Creating inclusive spaces and developing a diverse team is critical to any industry. However, diversity and inclusion are particularly important in the legal profession to ensure that judges, prosecutors, and lawyers are just as diverse as the millions of Americans they serve. Lawyers of color are imperative in advocating for disenfranchised clients who often come from communities of color and are shuffled through the legal system without much regard for the institutional bias they face. Professionals of color within the legal system shed light on laws that disproportionately affect communities of color—such as state laws that fine women who braid hair without a license. These laws negatively impact women of color and immigrant communities that rely on hair braiding as a means of financial support. It often takes someone from a diverse background to recognize the bias in such laws and bring them to their local legislature’s attention to be struck down.
The key to developing inclusive spaces within the legal field and creating a pipeline of diverse lawyers and judicial professionals lies within mentorship programs. While it is important to create channels for aspiring lawyers of color to apply to law school and gain a foothold within the legal profession, mentoring is a critical component to retain lawyers of color and ensure their success. The secret of mentoring lies within the advice provided from established lawyers who assist early-career lawyers or law students in navigating the legal field. For many young lawyers of color who find themselves surrounded by privileged colleagues in a new firm, mentoring can make the difference between discovering their niche and honing their confidence or finding the lack of diversity intolerable and seeking opportunities elsewhere. Mentoring is critical to help lawyers of color navigate workspaces where they may encounter micro-aggressions or blatant discrimination based on the “good old boy” culture that was prevalent in the legal field for decades.
As law firms and judicial offices are increasingly challenged to reflect the diversity of the civilian populations they serve, inclusive mentoring has become all the more important. Firms must implement formal mentorship programs and highlight the importance of informal mentoring relationships with all employees—especially early-career professionals and lawyers of color. One technique to institute an inclusive mentorship program involves pairing every early-career professional and/or new hire at a law firm with a mid-career lawyer. Another substantive technique is tying compensation and bonuses to participation in mentorship programs. This technique will ensure that mentorship programs receive active support and participation from mentors. Creating employee resource groups centered on different diverse identities and backgrounds can also work to foster an inclusive culture and develop a mentoring network for those struggling to find others like themselves within the legal profession.
Diversity and inclusion are key to ensuring the continued progression and evolution of the American legal system. Mentorship is critical in developing and retaining lawyers of color who will shape the landscape of American judicial policies.
Faith Deredge is a student at the James E. Beasley School of Law at Temple University.