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Diversity Leadership Council NewsletterThe newsletter of the ISBA’s Diversity Leadership Council

June 2010, vol. 4, no. 1

The Chicago Committee Mentorship Academy: A Model for Mentoring Diverse Associates

The shift from thinking about the law as an intellectual discipline to working in the law as a profession challenges many new associates. Mentoring can support associates through this transition by helping them develop the hard and soft skills required for successful legal practice and becoming familiar with the culture of the profession and of the firm. Unfortunately, diverse associates systematically receive less mentoring through informal or “organic” channels. This lack of mentoring is often cited as a primary reason hindering large law firms’ retention and advancement of associates of color.

Thus, diversity best practices commonly include formal mentoring programs that address the needs of diverse associates. Abundant resources—money, time, and expertise — have been invested in programs that connect diverse associates with more senior attorneys from both diverse and majority-culture backgrounds. These initiatives aim to provide these young lawyers with vital information about what it takes to be a successful lawyer, and to succeed in that firm. But despite these efforts, neither the quality of the experience of diverse associates, nor their retention rates, have improved substantially. Why isn’t the traditional mentoring model working?

We believe that mentoring has the capacity to create relationships, develop skills, and transfer information that can help diverse associates thrive within law firms. However, the traditional mentoring model rests on several assumptions:

(1) Senior lawyers are naturally invested in developing future leaders in the organization;

(2) Senior lawyers are talented at grooming future leaders in the organization; and

(3) Senior lawyers have (or will make) the time or right incentive structure to mentor young attorneys.

The limited impact of traditional mentoring programs calls these assumptions into question. We embarked on a mentoring experiment to see if we could generate positive, productive mentoring relationships by developing a program that rested on a more realistic foundation.

Under the direction of Lane Vanderslice, former Partner of Professional Development at Mayer Brown LLP, we designed a new model for mentoring that we hoped would address some of the shortcomings of traditional programs. The Chicago Committee Mentorship Academy launched in 2008, and is currently in its second year. The basic building block of the Mentorship Academy is a “mentoring triad”: a senior partner, a junior partner or senior associate, and a young associate, each from a different law firm. We chose triads (instead of pairs) to maximize learning as well as eliminate some of the awkwardness and pressure that can occur between mentoring pairs. Additionally, by matching people from different firms, we automatically create a layer of anonymity between triad members which we hope facilitates openness and trust. The Academy follows a 10-month curriculum. The large group, of 10 to 15 triads, meets monthly, and individual triads are required to meet between each large-group meeting, with specific instructions for each meeting.

As befits an experiment, the Academy has not always worked as expected, but has yielded a great deal of insight into what makes mentoring work for diverse attorneys, and has shown early signs of success. While the structure of the Mentorship Academy may not be possible to replicate in every locality, context, or institution, there are four lessons from our experience which we feel can enhance any mentoring effort.

(1) Substance before chemistry. Mentors and mentees need sustained structure and guidance to develop an open, honest, and productive relationship, especially in circumstances where mentors and mentees have not had prior substantive interactions or may not have obvious commonalities, (as when trying to create positive mentoring relationships across cultural boundaries).

(2) Confidentiality. A safe space is crucial to a mentoring relationship. By connecting attorneys across different firms, the Academy is available to achieve a kind of privacy that may not be possible within a single organization. However, law firms can develop norms of confidence and activities that help establish trust at the outset of a mentoring relationship.

(3) Everyone can learn from each other. Transfer of knowledge and experience must occur in both directions—from mentor to mentee, but also from mentee to mentor. This is particularly important in the case of majority mentors and diverse mentees. Mentees must be able share their experiences as a person of color, woman, or member of another non-majority group, and know that the mentor is open to learning from these experiences.

(4) A productive mentoring relationship doesn’t happen overnight. Mentors who are truly invested in a protégé’s personal and professional development are a long time in the making. It is unrealistic that any “program” could ignite this interest and dedication. Such expectations place heavy burdens on the potential mentors and mentees, often stifling the natural progression of a professional relationship. Initiatives and programs, however, can implement practices that produce benefits, even if a true mentoring relationship does not develop.

Our hope is that successes and challenges of the Mentorship Academy will open up the conversation about mentoring practices. Ultimately, we all benefit from discovering and replicating mentoring practices that are effective at improving the associate experience. Hopefully, we can learn from one another to make sure our mentoring programs are achieving their goals. ■


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