By Alnisa Bell • February 05, 2017•Writers in Residence, Issues, Mentoring and Networking
Recently, I was speaking with another African American attorney who told me that she has not had a mentor in her five years of practice at a large law firm. She expressed that there aren’t any income or equity partners of color and very few of them are women. Understandably this absence of leaders of color and women leaders led her to wonder what it means for her own career. To add to her worry, she has struggled to receive quality work assignments, which has hindered her development. Straddling the line between hypervisbility (as the only woman of color in the associate ranks at her firm) and invisbility (because no one is knocking at her door to assign her plum work assignments), her story, unfortunately, is more the norm than the exception for attorneys of color. She wondered if her situation would be different if she had a minority woman partner who could help her navigate these obstacles. Ultimately, what this attorney is missing is both mentorship and sponsorship.
The distinction between a mentor and sponsor is important, and yes, you need both. To tease out this difference a little bit: a mentor is usually a more senior, trusted advisor who can provide you with career advice. You can and probably should have more than one mentor. Your mentor can be within or outside your organization, but you should have at least one mentor within your law firm. Mentors can help you navigate law firm culture and other issues you may encounter. A sponsor, on the other hand, has enough institutional gravitas and positioning to speak highly of you when important decisions are made. To be sure, these decisions are often made without you in the room, so sponsors are useful to make others listen and act on your behalf. A sponsor sings your praises and knocks down doors to ensure that you are getting the right type of work to advance your career and the professional recognition you deserve.
Given the lack of diversity in the legal profession coupled with women of color leaving large law firms before even being considered for partnership, mentorship and sponsorship are vitally important to ensure minority attorneys remain engaged and on the partnership track. Plenty of articles have been written about the difficulties diverse attorneys face when tasked with identifying mentors and sponsors within their law firms. Quite simply, partners (just like most other people) tend to gravitate to those with whom they self-identify, share common interests, and have worked closely. Unfortunately, given these challenges, many diverse attorneys have found themselves without adequate experience working with senior attorneys who will give them meaningful work and also exposure to other parts of their practice area. This also means that many of these attorneys, women of color in particular, do not have firm mentors or sponsors to facilitate their development.
My conversation with this woman started me thinking about my own mentors and sponsors. Most of mine have been and are white men and a few white women—they’ve all provided me with invaluable insight and enriching professional development opportunities throughout my career. In light of this, I also began thinking about whether minority attorneys actually need diverse mentors and sponsors in order to be successful. That question is complex, I know. While there needs to be more diversity among the partnership ranks and in firm leadership, diverse attorneys cannot afford to wait for that to happen when, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, law is the least racially diverse profession in the nation. With this in mind, I have two pieces of (connected) advice that I’ve known to be true for me and have seen play out for other attorneys of color:
1. You should seek out mentorship and sponsorship from anyone who is invested in your professional development regardless of that person’s background. Do not be surprised—there are many who understand that diverse attorneys have not historically had access to large law firms, let alone make it to the upper echelons of partnership and firm leadership and they will be invested in your development. In turn, you should soak up all the advice and encouragement they provide. I firmly believe that although someone does not look like you, it does not mean that they do not see you. For that attorney I was speaking with, what she essentially wants is to be seen and to be seen in a meaningful way. This point leads to the next bit of advice.
2. More often than not, you will need to lay the groundwork for others to want to invest their time into you. Seeking out mentors means not waiting for someone to “take you under their wing”—it means to actively and often proactively go in search and make yourself visible. If you stay trapped in your office, you won’t make the connections necessary to develop a bond with potential mentors and sponsors. Make an effort to speak with partners and ask to be staffed on their cases. Remember, if you don’t ask, you won’t receive. This doesn’t have to be a huge ask, either. Sometimes you may have to start with baby steps—maybe offer to co-write an article with a partner or co-present on a new legal development and eventually after they see your work ethic and eagerness, they will staff you on their cases.
I want to reiterate that navigating this process is not easy. It is certainly a unique journey for each of us, but remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint. Stay encouraged!