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Increasing Diversity Is Not the Sole Responsibility of Diverse Partners

July 29, 2020

Morgan Lewis partner Alex Reid participated in a panel discussion with Morgan Lewis alumna Kim Eney and DC Bar’s Director of Communities Candace Smith-Tucker, who posed questions about the importance of mentors and sponsors to improve diversity and inclusion efforts in the law. Alex and Kim are the chair and vice chair, respectively, of the DC Bar Communities Committee.

In her role, Candace is committed to using her platform to advance others, and move the needle of diversity and inclusion in the legal profession. But she cited many studies showing there is still much work to be done to create a greater sense of racial equality, including having conversations like these. Below is an excerpted version of their discussion.

Candace: Why did you accept my invitation to speak on this topic today?

Alex: It’s saying something to not accept the invitation to discuss racism in our profession. The status quo isn’t good and needs to change. I recognize conversations like this can be challenging. It’s easier to avoid them than to engage in them, but that’s inconsistent with my values.

Candace: What role does race play in your professional relationships with clients and colleagues?

Alex: I work with a lot of nonprofits and they tend to be more at the vanguard of racial awareness. They place a strong emphasis on diversity and inclusion in their supply chain (including legal services) so there is a lot of desire in the sector to have legal services provided by people who don’t look only like carbon copies of each other.

Candace: A mentor is an individual that holds any position – they are a role model, provide emotional support, and focus on personal and professional development. A sponsor is a senior leader who pushes you up and endorses you to senior leadership, advocates for you to have more visibility, is invested in your success, and fights to get you promoted. Someone has to be pushing you up and someone has to be ready to grab you for you to make it to the next level. How do sponsor and mentor relationships create more equitable experiences in our work environment?

Alex: Lawyers are inherently risk averse. Part of the mindset of being a lawyer is mitigating risks for clients. But there is some risk-taking required to be a mentor or a sponsor. That in itself is a problem that needs to be overcome. As an inducement to take the risk, consider how valuable mentorship and sponsorship is, not just for increasing diversity in the profession, but also on a personal level. As a lawyer, you are an advocate. And advocacy is more effective when it is tested by difference, by exposure to a less homogenous, less privileged environment. Helping to create a network with more diverse thoughts and experiences will make you a better lawyer. 

Candace: If lawyers are risk-averse, how can we encourage more people to become mentors and sponsors of people of color?

Alex: It’s not entirely the responsibility of African American attorneys to find a mentor. It’s all of our obligations to help each other. What’s really nice about the practice of law in general, is that it is a professional community. We are all in it together. We are all attempting to do something very difficult – decipher, explain, and advocate the law. All legal practitioners have a duty to help one another. But helping other people isn’t purely altruistic. You really get a lot out of being helpful. For example, by explaining something challenging, you learn a lot too. Mentoring isn’t just about teaching; it is also about learning. When you spend time with another person and are genuinely interested in hearing what they have to say, you will inevitably learn something.

Candace: I have created informal mentoring relationships in my own staff, just to build relationships. It’s all about learning what is of value to an individual, so you remove that invisibility factor and really understand what is the mutually beneficial environment. How do you show up in the space of being an ally, mentor, sponsor?

Alex: It pains me to think of people feeling invisible or recoiling into themselves because they feel they aren’t welcome to participate. I’ve felt that at times in my own life, so I can empathize. If anyone in the audience is feeling invisible, please find someone to talk to, you are not alone. The best way to help others to feel known is to listen, and that is something we can all do more of. One of the most important things my father taught me, which I hold as my top moral principle, is that you should be able to learn something from anyone. And if you can’t, it’s on you. It’s your job to find the interesting thing someone else has to say or the perspective they bring to a situation; and if you haven’t found it yet, try harder. No one should feel invisible.

The entire DC Bar presentation is available at ON DEMAND: Confronting Racial Inequality, A Discussion About the Value of Mentorship & Sponsorship.