Tap Mentors and Sponsors to Drive Legal Department Diversity

July 22, 2021

Contributor: Rob van der Meulen

Mentors and sponsors are critical but underutilized champions of diversity in legal departments and teams.

In a 2020 Gartner poll, more than a third of legal, compliance and privacy leaders (and their staff) indicated they want help implementing diversity and inclusion initiatives within the legal department. That plea comes amid widespread pledges but few results in the commitment to advance underrepresented groups in legal departments. 

For many legal functions, efforts to improve diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) have centered on outside counsel diversity standards and expanding the legal pipeline. But, in the U.S. for example, the percentage of female and African American associates at law firms has increased by just one percentage point and a tenth of one percentage point, respectively, over the last decade. 

“This is not the kind of progress on diversity that many are hoping to see,” says Laura Cohn, Senior Principal, Gartner. “Legal leaders need to reevaluate their DEI efforts and seek opportunities to improve their performance.”

Two ways to improve are mentorship and sponsorship programs. Mentors teach employees the rules of the road; sponsors help them advance. 

A 2020 Gartner survey showed that a lack of mentors and insufficient exposure to senior leaders were some of the principal barriers preventing underrepresented employees from getting ahead. Yet, less than a third of organizations have either a mentorship or sponsorship program.

4 ways to boost your mentorship and sponsorship programs

Mentorship and sponsorship are two of the legal department’s most powerful tools for retaining and promoting diversity in the workplace and the general counsel (GC), as strategic advisor to the C-suite, is a key champion of such efforts. The following is a list of strategies the GC can use to jumpstart mentorship and sponsorship initiatives.

No. 1: Recruit leaders outside of legal to serve as mentors and sponsors

Mentorships outside the legal department can be valuable for employees. One way to achieve this is for GC to ask outside counsel if law firm partners would be willing to mentor a junior member of an in-house team. This can work the other way too, with junior law firm staff mentored by more experienced in-house lawyers.

Alternatively, look to senior figures in other business units where employees can build important contacts and a broader understanding of the organization. This also helps individuals build the “soft skills” that aren’t always picked up in the legal department.

No. 2: Establish short-term and long-term goals to focus your efforts

Non-specific goals, such as “career advancement,” will dilute the potential benefit of even the most well-intentioned relationship.

A few short- and long-term goals will serve to focus the mentorship or sponsorship relationship around critical issues of importance to the employee. 

For example, these goals could be focused internally on things such as negotiating a raise, getting a promotion or presenting to the board of directors. Alternatively, the goals could center on outside development efforts such as getting a speciality certification, speaking at a conference or writing an article.

No. 3: Insist on accountability so you can monitor progress

Although setting goals is an important step, objectives need to be backed up by a review of progress.

Set targets for the percentage of goals that are achieved and track the progress of DEI programs this way. It’s also a good idea to have leaders report back on their progress against these targets. Some firms go much further and offer mentors and sponsors financial incentives for successful programs or ask them to account for results in performance reviews.

Beyond quantitative measures, ask your employees whether they get value out of the program and get feedback on what worked best and what didn’t. Then refine the programs accordingly.

No. 4: Embrace the opportunities the remote workplace provides

At first glance, it might seem like the pandemic and hybrid workplace are a serious headwind to mentorship and sponsorship programs. Most people tend to find in-person interaction the most meaningful and there is no doubt that this has been curtailed since the pandemic began.

However, the world has adapted to this new reality. People are more comfortable with video calls than ever before and the upside of this is that it hugely broadens the pool of program participants: mentors, sponsors and candidates. So it’s not difficult to build productive mentorship and sponsorship relationships outside of the legal department.

GC who put together mentorship and sponsorship programs that satisfy the criteria outlined above will be playing an important role in answering the demands to build diversity in the legal profession from employees, investors, key stakeholders and society as a whole.

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