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.
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.
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 http://www.mcca.com/site/data/researchprograms/GoldPathways/index.shtml.
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. http://www.chicagobar.org/calltoaction/default.htm
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 http://mcca.com/site/data/magazine/diversity_magazine/, and the initiative will soon have its own website, www.CLOCalltoAction.com.
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:
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). http://www.mentoring-association.org/2005Confr.html
April 26 -"First-Year Associate Alternatives That Pay Off for Your Firm," IOMA, Audio Conference (audio conference for law firm administrators). http://www.ioma.com/audioconferences/421.html
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 http://www.profdev.com/05DiversitySurvey.html. For information about the Professional Development Quarterly, go to http://www.profdev.com/period.htm.
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 www.tenminutementor.com, it contains more than 100 online videos that cover substantive law, ethics, personal development and law practice management in 10-minute presentations.
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 http://www.innovactionaward.com.