Issue 10, Spring 2005



Mentoring Programs for Minority Lawyers

Diversity Calls to Action

Case Study: Retain Associates Through Appropriate Assignments

Upcoming Speaking Engagements

Resources: Diversity and Training

InnovAction Awards

Dear Colleague:

Mentoring and diversity are receiving a great deal of attention in the legal profession these days. This issue will look at one area where the two directly intersect: in mentoring programs specifically designed for minority lawyers. This is a highly controversial topic, and law firms have generally been reluctant to try such programs. However, firms committed to keeping and advancing minority lawyers recognize that these lawyers frequently have a hard time developing mentoring relationships naturally, especially if the firm has few partners or senior associates who are minorities. A growing number of firms want to ensure that these associates have mentors and are initiating programs specifically for them. For firms moving in that direction, this issue will provide some guidance.

Two recent "Calls to Action" seek to promote law firm diversity. One comes from the Chicago Bar Association and the other from corporate counsel across the country.

Our case study deals with the importance of keeping associates engaged and productive by making sure the work they do is appropriate for their experience and professional strengths. When a partner or manager is designated to monitor work assignments, the firm can correct poor work situations that might lead to a regrettable departure by a valuable associate.

I will be speaking at several programs this spring to audiences of psychotherapists, international leaders in the field of mentoring, and nursing professionals. I will also lead an audio conference for law firm administrators on first-year associate profitability.

The resources featured in this issue include a survey on diversity programs in law firms and a website that offers free online educational videos for new lawyers.

Law firms are not usually known for innovative practices, so when they do forge new paths, it is important to recognize them. If you know of any firms that are doing new things, or doing old things in a new and better way, nominate them for one of the 2005 InnovAction Awards.

 Mentoring Programs for Racial and Ethnic Minorities

The proven value of mentoring as a process for developing, retaining and advancing lawyers is generating interest in mentoring programs for minority lawyers. Such programs assign formal mentors to lawyers who, because of their minority status, often have more difficulty finding mentors informally. Since mentoring is particularly important for minority lawyers' success within an organization, many firms are making mentoring a centerpiece of their diversity initiatives. The reasoning behind such programs is that effective mentoring relationships can help minority lawyers become capable, valued, respected and accepted in the firm, which makes them more likely to remain and advance to partnership.

Too many minority associates run into problems early in their law firm experience that if left unattended, lead to high rates of attrition. Often these problems result from feelings of isolation, alienation, or a lack of "connectedness" to others in the firm. Sometimes they relate to performance issues that could be corrected with feedback and direction. 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." Mentoring programs for minority lawyers provide a personal connection to the firm, someone who is charged with keeping an eye on the associate's work assignments and work environment. Mentors do not guarantee an associate's success, but they are responsible for helping minority associates understand what it takes to succeed, reassuring these associates that the firm wants them to succeed, and eliminating 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 these lawyers. But firms that are contemplating a mentoring program for minority lawyers need to proceed with caution. 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 are intended to offer some guidance.

1. 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, elegantly structured 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 those associates.

2. 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 own, 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, partners can better understand what is needed to make their firm more hospitable and supportive to minority lawyers - and they are more likely to act on that knowledge.

3. 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 is 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. Those lawyers may not want or need a special program. Even in firms where such programs were instituted at the request of some minority associates, other minority associates have rejected the program or simply chosen not to participate.

4. 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 necessarily 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 and 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 personal, individual needs. They may be overly conscious of their racial or ethnic differences instead of looking for what they have in common
  • 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 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 deficiencies allows the fundamental management problems to persist.

5. 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. Many firms ask associates to specify any race, gender, or other preferences they may have regarding the mentors with whom they will be paired.
  • 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. 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 specific to their minority status.
  • Teach minority associates how to find and build informal mentoring relationships.
  • Sponsor affinity groups through which lawyers with common interests or characteristics (e.g., 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 (e.g., through minority or specialty bar associations that have mentoring programs).

Additional information about diversity and mentoring can be found in the report that Dr. Rita Boags and I co-authored for the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, Mentoring Across Differences: A Guide to Cross-Gender and Cross-Race Mentoring, at

 Diversity Calls to Action

The legal profession has long acknowledged the importance of diversity, at least in principle. For years bar associations have adopted policies intended to achieve greater law firm diversity. One recent initiative is the "Call to Action" issued by the Chicago Bar Association Alliance for Women, which seeks to promote women's leadership in the legal profession by committing firms to increase the number of women in partnership and leadership roles.

