Dictionary definition of the word mentor, highlighted in pink

Mentoring Circles for Hispanic Heritage Month

By Yolonda P. Harrison

A few months ago, we received a request from a law firm to consult on the development and implementation of a formal mentorship program.  After conducting an assessment, our team concluded that formal, one-on-one mentorship would not be the best choice for the firm.  During focus groups, the firm’s BIPOC employees voiced a desire for culturally responsive mentorship that incorporated an awareness and understanding of the social context in which they live.  

In environments where BIPOC are drastically underrepresented, chances of them being paired with culturally responsive mentors are fewer. As a result, we decided to advocate for a series of mentoring circles to coincide with the firm’s existing affinity group structure. Through circle, an organization can incorporate multiple types of mentoring (group, peer, situational, and reverse) to avoid some of the pitfalls of one-on-one mentoring such as having pairs disband due to a lack of connection or relatability.

To overcome the resistance to “unconventional” mentorship, we spoke with firm stakeholders about the Indigenous origins of circle practice and its many uses.  We discussed how Stacey Abrams stressed the importance of expanding the antiquated concept of mentorship in Minority Leader and how Sheryl Sandberg popularized mentoring circles through Lean In.  We shared how effective peer and group mentoring can increase one’s sense of belonging, promote professional and identity development, improve job performance, and cultivate diverse leaders (See The Importance of Peer Mentoring, Identity Work and Holding Environments).

Our client ultimately decided to “pilot” mentoring circles using one of its affinity groups.  The Hispanic and Latino/a/x affinity group volunteered and requested that its mentoring circles meet weekly throughout Hispanic Heritage Month.  Together, we developed five mentoring circles geared toward thriving in a profession where only 4.8% of lawyers identify as Hispanic/Latino/a/x and the attrition rate is 33% for Hispanic/Latino/a/x lawyers working in large law firms (See The 2021 ABA Profile of the Legal Profession).  

During our planning sessions, we discussed how Hispanic and Latino/a/x legal professionals are often burdened by bias, tokenism, and isolation. For example, Dr. Maria Chávez surveyed Latino/a/x lawyers and found that 46% reported experiencing microaggressions, stereotyping, disparate treatment, and presumptions of incompetence. And Latinas participating in a Hispanic National Bar Association study reported that “they did not have access to the same mentoring opportunities and social networks as their white counterparts.” Using these findings and those of subsequent studies, we developed circle prompts related to mentoring (i.e., career trajectory, work/life balance, etc.) as well as identity (i.e., coping with invisibility, counteracting stereotypes, etc.).

As we approach the end of Hispanic Heritage Month and the series concludes, I’ve asked participants to share what they appreciated most about the mentoring circles via survey. For many, it was learning from mentors who share Hispanic/Latino/a/x identity but also possess varied perspectives, experiences, and skills. For me, it was realizing how fortunate I have been when it comes to mentorship.  I’ve had wonderful mentors throughout my career, the majority of whom are Latina.  Learning from each of their experiences has been integral to my success and I am thankful for their support, whether it manifested through formal, informal, developmental, situational, peer or reverse mentorship.