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The right support can make all the difference

|Written By Gail J. Cohen

The old adage “it’s not what you know, but who you know” is an old adage for a reason — it’s mostly true. In a profession like the law where personal relationships are frequently the building blocks of success, it couldn’t be more true.

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Mentoring is an integral part of the equation for young associates transitioning into senior associates and then to partners. In other words, it’s a key to retaining talent but also to ensuring the success of that talent.

“Mentoring is critical to moving up the ladder, so to speak, in a firm,” says Frank Walwyn, president of the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers and a partner at WeirFoulds LLP.

But equity-seeking groups such as visible minorities or lawyers with disabilities are not always afforded consistent and high-quality mentoring relationships.

According to a comprehensive study by the U.S.-based Minority Corporate Counsel Association, 71 per cent of white lawyers surveyed felt they had adequate coaching and mentoring to be successful in achieving their career goals. By comparison, only 62 per cent of minorities felt the same way.

In its diversity and equity guide, even the Canadian Bar Association acknowledges the problem, stating: “Informal mentoring arrangements may exclude lawyers from under-represented groups. A formalized mentoring program is an important way to support and retain lawyers, particularly lawyers from diverse communities.”

Walwyn says mentoring is important because moving from associate to partner is not just about being capable to do the work but being able to bring in work.

“If you don’t have a network, if you don’t have access to a client base to tap into to build your own clients, you will not make the transition from associate to partner,” he says.

While it is important for lawyers from diverse groups to engage in mentoring younger lawyers, people who don’t come from diverse communities should be active in working with diverse candidates, says Milé Komlen, chairman of the sexual orientation and gender identity conference of the Ontario Bar Association.

“So the straight, white, male partner guys should invest in the mentorship of associates from diverse communities because they have an obligation to facilitate the diversity in our profession,” says Komlen.

“It’s giving back to the profession by ensuring that they’re removing barriers to advancement of diverse candidates.”

And that’s good for business.

Quality mentoring programs lead to job satisfaction and more, according to a recent Catalyst study titled “Career advancement in corporate Canada: A focus on visible minorities — diversity & inclusion practices.” It states visible minority respondents who reported their organizations had effective mentoring programs (compared to visible minorities who did not report such programs) experienced 19.3-per-cent higher career satisfaction scores and 21.6-per-cent higher career advancement processes scores.

Most of the minority bar associations that have sprung up in the last decade have mentorship programs for the very reason that so many of their members had trouble with the “who you know” part of the equation.

“There can be benefits if the student is an Asian Canadian to also have a mentor who is Asian Canadian,” because they will relate culturally, says Jason Leung, president of the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers.

In such relationships it is easier for students to ask questions about whether their mentor has been treated differently because of their race if they think the mentee might face challenges that other students may not, he adds.

These mentorship programs are generally focused on law students, however.

“We pair up a student or a recent call-to-the-bar or an articling student with a more experienced lawyer who can just discuss career options and maybe tell them a little bit about what it’s like to be a lawyer,” says Leung.

But once you’re in the law firm, mentoring needs to be more than just sitting down for a coffee and a chat.

“Mentoring, formally or informally, working on important files, being able to accompany the lead lawyer in client meetings — these are areas that give advantages,” says Charles Smith, a former equity adviser at both the Law Society of Upper Canada and the Canadian Bar Association.

The problem, he notes, is that young lawyers are often left out of these types of meetings, for example, if their name is difficult to pronounce or if there are social events that revolve around drinking that make lawyers who don’t drink feel like an outsider.

He says what ends up happening is that anyone who challenges the status quo, even simply by virtue of being different in some way, is easily left out.

Monitoring mentoring programs, therefore, is necessary to ensure everyone gets a fair shake. In order for real cultural change to take place in law firms, race and other challenging issues cannot be ignored and must be addressed in order to retain the talents of minority lawyers.

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  • lawyer

    I agree fully with the article. One should also point out that this marginalization does not only occur in firms, but also in areas of government.