By E. Rania Rampersad
It was law school orientation day. I walked up the polished white steps to enter Georgetown University Law Center for the first time … and froze. My excitement at a dream come true was suddenly crowded out, replaced by a panicked voice shouting in my head: You don’t belong here! No one else in there spent last summer scrubbing other people’s toilets! You can’t do this! What were you thinking!?! An elderly Black man mopping the lobby floor saw me. He stopped and looked at me intently, sizing me up. He winked, and with a warm but fierce smile, told me resolutely, “Go on in. You’re gonna be OK.” I believed him. I took a deep breath, plastered a smile on my face, and marched into that grand lobby.
In the 15 years since that moment, I have been deeply privileged to meet many law professors, lawyers, judges, teachers, and friends who have shared advice and encouragement with me, during law school and throughout my career. But I still remember this man. He was my first real mentor. He was there for me when I needed him. Not because I had impressed him or earned anything, but just because. And, I have come to realize, I never could have accomplished anything meaningful if I hadn’t first met someone who believed I could.
And so in 2019 I sought to recreate this experience for other law students and new lawyers by creating the Joint Minority Mentorship Program (JMMP). In the three years since its founding, it has grown from an idea in my head to 125 participants this year, with multi-year sponsorship by the Foster Garvey Diversity Equity and Inclusion Initiative, and 10 bar association partners, including the founding partner, South Asian Bar Association of Washington (SABAW), and the Middle Eastern Legal Association of Washington (MELAW), Washington Attorneys with Disabilities Association (WADA), Northwest Indian Bar Association (NIBA), WSBA Indian Law Section, Korean American Bar Association (KABA), Vietnamese-American Bar Association of Washington (VABAW), Latina/o Bar Association of Washington (LBAW), and Washington Women Lawyers (WWL). Most recently the WSBA’s Board of Governors unanimously voted to join as a partner organization.
The keys to the program’s success are the deeply personal connections, the intentionally open collaboration, and the practical follow-up events. Every mentee student or new lawyer is individually matched with a mentor lawyer or judge who shares professional and personal interests and who makes a commitment to that mentee for the year. The program is intentionally open and inclusive. Any mentee from any self-identified marginalized background is welcome to join. Any lawyer who is interested and willing to mentor our mentees, including allies, is welcomed and valued in the program. This philosophy recognizes that we can accomplish great things when we step out of our silos. Diversity in our profession benefits everyone. It is everyone’s concern. We each have something to contribute and to learn.
The program also offers timely and relevant follow-up events each year. Last summer, SABAW and KABA jointly hosted a panel discussion on starting a career in times of economic uncertainty. At the time, 40 percent of the 75 attendees had just lost a summer or permanent job offer due to COVID-19. Most were experiencing some level of anxiety, panic, or even despair at their career prospects. And at just that moment, the program was able to present two panels of lawyers and judges who had graduated during the last recession, experienced job losses, and had opportunities pulled out from under them. These panelists were able to offer practical advice on a variety of private practice and public service career paths, and on how to not only survive, but thrive, during turbulent times.
Participants in the program have already been impacted profoundly by their experiences, both by one-on-one mentorship and the follow-up events offered by the program. Attendees of the panel event reported they deeply appreciated the frank acknowledgment of challenges they would face, the concrete actionable advice they received, and the inspiring stories of professionals who, despite similar challenges, still managed to achieve meaningful, sustainable, and lofty career goals.
JMMP is planning several follow-up events this year, including a two-day workshop this fall entitled Starting Your Own Firm or Non-Profit, with a special emphasis on strategies for lawyers from historically underrepresented groups. We are actively recruiting speakers and panelists with diverse representation, and seeking funding to enable us to offer seed money scholarships to attendees to start their own firm or nonprofit. We hope to once again meet a critical need for law students and lawyers who seek to carve their own path, but who need information, tools, and encouragement to do so.
As a result of one-on-one mentorship, many more mentees have discovered new career options, found new jobs, made new connections, and stepped into new leadership roles. Specifically, one mentee told her mentor, “I’ve never met a lawyer like you!” Her mentor responded, “Well, trust me, there are a lot of us out there. I’ll introduce you.”
Another mentee at the program kick-off event marveled at Foster Garvey’s impressive meeting room, brimming with accomplished lawyers and judges who had volunteered their time just to meet him and his law school classmates. He said this was the first time he felt truly seen and welcomed into this profession.
Yet another mentee told her mentor she didn’t know what career path to take. Her mentor asked, “What is your passion?” The mentee hesitated, but shared that her good friend, who had recently passed away, had experienced domestic violence. The mentee had considered volunteering to assist DV survivors, but worried that the work would be emotionally overwhelming. Her mentor told her, “You can handle more than you think you can.” Fast forward one year, and this mentee has turned her loss and grief into her life’s purpose and a way to honor her friend’s memory through pro bono service. She has discovered that her mentor was right; she can handle much more than she thought she could. Who knows where other such moments of discovery might lead?
Students from historically marginalized backgrounds commonly walk into a space and wonder if they will be welcomed or excluded. Passive exclusion can be just as damaging. A lack of encouragement, a lack of information, or a lack of guidance exerts real power over an individual’s options, choices, and career path. Law students and new lawyers need mentors, and mentorship comes in many forms. The right information, the right word of encouragement, at the right moment can open a door. But more importantly, it can give someone the confidence to walk through it.