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Diverse mentorship is a powerful tool to help attorneys from minority backgrounds navigate the office environment and ultimately become industry leaders, says Malaika Tyson of McAndrews, Held & Malloy.
As many organisations work to implement or enhance their own diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts, it has been increasingly apparent that the sharing of experiences can be a powerful catalyst for productive change.
This is particularly true in the legal community, which has struggled mightily with these issues. We need to share how our law firms and legal departments are making commitments and driving progress. I have outlined below some of my own observations and experiences, and hope that they will help others to create meaningful changes in our industry.
D&I efforts have often highlighted the importance of diversity in mentorship,ie, diverse partners serving as mentors for diverse associates. The benefits of these relationships include the retention of associates and increases in the firm’s diverse leadership. Diverse mentorship can also expand a young attorney’s professional network, which can broaden their business development opportunities.
Pre-pandemic, in-person office interactions were the norm, with few law firms allowing partner-track attorneys to work remotely. Consequently, in addition to substantive work, attorneys expended additional emotional energy on deciphering the office culture, including informal mechanisms for getting prime assignments and evaluations, and attending obligatory ‘happy hours’ and other social networking events.
However, the challenges for diverse attorneys in these areas were greater than those faced by non-diverse individuals. Diverse mentorship was one way to help diverse attorneys navigate these challenges, and when law firms were forced to move to fully remote work, there was a concern that the benefits of such mentorship would be lost. However, while there were some issues, diverse individuals—particularly Black and Hispanic/Latinx knowledge workers—appeared to generally thrive in remote work environments.
“As a junior attorney, being formally mentored by another diverse woman who also happened to be a mother as I am was vital to my success at the firm.”
Future Forum, a consortium focused on building “a way of working that is flexible, inclusive, and connected” began surveying knowledge workers in the summer of 2020 to understand how the current working environment was affecting, among other things, their productivity and sense of belonging. A survey of more than 5,400 US knowledge workers between May 2021 and November 2021 found that all individuals surveyed had an increased sense of belonging at work, but the gains were the greatest for Black (24% increase) and Hispanic/Latinx (32% increase) knowledge workers.
For White workers, this increase was only 5%. Knowledge workers agreeing with the statement: “I am treated fairly at work” also increased significantly for Black knowledge workers (+21%) and Hispanic/Latinx knowledge workers (+13%).
These gains are encouraging, proving that the remote environment didn’t result in the disengagement of diverse attorneys. However, as attorneys return to the office, it’s crucial to ensure proximity and implicit biases do not creep back into how diverse attorneys are staffed and evaluated. When considering return-to-work, D&I initiatives should also be evaluated to ensure that diverse talent is retained. In addition to structural changes (hybrid work, formal staffing of matters, etc.), diverse mentorship needs to remain an essential tool.
During my career, I’ve had the opportunity to be mentored by diverse attorneys and also serve as a formal and informal mentor for diverse associates, an approach that is supported by my firm. Our summer associate programme is designed to allow law students to work closely with equity partners, and when they start as first-year associates, they are allowed to pick their formal mentors. This eliminates some of the ‘we-know-what’s-best’ bias, with our diverse associates choosing mentors whom they feel will help them best navigate their new work environment.
As a junior attorney, being formally mentored by another diverse woman who also happened to be a mother (as I am) was pivotal to my success at the firm and one of the reasons I was elevated to equity partner in 2020.
Not only did she help me navigate the firm dynamic, but she understood the challenges of being a diverse female attorney, allowing me to learn and grow from her experiences. I was also fortunate to have other diverse female attorneys serve as informal mentors, including one who was essential to my initial business development growth.
As an equity partner, I formally mentor diverse associates, and I also serve as an informal mentor for many of our diverse junior attorneys. As the legal field begins to transition into new ways of working, I’ve also been evaluating how best to serve my mentees and maintain their sense of belonging at work. Most junior attorneys, especially those who started their legal career remotely, don’t yet understand how the new work environment will affect their career advancement. Mentors need to thoughtfully assess how to continue to provide value to their mentees, especially for those working in law firms that have adopted a fully remote option.
Diverse mentors can best serve their mentees by fostering connections between diverse associates and the law firm and acting as an advocate for them. Making sure that diverse associates are being equitably treated for staffing and evaluations—while making sure they are fully integrated into this new-to-them work environment without fear of microaggressions or other biases—is something that I am seeking to do in my mentorship relationships and is what will be essential to ensuring that all attorneys can continue to thrive.
My experience with being mentored and mentoring others is just one example of how I have been fortunate at McAndrews, Held & Malloy, a firm that has a long tradition of building belonging. Across all of our attorney base, more than 70% have spent their entire legal careers with us. We also have a tradition of leadership and commitment in D&I that is reflected by the fact that more than 23% of our attorney ranks are underrepresented minorities and 71% of our racially/ethnically diverse attorneys have been at our firm for five years or longer.
Those are notable numbers for a firm like ours that is focused heavily on patent law and has one of the largest single teams of USPTO-registered attorneys with science and engineering degrees. There is, of course, a clear need for more underrepresented minorities and women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), but when you add a requirement for a law degree on top of a STEM degree, the potential pool of patent attorneys is small.
“When considering return-to-work, D&I initiatives should also be evaluated to ensure that diverse talent is retained.”
I was the first-ever recipient of our firm’s Diversity in Patent Law Fellowship, a programme that we created in 2009, long before many other firms truly got going on D&I initiatives. That commitment to innovate and create new opportunities is also reflected in the diversity internship program McAndrews created with Abbott Laboratories. This programme for diverse 1L law students with life sciences or engineering backgrounds involves paid summer experiences at both Abbott and McAndrews during a single summer.
Obviously, these types of efforts require a key element—the need for senior leadership to listen, sometimes evolve, and above all support those who want to put the effort into driving new innovations and programmes. At McAndrews that also translates to the out-of-office commitments that many of us make to organisations seeking to drive change. Many of our team members are supported by the firm in our avocational commitments to non-profits committed to D&I issues. Those commitments are often deep and long-standing, and they reflect the culture of our firm as much as our extraordinary legal work.
As my colleague, the son of Mexican-American migrant farmworkers from California’s Central Valley, recently said about D&I efforts: “Like so many worthwhile goals in life, you might never achieve them.” But as he noted, the trick is to never stop trying and to help spread the word on what is working and what we might try next.
With progress in so many areas—one prominent example being Ketanji Brown Jackson being named to the US Supreme Court—the field of law has great potential and opportunities for continuous improvement in this important area.
Malaika Tyson is a shareholder at McAndrews, Held & Malloy. At McAndrews, she serves on the firm's professional development, Mansfield, and diversity committees and actively mentors young attorneys both inside and outside the firm. She can be contacted at: email@example.com
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McAndrews Held & Malloy, mentorship, D&I, law firms, remote work, ethnic minorities, implicit biases