Mentoring through Crisis: Answering the Call with Intention, 0920 COBJ, Vol. 49, No. 8 Pg. 14

PositionVol. 49, 8 [Page 14]

49 Colo.Law. 14

Mentoring through Crisis: Answering the Call with Intention

Vol. 49, No. 8 [Page 14]

Colorado Lawyer

September, 2020

August, 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 of, 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...

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