Mentoring through Crisis
Answering the Call with Intention
August / September 2020
The power of mentoring is unequivocal in normal professional times. Over the course of three months, a global pandemic and a national crisis on race and justice have ravaged our professional landscape. The vast toll on human life and human emotion has sparked necessary consideration of the role of mentoring in the face of crisis. As the legal profession takes stock of its own post-pandemic identity and future, the function of mentorship within the profession must also be examined. Today’s reality begs the question, “How do we as legal professionals mentor through crisis?”
Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable
Great mentors show up and engage with mentees in crises and uncertain times, even when that requires creativity and adaptation. As human beings and professionals, we learn through discomfort. Take this opportunity to lean into discomfort and look for the growth opportunities.
Many legal mentors are most comfortable focusing on the career functions of mentoring, such as teaching a mentee the ropes of practice or carving traditional career advancement pathways. Although those remain important, the psychosocial benefits of mentorship—acceptance, affirmation, friendship, emotional support, reassurance—are especially valuable in uncertain times.1
Psychosocial functions tap into empathy and compassion and involve deliberate expressions of care. Demonstrating emotional and social support might begin with generous listening to understand a mentee’s struggles and concerns. Acknowledge and validate the challenges they are facing and the distress they are feeling. Be a role model, show vulnerability, and share authentically about your own experiences during these crises. Be supportive and affirming, and be clear about what you know and don’t know. Give mentees permission to take a break from the news and their work routines to engage in self-care. Just as good leaders care for their people first, so too should mentors demonstrate commitment to their mentees through ongoing communication and expressions of care.
At their best, mentorships are life-altering relationships that inspire mutual learning and development. Every growth-fostering interaction in a strong mentorship bolsters a mentee’s professional and personal growth, identity, self-worth, and self-efficacy. Facing an uncertain future, mentees—now more than ever—will leverage connections with mentors to lower anxiety, overcome imposter syndrome, and grasp hold of their mentor’s hopeful vision of how they can not only weather the storm but also continue to thrive in their careers.2
Address Concerns through Coping and Mastery Skills
The career functions of mentoring remain important and should continue during crisis. Create a safe space for career conversations. Mentees may be worried that they’ll be laid off, that their work will no longer be noticed by their managers, or that their progress toward advancement and promotion will be derailed. Mentors play a pivotal role in safeguarding retention and building organizational and professional commitment, particularly in times of crisis.3
For mentors working with mentees within the same organization, consistent and committed mentoring relationships are vital to retaining high-potential junior talent and ensuring strong post-pandemic succession planning. Research shows that when mentors are actively engaged with mentees, those mentees form stronger emotional bonds to an organization, report higher job satisfaction, and perceive greater support from an organization broadly.4
As a mentor, use some of your new discretionary time to leverage your social capital and sponsor mentees, opening virtual doors and making valuable introductions. Pass along credible inside intelligence about the pandemic’s effect on the profession, and provide opportunities for visibility in the virtual workplace by copying mentees on emails and including them in online meetings when appropriate. Online meetings afford a new setting in which to model and teach new skills and behaviors—and the learning may flow in both directions. Mentors might discover that their mentees have much to teach them about virtual work and new technologies. And as many people are discovering, online meetings have their own rules, norms, and best practices. Both mentor and mentee should adopt a learning mind-set.
Finally, use these crises to contemplate professional purpose. Times of crisis can inspire some to no longer strive to work for the sake of it, but to look for something deeper. Mentoring sessions, while seemingly focused on the professional side of life, can encourage both parties to delve into their true purpose, both personally and professionally.
Remember: You don’t need to rescue your mentoring partner or solve your mentee’s problems. Instead, offer support that will enable your mentees to overcome challenges on their own. Provide strategies, skills, and resources that they can use to learn and to grow their efficacy.
Mentor and Sponsor Lawyers of Color
The current national conversation on race, justice, and policing has focused attention on what the legal profession is (and is not) doing to generate diverse representation within the profession and within its various systems of justice. In a profession still overwhelmingly dominated by lawyers who are white and male, underrepresented lawyers (especially Black lawyers and lawyers of color) struggle to identify and engage with meaningful mentors.5
Effective role-modeling requires mentees to identify with their mentors; thus, it can be helpful for the two to share a social identity. But it’s unfair to assume that the few diverse attorneys in senior roles at law firms have the time, energy, and inclination to successfully mentor all other lawyers of color. In fact, a report by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession found that senior women lawyers of color were often expected to serve as diversity mentors and recruiters for their firms when they reached senior status, and that this expectation limited their access to influential projects, clients, and opportunities at their firms.6 As a result, organizational leaders of all backgrounds must be willing to step in and provide meaningful mentorship to diverse lawyers. By engaging in supportive cross-race mentoring relationships, lawyers can play an important role in fostering diversity, inclusion, and equity in the profession.
