In 2012, at the request of the ABA Journal, Dan Hull and I wrote an article about the importance of mentoring, both as a duty of experienced lawyers to give back and a duty of new lawyers to get up to speed as quickly and effectively as possible for the sake of clients. Despite their having asked for the article, and our having put in the time to write it, the ABA Journal decided not to publish it because they felt our expectations of young lawyers to be good mentees was too hard and might hurt their feelings.
But mentoring has been a very important part of my career, and I’ve mentored many law students and young lawyers over the years. Some have been white. Some black and brown. Some male. Some female. None told me they were of another orientation, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t. With a couple exceptions, it’s proven very fruitful.
Not too long ago, one of my mentees, a black lawyer, sent me a picture of his beautiful family standing in front of his spectacular new house, purchased with the income earned in his very successful law practice. He was damn proud of himself, and I could not have been prouder of him. My advice might have helped, but he did it for himself. He earned it by providing superlative service to his clients. This is why this anon letter to the New York Times Ethicist, Kwame Appiah, is so deeply offensive.
I am a Black woman and I signed up as a mentor for a law-student-mentoring program at my alma mater. I made a request for a Black mentee, but I was paired with a white woman. Now I’m second-guessing participating in the program. Black attorneys make up less than 5 percent of all attorneys and continue to face horrific experiences in law school and in the legal community. This is whom I envisioned myself supporting when I registered for the program as a recent graduate.
I imagined deep conversations about law professors and law-firm culture, and sharing how I’ve learned to navigate them as a Black woman. Not only will these conversations not apply to my mentee the same way, but I can’t help wondering if assisting them will ultimately contribute to my own oppression. There are so many factors in her favor that I don’t really want to help give her even more of a leg up in my free time. On the other hand, I don’t have anything against her, and law school is universally scary during the first year. Should I be thinking about this differently? Is it wrong to bow out? Name Withheld
That someone, anyone but especially someone who’s a lawyer, would make a request for a mentee by race is what we fought against, marched against, argued against and refused for generations in the fight to end racial discrimination. Yet here, a “Black woman” shamelessly requests a mentee by the color of skin. It’s not entirely analogous to requesting your waiter at a restaurant be of a particular race, but it’s not all that different either.
The rationalization is that she possesses the singular ability to help a black law student “face horrific experiences,” which sounds remarkably like a desperate need to vindicate her feelings of victimization by teaching a law student that she’s oppressed, whether the student feels victimized or is thrilled to be going to law school, to join a profession that does so much for others and will have a glorious future ahead of her. It never dawns on this lawyer that instead of teaching a law student how to succeed, her deepest desire is to teach a mentee to suffer her personal sense of victimization.
But even worse is her fear that “assisting them will ultimately contribute to [her] own oppression.” Is she oppressed by becoming a lawyer? So sad for her. Is she oppressed because she might help a person of another race to succeed? Putting aside the dubious proposition that this lawyer has the ability to help anyone learn to succeed, not even Appiah, the Ethicist, is buying this steaming pile of oppression bullshit, although for the wrong reason.
You say that your prospective mentee “has so many factors in her favor,” and, I trust, this inference is based on her dossier, not simply on her race. But even if she’s already quite advantaged, the idea that helping her will somehow contribute to your own oppression is, I think, implausible. The wisdom you can offer her is scarcely going to affect the relative prospects of Black and white lawyers generally, or your prospects in particular. Indeed, if it makes any difference to the world at all, it may well be a small one toward equity. My impression, as someone who teaches in a law school, is that many white law students today are deeply concerned about racial justice, and the counsel of someone like you could make their concern better informed and more effective.
He’s right that she, narcissism aside, is not the center of the universe, such that her offering her “wisdom” by mentoring a white law student will prove the end of black people becoming lawyers. But if the best reason Appiah can come up with the assuage her racist guilt is that she can make a white student “better informed and more effective” about racial justice, then he’s blowing smoke.
If Name Withheld’s only issue was that she didn’t believe her experience was being put to its best use because her mentee was white, that would be one thing. Not a good thing, but at least not wholly unreasonable. That she wants to “bow out” because of her mentee’s race, however, is flagrantly racist. As the Ethicist, Appiah’s only ethical response is to tell her to drop out, not because she didn’t get a student of her requisite race, but because no mentee should have to endure a racist as her mentor. And for that matter, she probably shouldn’t be a lawyer either. We don’t need any more racists in this profession.