The executives reported that their mentors were very helpful in advocating for their upward mobility and explaining and introducing them to informal networks.
In February, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. gave the opening remarks at the conference of chief justices of state supreme Courts. At one point in his speech, he noted that for many people law is now a symbol of exclusion rather than empowerment. He was commenting specifically on the criminal justice system and other social conditions such as landlord/tenant disputes, and domestic violence.
But he could have easily turned his gaze to the legal profession itself and made the same comments. The legal profession is more than 92 percent white, although the population is 30 percent people of color. Last year in New York of the 190 lawyers who made partner, only 11 were minorities.
Most firms are familiar with the grim numbers, but few know what to do about it. There are a handful of firms, however, that have locked onto mentoring as a way to recruit and retain lawyers of color, and they have a recent study to back up their approach.
A 1998 study by Korn Ferry and Columbia Business School study, Diversity in the Executive Suite: Creating Successful Career Paths and Strategies, found that minorities executives at the top Fortune service and industry companies who received formal or informal mentoring led experienced significantly faster and total compensation growth.
The study included 280 participants who made at least $100,000 a year in base salary. The executives included 161 African Americans, 63 Asian Americans, 43 Hispanic and 13 identify themselves as other. Seventy-six percent were men; 24 percent were women. Seventy one percent had informal mentors; 22 percent had formal mentors, typically white males in both cases.
The executives reported that their mentors were very helpful in advocating for their upward mobility and explaining and introducing them to informal networks. “The most important action of my informal mentor is offering continuous, honest and direct feedback on major business issues,” wrote one participant.
What is a mentor?
The concept of mentoring can easily become an amorphous, touchy-feely category. Wanda Cumberlander, vice president of diversity practice at Hubbard & Reco-Cohen Inc. in Virginia, a human resources consulting firm specializing in human resources issues, says that if the definition of a mentor is unclear, it’s likely that someone—either the mentor or the mentee—will not be happy with the relationship. Cumberlander, who has worked with three Fortune 200 companies and several law departments, employs a clear definition of mentor.
“A mentor is someone who becomes your technical and/or stylistic advisor,” she explains. In this context, style means the approach that is appropriate in a particular situation. “In some situations it’s better to use a more assertive approach,” she says. “In other situations, it pays to be more thoughtful. Your mentor should be able to help you craft an approach.”
Cumberlander differentiates the role of a mentor from a sponsor. “A sponsor is a higher level person in the organization who helps you, promotes you, and markets you,” she says. “A sponsor is someone who opens doors.” It is common for a company to establish a formal mentoring program. To find a sponsor, however, you are typically left to your own devices.
There is a third party who can help attorneys of color succeed: A coach who helps you execute strategies provided by your mentor or sponsor. This person could be a peer or a superior. A coach understands the political climate and helps you to develop tactics to pursue a promotion or a change in the organization.
Cumberlander says that few companies or firms identify formal coaches for their employees. But you can take the initiate and approach someone. “Be frank with the person” she says. “Tell that person she or he has talents that you admire and that you’d like to develop a coaching relationship with them.”
What Constitutes Effective Mentoring?
There are several components that go into the creation of an effective mentoring program, but the most important, says Cumberlander, is support for the program from top management. “Support from senior management gives the program credibility,” says Cumberlander.
While many mentoring relationships evolve informally, Cumberlander says that those that are formalized, with a well-thought out structure, are more effective. Factors to consider for a more formal program include how people are recruited for the program and how to match mentors with mentees. External factors between a mentor and mentee does not necessarily mean that the match won’t work. “Different externalities, such as race or gender, means that you may find that the mentor and mentee have been socialized differently,” she says. That may lead to difficulties in communication. If you run into problems Cumberlander says to address it directly. “Tell the person, ‘we’re having communication problems, I’m saying something different from what you are hearing,” she says. “Find a way to talk about the differences.”
The program should also include a training component and evaluation process. Most importantly, the mentor should convey to the mentee the informal rules of success and information about internal politics. Other topics include background information on key players and serving as a sounding board. It also helps if the firm recognizes the work of the mentor and mentees.