Attorneys who mentor lawyers of color, however, should acknowledge that the profession is rife with unequal power relationships, discrimination, and stereotyping. Holistic mentoring, in which the relationship extends beyond the practice of law, may be easier in same-race mentoring relationships, but research has shown that white mentors who engage in successful cross-racial mentoring relationships with Black mentees have a heightened awareness of the unique challenges those mentees face, gain a holistic understanding of the mentee, and engage in reciprocal relationship-building.7 Thus, diversified mentoring relationships (i.e., mentors of a different race) can succeed when a mentor engages with the mentee’s personal history and identity as well as their professional goals.
Yet white mentors may be hesitant to mentor lawyers of color because they haven’t experienced racism or differential treatment and, therefore, feel they have no meaningful advice to offer. They may not know what to say so they avoid mentoring conversations altogether, or they encourage mentees to contact one of a few senior lawyers of color in their organization or in the community (who may already be overwhelmed with other mentorships). While perhaps well intentioned, this avoidance has a consistent outcome: Black lawyers and lawyers of color often end up with no mentoring at all.8
You don’t need to be Black or a person of color to mentor your colleagues of color. But you will need to take some time to examine your underlying assumptions, rethink what it means to be a mentor, and change how you do the work of mentoring.
We all use the word “mentoring,” but it means so many different things to different people. When engaging in a mentoring relationship, and especially a cross-race mentoring relationship, it can help to stop using the word “mentoring” and instead focus on three areas:
- identifying the range of needs your colleague has during their transition into the profession or their organization;
- determining which of those needs you can best meet; and
- transitioning from mentor to coach to help them meet their remaining needs.
What Are the Needs of Underrepresented Lawyers?
While every lawyer’s journey is different, many new underrepresented lawyers have a predictable and wide range of needs as they transition from one stage of their career to another. The most common needs are:
- Professional development training in any area in which they need to excel, such as time management, conflict resolution, case planning, legal writing, and business development.
- Access to opportunities and networks such as community leadership opportunities, connections to relevant professional associations, access to decision makers, and so on.
- Emotional support to manage the typical stresses of the partnership track, the transition into their new identity as a lawyer, and their life in a new professional environment.
- A social and intellectual community to support their transition and to continue to drive their professional agenda forward.
- Institutional sponsorship from people who will advocate for their best interests behind closed doors and shape the emerging story about them as a colleague, practitioner, and leader.
- Role models who are currently successfully navigating the profession and exemplify extraordinary success.
- A safe space to discuss and process their experiences as an underrepresented lawyer without being invalidated, interrogated, devalued, or disrespected.
- Honest and direct feedback on every aspect of the job that will be used to evaluate their professional growth, specifically their practice skills, writing, and business development.
No one person could possibly meet all of these different needs. As a result, underrepresented lawyers don’t require just one mentor but rather a large and supportive mentoring network. It is a mentor’s job to make the mentee aware that mentoring networks9 will support them more than a single-mentor model will—and to then help the mentee create that network.
Which Needs Can You Best Meet?
Effective mentors take time to identify their own strengths and how they can use their position in the profession to assist their mentee in ways that nobody else can. For example, maybe you’ve recently been appointed to a leadership position in the bar, and you know that one of your mentee’s primary goals is to gain leadership experience through bar association volunteer opportunities. Offer to place your mentee on key committees or working groups, walk them through the leadership application and appointment process, and introduce them to other bar leaders and senior staff. Identify where your mentee’s needs overlap with your expertise. That sweet spot is where you will be the most effective mentor.
