For many reasons, intentional mentorship of diverse talent remains a critical component of any law firm’s plan to foster the careers of young, diverse lawyers. Both a formal mentoring program and more informal, collegial relationships are essential. Mentorship of younger, diverse attorneys is both necessary for the success of those attorneys individually and, without question, a worthwhile investment for law firms.
For the past few years, clients have insisted that law firms staff their matters with diverse teams. Indeed, many clients are shifting from an effort-based system to an outcome-based approach. Clients will also continue to mandate that the law firms with whom they work meaningfully invest in their diverse talent. Clients understand that diverse teams may produce better outcomes. Indeed, clients often request data on the hours billed by diverse attorneys on each engagement, as well as narratives describing how those attorneys performed meaningful work and gained meaningful experience.
Accordingly, firms should position their diverse talent to meet client expectations. Law firms should design a successful mentoring model to develop diverse attorneys who are “valuable business assets”—high-quality and skilled attorneys who are substantively knowledgeable, experienced, and comfortable interacting directly with clients.
Of course, the first step is retaining diverse talent. Finding camaraderie with one’s colleagues is often a critical factor in a junior attorney’s morale and desire to remain with a firm long-term. Junior diverse attorneys may perceive that there are not enough partners and/or role models with similar backgrounds. As a result, they may believe success for them will be hard to come by. And many diverse attorneys leave law firms because they do not have confidence that they can succeed at that firm. Accordingly, connecting diverse junior attorneys with mentors and role models can be essential in demonstrating why your firm is the right long-term fit for these diverse attorneys.
Opportunities are also paramount. Diverse talent, like all junior, talented lawyers, crave meaningful opportunities and experience—via deposition experience, substantive involvement in a deal, or meaningful client contact. The more that firms can do to facilitate these sorts of experiences and opportunities, coupled with appropriate training programs, the more likely it is that a particular junior associate will feel invested in their career at a firm.
Experts on diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace gathered for an NJBIZ discussion on issues related to promoting such policies and programs. Read more here — or watch the panel.
One additional point bears mentioning concerning the need for mentoring. With hybrid work environments likely here to stay, the opportunities for diverse talent to stop by a colleague’s office to talk through a challenge, or to connect with a colleague for reasons not directly related to client work, are inevitably reduced. These circumstances further underscore the need for proactive mentoring. And our hybrid world provides excellent opportunities for the junior associates to sit in on client meetings, strategy sessions, real estate closings, depositions and court conferences, all without regard to physical location.
Junior attorneys who receive quality mentorship may be more likely to produce quality work product. Junior attorneys will often have substantive questions but may perceive that such questions are not worth raising or may feel uncomfortable “bothering” a more senior attorney. However, suppose that a junior attorney has a quality mentor to serve as a sounding board. This attorney may feel more comfortable asking substantive questions, leading to better quality work product at the project’s outset. Mentors may also be able to assist a junior attorney in understanding and navigating the resources available in ways that the junior attorney may not have realized, also potentially leading to better work product.
Strictly from a business perspective, as more clients require positive diversity and inclusion metrics and results, the better firms can do in these areas, the more likely clients will be to continue to utilize such firms going forward. And from a client service standpoint, diverse talent will often have different life experiences and perspectives than many of their colleagues. Suppose a diverse attorney has a meaningful relationship with their mentor. In that case, that attorney may feel more comfortable sharing their ideas, which may be unconventional and fresh and lead to new strategies, potentially providing additional value to the clients.
And from a more holistic perspective, a junior attorney who receives quality mentorship may be more likely to invest in the firm — that is, be a good “firm citizen” — and be more loyal. Law firms and their attorneys have a wide range of essential responsibilities in addition to client work: recruiting and interviewing new attorneys, community outreach initiatives, and strategic committees, to name a few. A junior attorney who has received quality mentoring may be more invested and eager to participate in these critical roles.
For the reasons discussed above and many others, mentorship of diverse talent remains a necessary and valuable investment for law firms.
Tracey Salmon-Smith is a partner at Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP in the Business Litigation Group. She is a member of the Diversity & Inclusion Committee and is a member of the firm’s Women Forward steering committee. Diego Rosado is an associate in the firm’s Business Litigation Group and is a member of the Diversity & Inclusion Committee.