Finally a successful program includes willing mentors. “Mentors should want to be part of the process,” she says. “They should be competent and accessible.”
Mentor and Mentee: From Teacher/student to peer to peer
For the past ten years, Jane DiRenzo Pigott and her friend have had lunch together. Pigott, head of the environmental law department at Winston & Strawn in Chicago, and her friend an associate general counsel at client of Pigott’s, are peers who respect and admire each other’s work. Over lunch,. they discuss their lives, including legal and business strategies.
Their relationship, however, didn’t start out on such equal footing. Pigott was a partner when her friend came to work at the firm where Pigott chaired the Environmental law department. The two were working on a case together when a mentor-mentee relationship organically took form.
“My mentee was a very competent, substantive lawyer, but she did not engender the confidence of clients,” says Pigott. For instance, the young associate would often introduce herself to clients and tell them that she was a first year associate.
Pigott took her mentee under her wing, and told her about the informal rules of success at a firm, including engendering confidence among clients. “This is one of the most important topics that a mentor and mentee can discuss,” says Pigott. She also let her mentee see her in action. :”I learned quickly that I can’t just say, be like me or do this,” says Pigott. “It’s more effective if you can show your mentee what works for you and what doesn’t.”
Pigott them made arrangements for her mentee to be involved in meetings with a number of new clients so she could see Pigott’s style of engendering client confidences. To expose her to different styles and approaches to the same issue, Pigott also created opportunities for her mentee to see others in action.
Over the course of her own legal career, Pigott has sought out and had many mentors. Pigott earned her J.D. from the University of North Carolina in 1981 and became a litigator. She’d always enjoyed the physical sciences so when environmental law became a separate practice area, it was a natural fit to move from litigation to environmental law. “Most of my mentors have been white men,” she says. “And most of the relationships grew out of work situations.” She realized how much she benefited from having people willing to include her in the discussions about strategies as opposed to merely giving her the assignments relating to tactics on substantive issues. With that in mind, and with her experience with her mentee, Pigott formed a formal mentoring program within the environmental law department at Winston & Strawn.
“The program came out of forming individual career plans for the lawyers in my department,” she says. “I wanted senior people to be invested in the success of the younger lawyers.” When forming the program, Pigott kept in mind that people naturally gravitate to mentoring people who look like them. “When putting together a program, you have to consciously think about mentoring in a broader sense and give everyone in the department a reason to mentor someone they otherwise may not have,” she says.
One of the most important roles of the mentor, says Pigott is to act as a sounding board for the mentee. “It’s a chance for the mentee to check his or her judgment,” she says. Other important topics that the mentor can discuss include how to be perceived as a leader, how to position yourself for the next step in your career, and how be viewed as a player in the community. “That last one gets overlooked,” says Pigott. “And yet having a presence in the community results ultimately in having all the business you need.”
Pigott also initiated and organized the firm’s first Women’s Business Development Conference in 1996 with a second one planned for March 2001 to bring brought together all women partners and associates from the firms’ offices to discuss retention and promotion issues. Pigott was honored by the Chicago Bar Association in July with the Founders Award. The award salutes women in the law who have significantly contributed to the advancement of women in the profession or other areas, who have promoted communication, collegiality and support for positive change, and whose careers exemplify the highest level of professional achievement, ethics and excellence.
“I don’t know where women were when the rules of the game were handed out,” she says. “For example, women feel like they are imposing when they ask for your business. I feel strongly that I have an obligation to help women by passing along whatever rules I’ve learned so that they can play the game better and sooner than I did.”
McGuireWoods LLP: Law Firm as Mentor
McGuireWoods LLP in Atlanta has taken the concept of mentoring out into the community.
Several years ago, the firm established a mentoring program with Spellman College, an African American women’s college in Atlanta, in which a junior and a senior are selected yearly to work at the firm part time. As part of the program they receive in-depth mentoring from senior lawyers. Of the twelve who have completed the program, ten have gone on to law school.
