After entering private practice I found myself calling upon various attorneys I’d established relationships with throughout my legal career for guidance. Some of them were men, some were women, some were white, some were Black, some were Jewish and so on. I am thankful that I have a tremendous network from which I can leverage knowledge and wisdom when I need them. But I had to cultivate these relationships.
Today, I often meet young lawyers now who do not take the time to identify solid mentors. Part of this is because they may have tried reaching out to someone and the person never returned their calls or emails and so they become discouraged and afraid to build relationships with seasoned professionals. It’s happened to me too. But suffice it to say, part of the reason many young professionals do not ever find their “angel” is because they seek to find that person amongst those who look like them. This tendency is the result of (1) a lack of desire to go beyond one’s comfort zone and (2) flawed thinking.
We tend to be more comfortable around those who share our cultural backgrounds and worldviews. For example, I enjoy hanging out with young professional women who dine in fancy restaurants while discussing a range of topics from geo-political issues to the school-to-prison pipeline. But I also enjoy getting to know others in far less glamorous settings who do not conform to the prototype of my close associates. And quite frankly, I find that some of them are interested in the exact same issues, thereby enhancing my sense of shared humanity, or they are hip to issues that I never thought about, thereby broadening my intellectual and philosophical horizons.
Perhaps what I find to be the most disconcerting about my fellow young lawyers is that they often think that those who look like them and have had similar experiences to theirs will be the most vested in helping them. Wrong. I was a summer associate at a large firm while in law school. I read a booklet on how to find your “angel” at a large firm. This is the person who would show you the ropes and advocate for you to get good assignments and teach you how to bring in clients.
When I look back on it, there is one partner who stands out as my angel. She was a Jewish woman with enough style to be on the cover of Elle Magazine. She never said “I am your mentor” and I never asked her to play that role. She became my mentor because she went above and beyond to tell me how to comport myself with partners at the firm. She was one of two women partners at this firm and she climbed the ranks when women were not welcome to hold leadership positions. She told me to ask questions and gave me meaningful assignments. The firm had a Black partner too, but had I waited for her to reach out to me, I would have never gleaned as much as I did from my Jewish angel.
I have definitely had mentors who look like me take me by the hand. But there are times when I have stepped outside of my comfort zone to reach out to the most unlikely person whom I admired for their knowledge and wisdom because I wanted advice. Yes, I have received some less than welcoming reactions but they were far and few between. If you possess the right attitude and approach, most people will help you.
I have had amazing mentors, some of whom became friends. In turn, I owe it to other young professionals who seek me out to assist them when I can. I have mentored men and women who have reminded me that they appreciate the time I took to eat lunch with them or send them emails. I have even hired some of them. And believe it or not, at least half of them do not look like me. So next time you meet someone with whom you want to develop a relationship, ask them to coffee or lunch and pay for it, too. Your intrigue and courtesy will pay tangible and intangible dividends.
Yaida Ford is the managing attorney at The Ford Law Firm PLLC in Washington, D.C.