Be the Change: How Mentoring Can Improve Diversity in the Legal Profession

The state of diversity in the legal profession is grim. According to the report from the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and the American Bar Foundation entitled “First Chairs at Trial: More Women Need Seats at the Table,” only 17% of equity partners in big firms and 22% of general counsel in the Fortune 500 are women. The picture is even bleaker when looking at attorneys of color in top leadership positions at firms. According to the National Association for Law Placement, as cited in the August 2015 New York Times article “Many Black Lawyers Navigate a Rocky, Lonely Road to Partner,” fewer than 2% of law firm partners are black, which is based on data collected by the NALP in 2014. According to the ABA Journal article published in March 2016, “Invisible…then Gone,” 85% “of minority female attorneys in the U.S. will quit large firms within seven years of starting their practice.” The same article quotes Danielle Holley-Walker, the dean of the Howard University School of Law, who said, “We’re still a profession less diverse than doctors or engineers and that is 88%  white.”


Diversity in the legal profession is also directly beneficial for law firms. The same New York Times article stated that “corporations are putting more pressure on law firms to make diversity a central factor in their hiring decisions. When corporations request formal bids from law firms to represent them in legal cases, they are asking for lawyers with more varied experience and backgrounds—and proof that firms have such people in place.” Diverse lawyers at firms can also expand the firm’s network of potential clients, simply because these lawyers have more contacts to draw upon for new business, and because their community involvement will generate additional exposure for their firm. Diversity in the legal profession should be a no-brainer for all employers, not just law firms, because legal work product improves when there isn’t an echo chamber.

In the face of a relative lack of diversity, and a high rate of attrition for female lawyers of color in large law firms, what can the legal industry do to ensure that our profession more accurately reflects the clients we serve? Mentorship is an efficacious, cost-effective solution that addresses the issue of diversity within the legal profession once lawyers are licensed and can act as a pipeline solution itself.

Mentoring is a broadly defined concept, but can be defined as “the passing on of skills, knowledge, and wisdom from one person to another.” That’s according to a 2004 Law Practice Today article entitled “Mentoring: Its Time Has Come—Again.” Unfortunately, 12 years later, the need for mentors in the legal profession is still urgent. As women, lawyers of color, and especially female lawyers of color disappear from the legal profession, there has never been a more important time for lawyers to take an interest in mentoring young diverse attorneys.  There are two types of mentoring programs – formal programs, run through workplaces such as firms, and informal programs, which develop organically between a mentor and a mentee.

In 2013, the American Inns of Court published an article on a first of its kind study designed to study lawyer mentoring programs. The National Association for Law Placement, Inc. (NALP) Foundation for Law Career Research & Education and Beyond the Bar, part of West LegalEdcenter, a division of Thomson Reuters, partnered to conduct the study. Although “the vast majority (87%) of law firms participating in the study reported that they currently have a mentoring or associate integration program,” most law firms that participated in the study did not offer specialty mentoring programs specifically designed for women or ethnic minority lawyers. However, informal mentoring is often easier to do, and can be more successful than formal programs precisely because the relationships happen more organically than through participation in a compulsory program at a firm, for example.

For smaller firms, informal mentoring is more common than a formal mentoring program. According to the NALP and West LegalEdcenter study, “Nearly half of firms with 100 or fewer attorneys (45%) report having informal mentoring programs, compared to only 30% of firms with between 101 and 250 attorneys.” Across all firm sizes, 77% of attorneys said they participated as a mentee in an informal mentoring program, compared with 67% of attorneys who participate in formal mentoring programs. Even at firms with more than 500 attorneys, more than 70% of attorneys said they had informal mentoring relationships.

Most importantly, mentoring is beneficial to both the mentor and the mentee. According to the NALP and West LegalEdcenter study, “95% of lawyers participating in informal mentoring relationships rated the experience as ‘very beneficial’ or ‘extremely beneficial.’” Informal mentoring can aid with professionalism, retention of female lawyers and lawyers of color in the legal profession, and in the career development of diverse lawyers. A valuable informal mentoring relationship doesn’t necessarily require frequent meetings. In the study on mentoring, 75% of mentees said that they met with their mentor once a month. Even meeting less frequently than that can still be a valuable experience for both mentor and mentee, especially when career development is a topic of discussion.


Formal mentoring programs still have their place. The Americans Inns of Court is one of the largest legal networking groups in the country. Encouraging mentorship is so important to the Inns of Court that it has developed a Model Mentoring Program, and includes resources that members can use in a section of its website devoted to mentoring, including an assessment form. The Inns of Court website highlights the mentoring program of inns in Washington, California, Georgia, and Florida.

During the ABA Midyear Meeting in San Diego in February, the National Conference of Women’s Bar Associations (NCWBA) and the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession sponsored a program called “Why GOOD Guys—Guys Overcoming Obstacles to Diversity—Are So Important.”  The GOOD Guys program started out of a desire to engage all lawyers, especially men, in efforts to increase gender diversity in the legal profession.  Additionally, the NCWBA has developed the GOOD Guys Toolkit that will assist lawyers in doing their own GOOD Guys events.

This model can also be applied to formal and informal mentoring programs designed to mentor diverse lawyers. If more men, particularly white men, took an active interest in mentoring a young diverse lawyer, the path forward for that young lawyer would be a little easier with the expertise, advice and guidance of their mentor. The extent of the mentoring relationship could just be a partner assigning a young diverse attorney to a case that will allow that lawyer to expand their skills. There is lots of work to do in addressing the lack of diversity in the legal profession, and mentoring is not the only solution. Mentoring does offer the ability to be actively involved in making our profession more diverse. Be the change, and begin mentoring a young diverse lawyer.

About the Author

Sonia R. Russo is an assistant district attorney at the Second Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she prosecutes violent felonies. She is an ABA YLD Scholar for 2015-2016. She can be reached at

Send this to a friend