“It’s a very competitive program,” says Gardner Courson, a partner at McGuireWoods.
The candidates must have a grade point average of 3.2 or above and demonstrate an interest in law. Chosen juniors earn $10 an hour; seniors $12 an hour. The law firm encourages the junior-level candidate to work through the summer months and continue with the firm through their senior year. Selected candidates are then given the opportunity to work for a full year after graduating from college as legal assistants at full salary. “About half of the women take us up on the full-year option,” says Courson.
The women assist with the paralegal function. They sit in on client meetings and, when possible, go to the courthouse to view trials. They are told about the informal rules of success, including such details as dress code for court and client presentations. The firm also helps the women locate jobs within the legal industry. The firm participates in job fairs, including BLSA Southeast Regional Job Fair in Atlanta, the BLSA Mid-Atlantic Job Fair in Washington D.C., and the DuPont Minority Job Fair in Delaware. Not everyone chooses to become a lawyer, but they all agree it is a valuable program.
“One Spellman woman told me that she grew up in South Central Los Angeles and the only lawyers she knew were the ones that got her uncle out of jail,” says Courson. The young woman added that she never would have considered working for a corporation–until she got to see how favorably the DuPont Company treated its employees. McGuireWoods is one of DuPont’s outside counsel.
The women have benefited and so has McGuireWoods. “We’ve gotten the satisfaction of helping people and identifying outstanding candidates,” says Courson. McGuireWoods has, over the years, hired three of their mentees. Once hired, the new employee can participate in the firm’s formal and informal mentoring programs.
For full-time litigation paralegals, the formal mentoring process centers around “trial teams.” In this structure, each member of the trial team has specific responsibility for preparing the defense of a case, and paralegals have meaningful responsibility. They also attend McGuireWoods’ annual paralegal retreat and participate in continuing education programs as well.
“It is clear that McGuireWoods’ Spellman Interns who go on to law school have a leg up on their classmates who have no law firm experience,” says Courson.
A Mentee Recalls her Earliest Mentor
Marsha E. Simms
Marsha E. Simms, a partner at Weil, Gotshal & Mange’s corporate department, has come a long way from her first days as an associate. But she hasn’t forgotten those days or the mentor who helped her.
As a first year associate at Shearman & Sterling in New York she was assigned to work on a case with a male partner. “We got along well and from there, he informally became my mentor,” she says.
The relationship lasted a little over a year until Simms switched to a different department. Her mentor gave her a great deal of guidance, letting her sit in his office and hear him speak to clients on the phone. or he’d carve out time to have coffee and discuss the informal rules of getting ahead or how to think about a legal issue. “There was a lot of direct teaching involved,” she says. “He quite enjoyed marking up my memos.”
Simms says she also learned how to find answers efficiently. “The focus of that early relationship was on working hard and doing well,” she recalls. ‘He was more likely to say if you want to get an assignment or work with those you want to, work hard and make yourself available.”
The Stanford Law School graduate took it to heart. “I learned a lot.” Her mentor would also help her with her workload. “If I was working on two things, one for him and something for someone else, and I couldn’t do both in the allotted time he’d talk to the other person and explain.”
Soon, she earned the respect of other partners and her peers. “My mentor, the man who I worked with a lot, was very demanding,” she says. “That I was able to work with him for a long time indicated I was doing well.”
Simms says she’s had other mentors along the way. “The more senior you are, the more your mentor is someone who helps you navigate and get the good work and meet the right clients. Your mentor should push you out there to prove yourself.”
The key to a good mentor/mentee relationship, she says, is that the two must like each other. Differences such as gender, race, religion matter much less than most people think, says Simms. “I think a mentor is someone who wants to help and has the time to do so” she says. “I’ve never had a black woman partner serve as a mentor, but that doesn’t mean I’ve lacked in mentoring. I’ve had terrific mentors.”
From the June 2001 issue of Diversity & The Bar®