Be a Coach, Not a Guru
Another way to improve your effectiveness as a mentor is to think of yourself as more of a coach than a guru.10 This is easier than it sounds. Just shift your focus from being an “oracle of wisdom”11 to helping your mentee identify their needs and the people who can best meet them. Your role is to help your mentee build a large professional network and, ultimately, gain independence from you.12
To sum it up: Gurus tell, coaches ask. It’s really that simple. In the guru model, you are all-knowing, so your job is to tell your mentee how things have worked for you and how they should behave. The data for this analysis is your personal experience. However, because your personal experience is likely to be very different than the lived experience of the lawyer of color you are mentoring, this data is not very likely to be helpful to your mentee. In the mentoring network model, you ask questions—not generic questions, but powerful questions that enable your mentee to learn through reflection and guide you in helping your mentee to build an effective mentoring network. For example: What do you want? What’s holding you back? What new abilities do you need to develop? What is the most meaningful action you could take right now? What skills are you missing? What support systems do you need to be successful?
The guru is the center and star of the guru-mentor model, and everything revolves around the guru. As a coach, the goal is to assist your mentee in developing the skills, habits, and network the mentee needs to thrive.13 In short, it’s not about you; it’s about the mentee. That means conversations are focused on their needs, their obstacles, and their challenges.
Work to Change Culture
As a leader in the profession, you have a unique ability to harness the power of your own position and change the institutions and systems within the profession that inherently undermine access and growth for underrepresented lawyers. Cultural change is needed, which means that institutional leaders must acknowledge and dismantle the structures that perpetuate cultural bias. Institutional leaders must make it a priority to:
- value engagement in mentorship and build capacity in this area;
- make mentorship a critical component of new lawyer education;
- cultivate cultural competence within the profession’s leaders to better meet the needs of lawyers of color;
- create and maintain pipelines to the profession for underrepresented lawyers and develop holistic mentoring skills among all leaders in the profession to mentor these lawyers; and
- recognize the career impact on lawyers of color for serving as a mentor to other lawyers of color and compensate them appropriately for it.
Mentoring is a must for surviving and thriving in times of crisis. If there is anything the current crises have taught us, it is how interconnected we all are and how vital those connections are to our well-being and professional growth. This is a time for connection. This is a time for learning. This is a time for change within the profession. Whether you are a mentor or a mentee, now is the time to engage in mentoring with intention and compassion to create stronger and more meaningful professional relationships.
1. Abbott and Natkin, “Innovation in Supporting Excellence—From Mentoring to Sponsorship, Coaching, and Beyond,” Innovating Talent Management in Law Firms, National Association for Law Placement (2016), https://idaabbott.com/wp-content/uploads/InnovatingTalent_ch9_IdaAbbott.pdf.
2. Smith and Johnson, “Social Distancing Doesn’t Have to Disrupt Mentorship,” Harvard Bus. Rev. (Apr. 10, 2020), https://hbr.org/2020/04/social-distancing-doesnt-have-to-disrupt-mentorship.
3. Baranik et al., “Why Does Mentoring Work? The Role of Perceived Organizational Support,” J. of Vocational Behavior (2010), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2855142.
5. Melaku, “Why Women and People of Color in Law Still Hear ‘You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer,’” Harvard Bus. Rev. (Aug. 7, 2019), https://hbr.org/2019/08/why-women-and-people-of-color-in-law-still-hear-you-dont-look-like-a-lawyer.
6. Gans Epner, “Visible Invisibility: Women of Color in Law Firms,” ABA Commission on Women in the Profession (2006), https://law.duke.edu/sites/default/files/centers/judicialstudies/panel_1-visible_invisibility_women_of_color_in_law_firms.pdf.
7. Preston, “New research finds that cross-race mentoring relationships associated with reductions in perceived racism,” The Chronicle of Evidence-Based Mentoring (Jan. 17, 2019), https://www.evidencebasedmentoring.org/cross-race-mentoring-relationships-associated-reductions-perceived-racism.
8. Patterson and Korf, “The Power of Informal Mentoring Programs,” The Bencher (Mar./Apr. 2013), https://home.innsofcourt.org/aic_pdfs/mentoring/korf-patterson_marapr2013.pdf.
9. See Peyton, “Crowdsourcing Mentorship: Creating a New Culture of Mentoring in the Legal Profession,” 49 Colo. Law. 18 (May 2020).
10. Rockquemore, “Be a Coach, Not a Guru,” Inside Higher Ed (July 29, 2013), https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2013/07/29/essay-coaching-style-mentoring.
13. See Peyton, “One-on-One Professional Development: Mentoring and Coaching in the Legal Profession,” 48 Colo. Law. 18 (Nov. 2019).
Research shows that when mentors are actively engaged with mentees, those mentees form stronger emotional bonds to an organization, report higher job satisfaction, and perceive greater support from an organization broadly.