October 22, 2014

One on One: Diversity through Mentoring

By:  Patricia McHugh Lambert, Principal, Pessin Katz Law, P.A. and Drake Zaharris, Managing Director, Pessin Katz Law, P.A.

We have changed.

Fifteen years ago, we at Pessin Katz Law had one female partner and not a single minority or LGBT attorney. Today, one half of our equity partners are women and we have a number of other attorneys and partners who are diverse.  One half of our associate ranks are women and/or LGBT.  But we, like so many firms, continue to struggle with diversity issues.

We want more diverse candidates—both at the entry and equity levels– to join our ranks.  We want our diverse attorneys to succeed. We want a variety of vibrant voices representing a kaleidoscope of backgrounds.  We want to be seen as good corporate citizens in a good place to work. 

We want what we want.

And if leaders of the Bar are candid, they would agree that our goals are laudable.  Many, if not  most, attorneys in Bar leadership positions would agree that they have the same or similar goals for their firms and organizations.  Most professional and business organizations would also agree.

Why are diversity issues of law firms so hard to solve? Neither of the authors of this article are social scientists who are qualified to answer this macro question.   But the real question for leaders of the Bar—both young and old—should be what can we, on a personal basis, do on a single day for a single diverse attorney to help him/her reach for the stars. 

The only answer that we can offer is that we must mentor.

For those of us that are older (such as the two authors), we need to be the Elder Mentor.  We are the ones that have had a full career of successes and some failings.  We need to reach out to the diverse attorneys we know to provide guidance and leadership.  To be sure, we can find reasons not to be mentors.  Mentoring takes time—and many of us are too stretched by work, family, and community obligations already.  To be sure, giving advice can be dangerous; to mentor correctly, candid advice (which may be difficult to give and to hear) is key. Elder Mentors can also feel distress when advice is not followed, when a mentee fails, and when a mentee no longer needs mentoring.  Despite these problems, those of us who are ‘Elders’ need to become mentors for diverse attorneys.  One by one, person to person, the platform for success can be built.    

There are so many ways that the Elder Mentor can attempt to create a roadmap to success for the mentoring relationship.  We can discuss with our mentees expectations such as loyalty, appreciation, and the need for “Vegas” rules.  We can demand that the mentee not wallow in complaints or focus obsessively about what they perceive is wrong. Instead, the mentor should strive to have the mentee focus on what can, with effort, be achieved.  If the mentee will agree to this, the Elder Mentor should be willing to share their wisdom, their connections, and their life experiences.  With such one on one efforts, the needle on diversity moves.

Those of us who run firms can, where appropriate, encourage diverse attorneys to use Professional Mentors.  Professional Mentors can include a firm’s human resource professionals, professionals engaged through a firm’s Employee Assistance Program, leadership programs, therapists, and business and life coaches.  These professional resources can help attorneys who are struggling to learn skills to deal with difficult situations.  These professional relationships can sometimes provide security wherein a diverse attorney can learn how to confront real and sometimes painful pasts and learn how to navigate to a successful future.  We all sometimes need help.  If we truly want to encourage diversity, we need to give diverse attorneys who need professional coaching, therapy or advice the tools that they need.

Those Bar leaders who are not so old are not to be left out of the diversity equation.  To achieve diversity goals—diversity of voices, opportunity and results—we need Peer Mentors who are willing to step up to the plate.  A Peer to Peer Mentoring relationship is valuable to both sides of the equation.  Peers have similar goals. Peers have the same or similar struggles.  Peers do not have all the answers—and sometimes just letting each other know that one fact can achieve an ease that creates opportunities.  One of the opportunities created is connections and friendships.  If we are honest, many of us have few friends who are professional colleagues that are outside our own demographic group.  But we all need to reach out to people outside our own group and mentor each other.

We also need to create Civic Mentors for our diverse attorneys.  Civic Mentors are individuals who are committed to an issue, cause or a community organization.  These Civic Mentors can open doors and help create connections.  We, as leaders, need to make sure that diverse attorneys are connected to Civic Mentors who will look after their mentees in a “you are on my team” way.  Such assistance is invaluable to creating opportunities that create leaders. 

So what does all this mentoring do for the mentees?  For one thing, it allows a mentee to create a higher public profile through community involvement.  It allows the mentee to circumvent problems at work by implementing strategic advice given by mentors.  It allows the creation of connections that can turn into business opportunities, clients and referrals.

But just to be clear, mentoring does not just help the mentee.  It helps the mentor.  We learn by listening to those who are different from ourselves.  We stay vibrant and engaged when we mentor.

Most importantly, there is not a single successful member of the Bar who does not owe at least a part of their success to the advice, learning and friendship provided by a mentor.  We owe it to those past mentors to pass on their mentoring legacy. 

True diversity, in our view, can only be created by a genuine effort by the Bar to mentor.  

Patricia McHugh Lambert has over 25 years of experience handling complex commercial litigation and insurance matters.  Drake Zaharris has been the Managing Director of Pessin Katz Law, P.A. for over seven years.  In  addition to his administrative duties at the firm, he has an active corporate litigation and business practice.  Both Ms. Lambert and Mr. Zaharris actively promote diversity within the firm.