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Diverse Attorneys Need Mentors and Sponsors Too (Perspective)

July 29, 2016, 3:36 PM

Editor’s Note: The author is a labor and employment lawyer.

By Yvette V. Gatling, Shareholder, Littler Mendelson, P.C.

As an African-American female attorney, one of the most important lessons I have learned is that the relationships formed throughout my career have helped sustain me the most. A March 2016 ABA Journal article highlighted the importance of engaging minority female attorneys in the workplace as 88 percent will quit large firms within seven years of starting their practice.

One of the reasons I have only worked at two firms — both of which were large — during my 18-year career is the mentors and sponsors I had. Although there are many reasons diverse attorneys leave large law firms, I have seen diverse attorneys who do not have mentors or sponsors leave more quickly than other attorneys. As diverse attorneys, those relationships may not always form naturally for us as we only make up 12 percent of the bar (ABA Lawyer Demographics). While some of the responsibility for minority retention falls on law firms, we as diverse attorneys also need to seek out those relationships to ensure our own professional longevity and success.

Diverse Attorneys Should Seek Mentors

As many firms and organizations have formal mentoring programs, a mentor may be assigned to you. Our firm has a Career Advocacy Program that matches rainmakers with our high potential associates. This has resulted in greater retention and promotion to partnership for these associates. If the assigned mentor relationship works for you, it can be very beneficial.

There are also mentorships that form informally. To develop these relationships, you must spend time getting to know people outside of work or on an informal basis. I am not suggesting that you go into an organization or meet someone and say ‘I’d like you to be my mentor.’ But, if you see someone who is in a position that you would like one day, they would make a great mentor for you. For example, if you want to be a rainmaker, get to know someone who is a rainmaker. Invite that person to lunch or coffee — ask about his or her path to success and let him or her know that you are interested in following that path. Everyone likes to talk about how they got where they are.

A mentoring relationship, however, should be a symbiotic relationship. You may think as a developing or inexperienced attorney that you have nothing to offer a mentor, but you do. You should get to know your mentor’s goals and interests. If you know someone that has similar goals and interests as your mentor, introduce that person to your mentor. If you read an article that you believe may be of interest to your mentor, forward it to him or her. If you hear of a business opportunity for your mentor, tell him or her about it. These types of actions will foster reciprocal returns and help nurture your relationship.

Additionally, you should be open to forming relationships with mentors who are different than you. While people tend to gravitate toward those who have more in common with them, you may have had the same experiences in the legal industry and similar perspectives. This is one of the strengths of having diversity in a law firm or organization. A mentor with different experiences may be able to introduce you to other leaders and individuals in the legal profession that you may have not had a chance to meet. My best mentor in my career is not someone that I likely would have met socially. He is a non-diverse attorney, and although we did not have the same experiences before working in law, he has always been someone with whom I can talk to about any issues in the law or related to my career.

Diverse Attorneys Also Need Sponsors

Every attorney needs sponsors. A sponsor is someone who speaks on your behalf when you are not in the room. A sponsor is the person advocating for you to be partner, equity partner, or suggesting you for the general counsel position. They may also suggest that you be appointed to a corporate board or speak on a panel. Some of your mentors may begin to act as sponsors once they form relationships with you and observe your work. A client may become your sponsor by recommending you to other clients.

As the statistics stated above demonstrate, the legal profession as a whole is not very diverse. Therefore, you may want to seek out sponsors who are not diverse, because there are not likely many diverse attorneys making decisions at the highest levels of organizations. My greatest sponsor has also been the mentor I described above. Although I have had many mentors, he has suggested me for projects and opportunities that I did not know existed and that have stretched my abilities.

Although we form relationships through daily life, I did not recognize how important relationships formed at each stage as a lawyer (e.g., mentee, mentor, sponsor) were until much later in my career. As diverse attorneys, it is integral to both our personal success and our ability to engage those coming up behind us that we take the initiative to form these crucial professional relationships.