“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook … nor … ectoplasm. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone … and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. When they approach me, they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imaginations – indeed, everything and anything except me.”
So begins Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, first published in 1952. That sentiment still encapsulates the existence today of many a minority lawyer in law firms and corporate offices.
If you observed a company event or looked down the hallway of a large law firm or corporation, say, 30 years ago, and then returned to the same scene every 10 years, you would likely see subtle changes in the demographics of the people there. A few more women, some more people of colour.
However, if you dig deeper and start looking at partners’ meetings, lists of top lawyers and gatherings of general counsel over the same period, you might only notice changes in attire—the demographics would look largely the same as three decades ago.
Hiring at the entry level has been targeted in attempts to increase diversity. But, while the diversity numbers overall have improved, the progress has been much slower at the more senior levels.
I see this on the files our external law firms handle for us and in partnering organizations. The junior and mid-level associates actively being groomed to be the next leaders of the practice area, the next partner, the next senior counsel moving to a strategic position—demographically, they all look like the people they are being groomed to replace. There isn’t much diversity there.
Why is that the case?
I assume lawyers are hired at the entry level because they meet the requirements: solid grades from the right school and they worked as hard as everyone else to get there. I assume the in-house or firm training they receive means they can do all the necessary research as a junior associate: preparing case files, drafting the agreements accurately and so on. But those are the basics of lawyering, and a lot of what makes you the proverbial “partner material” isn’t about the basics.
I posit that the surest way to translate the innate competence of a junior lawyer into the strategic partner that organizations are keen to hire and that law firms want to promote is learned through osmosis—a slow, gradual process of siphoning knowledge, experience and skills from more experienced lawyers. And that is precisely the bit missing in the careers of many a racial minority in large private practices or companies.
We tend to be drawn to people who are like us or we think are like us. So even formal mentorship programs, if not properly designed or applied, can lead to awkward results.
In one place I worked, both my proposed mentor and I were informed the same day by email about our pairing, and it was a surprise to us both. We had never worked together and had barely had any interactions. He ended up declining, indicating that he could not be an effective mentor to any young associate that year because he had some personal matters to deal with.
Another time, almost every partner in a group I was assigned to was my official mentor at one point or another. Every few weeks, I was told of the change of mentorship. I couldn’t help but think they each felt they had drawn the short straw when the role was passed to them. I don’t believe their reticence was because they didn’t like me or didn’t want to be a mentor, per se. I think they just couldn’t see anything in me they could identify with and weren’t sure how it would work. Or perhaps they were simply not willing to put in the work needed to overcome our different backgrounds and experiences and be a great mentor.
On the other end of the spectrum, I had one mentor—a top star in the firm—who embraced her role head on, and the difference was dramatic. On the first day, she called me into her office to discuss her approach to mentorship and ask what I wanted out of it. She outlined her practice in the group and told me she was prepared to help me succeed in the firm if I was willing to do the work, which would be hard. If I was up to it, she could teach me a lot.
I walked out of her office with joyous trepidation! While I was a bit intimidated by her intensity, I was impressed by her commitment and proud she thought I was up to the challenge she laid before me.
True to her word, soon after that, I was in the offices of the GC of one of the largest companies in the country with her. She introduced me as a new associate she was working with, and the GC in question was very welcoming. He explained the work we did for them and indicated he was excited I was now part of the group. With that introduction, the client saw me as a valued member of the team from day 1 and proceeded to treat me as such. Working 16 hours a day on file like that didn’t feel so dreary!
Productive mentorships like this don’t have to be limited to formal arrangements—informal ones can be equally valuable. I have also gleaned some great lessons on lawyering from certain partners or senior associates through conversations outside of work—grabbing a quick lunch together, chatting at a social gathering or even being invited to dinner with their family. Those have been opportunities to sound out senior lawyers without the pressure of a specific matter at hand. (And in one case, it was very helpful to be reassured that the irascible partner flying off the handle because I did not put a double space after a period in an otherwise fine letter was not a sign of latent idiocy on my part.)
Although we tend to gravitate towards people who we feel are similar, ask yourself: how do we really know what we have in common with someone if we haven’t made the effort to find out? Instead, why don’t we approach our relationships with our in-house colleagues with the premise that we are similar because, at a minimum, we all endured law school and we all chose an in-house career?
At the end of Invisible Man, the narrator realizes he must honour his individual complexity and remain true to his own identity without sacrificing his responsibility to the community. He is ready to emerge from his hibernation.
Diversity does not happen simply because you bring in “different” people who then blend in or conform to the status quo. It can only happen when people are encouraged to add their uniqueness to the mix. As a profession, let us do our level best to ensure no one feels invisible. Acknowledge, encourage, engage, challenge and support.
Theodore Dela Avle is Senior Legal Counsel at Bruce Power, where he is always looking to pay it forward. Reach him at email@example.com.