take these ideas to the next level, your firm can design symmetry between the formal mentor relationship and the peer group cohort by publishing a recommended syllabus of issues to discuss throughout the year. Quarterly focus issues probably set a good pace, give everyone a chance to touch on the issues and take a deep dive if they like, but also feel like they can do more than give lip service to a particular topic and even have time to run a bit afield to new topics without feeling tied to a rigid structure or forced to move faster. Monthly topics look good on paper but are easily overcome by events, leaving a lot undone.


Implementing these changes -- cross-community mentor relationships and peer group cohorts -- will strengthen your mentorship programs, create mutually beneficial mentorship relationships, and amplify the benefits of mentoring beyond the 1:1 relationship.


To talk more about how you can import these ideas into your firm, create a more collaborative and inclusive law firm culture, or take your individual leadership to new levels, drop me an email or set up a call to talk. I'd love to hear what's working for you and your firm and discuss ways to build on that success.

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