A second, more far-reaching diversity initiative, "A Call to Action: Diversity in the Legal Profession," asks corporate law departments to compel law firms to take action to increase the number of women and minority lawyers they hire and retain. This Call to Action was spearheaded by Roderick Palmore, General Counsel of Sara Lee, in 2004. He issued it out of frustration at the failure of law firms to make meaningful progress in diversifying their ranks, despite years of promises. Through this initiative, we may start to see some real movement at last because the pressure to diversify is coming from where it really counts - from clients. Corporate counsel signing the Call to Action agree to require outside firms to prove their commitment to diversity. Unlike previous diversity initiatives, this one has some teeth: signatories vow that they will give more business to diverse firms and "end or limit" their relationships with firms "whose performance consistently evidences a lack of meaningful interest in being diverse." As of January 2005, 73 companies have signed on. The text of this Call to Action appears in an article at, and the initiative will soon have its own website,

 Case Study

Firms often lose talented associates because they fail to ensure that the associate receives challenging, interesting, and developmentally appropriate work. Firms that pay attention to junior lawyers' work experience will increase the chance that they will stay longer and perform at a higher level. An incident at one of my client firms is illustrative.

A 5th year litigation associate was an outstanding performer. She possessed solid legal skills; was exceptionally good at analyzing the facts of a case and planning the case strategy; was an effective team leader; and had excellent relations with clients.

This associate's time freed up unexpectedly when a case settled. She was assigned to work on a group of small cases involving alleged financial mismanagement by a bank. The cases were neither complicated nor factually interesting, and she was the only associate working on them. They required sifting through a lot of documents, mostly accounting records. The supervising partner instructed the associate not to contact the bank's counsel directly, so she had little interaction with the client. The associate felt she was stagnating in this assignment; she became bored, frustrated, and unhappy.

Fortunately, as part of the firm's retention initiative, this associate was able to go to the partner who monitored associate work assignments. The monitoring partner agreed that this assignment was not the best use of the associate's abilities and worked with her to resolve the situation. He helped her figure out how to get the supervising partner on the bank cases to give some of the work to a paralegal and to give the associate more client contact. These steps made the case more interesting for her. He also made sure that her next assignment was more challenging and better suited to her talents.

This situation highlighted three important points for retaining associates:

Keep the work interesting. Associates should receive responsibilities and challenges commensurate with their abilities and readiness for growth. This does not mean that associates should be excused from dull or less difficult jobs, but that boring work should be kept to a minimum.

Play to associate strengths. Associates who demonstrate particular skills should be allowed to hone those skills. When people do work that excites them, their performance is more likely to excel. Someone like this associate, who is good with people, facts, and "big picture" thinking, will be more motivated and engaged when working on factually interesting matters; lawyers with a greater propensity for analyzing the fine points of documents or financial data may be more motivated in cases that involve more precise, detailed study.

Act promptly to protect your talent. This associate's frustration could easily have led to an early departure. Because the firm had someone in place to help her deal with her difficult work situation, they were able to maintain her trust and loyalty.


My speaking engagements this spring include the following:

April 7 - 18th Annual International Mentoring Association Conference, Oakland, California (presentation on mentoring and diversity in the legal profession for an audience consisting mainly of business, education, and community-based mentoring groups from around the world).

April 26 -"First-Year Associate Alternatives That Pay Off for Your Firm," IOMA, Audio Conference (audio conference for law firm administrators).

May 6 - "From the Law Firm to the Couch: What Drives Lawyers to Therapy," Kansas City Association for Psychoanalytic Psychology, Kansas City, MO (helping psychotherapists better understand the work environment and pressures facing their lawyer patients).

June 21 and 22 - Mentoring Symposium for Nurse Managers, Experienced Nurse Preceptors, Clinical Educators, and Patient Care Service Administrators, Kaiser Permanente Regional Patient Care Services, San Ramon, California.


Survey of Law Firm Diversity Programs. The February 2005 issue of Professional Development Quarterly reports Part 1 of the results of a survey of law office diversity programs. In that issue, Evelyn Gaye Mara describes the status, goals and objectives of law firm diversity programs, and the methods firms use to achieve their objectives. Part 2 of the survey findings, which will be published in the May 2005 issue, will discuss the forces driving law firm diversity efforts and the results firms have achieved so far. This survey presents an excellent, comprehensive overview that should be of interest to every law firm involved in or contemplating a diversity initiative. The Executive Summary of Part 1 can be found at For information about the Professional Development Quarterly, go to

Online Educational Videos for New Lawyers. The Texas Young Lawyers Association recently launched an online resource for junior lawyers. Known as the "Ten Minute Mentor" program, and available at, it contains more than 100 online videos that cover substantive law, ethics, personal development and law practice management in 10-minute presentations.

 InnovAction Awards

If someone you know has done something innovative in legal services, give them credit! The College of Law Practice Management, in concert with Edge International, is seeking nominations for the 2005 InnovAction Awards, which honor lawyers, law firms, and legal services providers anywhere in the world who have "invented and successfully applied totally new business practices to the delivery of legal services." There are four categories of awards: client service, new market creation, knowledge management, and leadership. For further information, see


©2005 Ida Abbott Consulting