Marginalized Law Students and Mentorship.

Author:Bouclin, Suzanne


In most professions, the opportunity for mentorship is recognized as an indicator of personal development, academic achievement, and career advancement. (1) Formal and informal apprenticeship, or the "gradual enculturation or membership into a community of practice" (2) has always been a foundational part of the legal profession. As Fogg et al. put it, "[t]he concept of mentoring in the legal profession is as old as the profession itself... long before bar exams, new lawyers learned their trade by serving as apprentices for practicing attorneys." (3) Recently, there has been much scholarly attention paid to the kind of mentorship that occurs within the legal profession. (4) At the same time, professional associations and law faculties have taken a more active role in facilitating mentorship through formal programs that match students with practitioners. (5) While there is no fixed definition of mentoring, such formal programs tend to adopt what is considered a classical view of mentoring: the establishment of a relationship between two people--a "mentor" and a "protege/mentee/mentoree"--for the shared purpose of fostering the mentee's personal and professional development. (6)

Despite the increased focus on mentorship within the academic and professional milieux, there remains little theoretical scholarship on the experience of students who have enrolled in these formal programs. (7) This research proposes to explore these experiences. Within an intersectional framework, I focus on how marginalized law students (8) and/or those who are under-represented within law schools struggle to find and access mentors with whom they can relate, (9) and document how they demonstrate resiliency in forging their own unique forms of developmental relationships, whether short-term, peer-based, or otherwise.

Part One of this article is a synthesis of relevant literature in mentoring studies. Other disciplines have established that members of marginalized groups, including students in professional programs, still struggle to find opportunities for mentorship. Moreover, Canadian legal scholarship shows the on-going value of mentoring experiences but tends to explore mentorship's impact once students have formally entered their chosen profession. Little if any qualitative research in law centres the experiences of marginalized students who endeavour to find mentors while still enrolled in law school. Part Two details the applied methodology and theoretical assumptions that guide this research. In Part Three, I present data from a survey of the mentoring experiences of law students who self-identify as members of equality-seeking groups. Considering these findings, I conclude by investigating the ongoing challenges that these students face in securing valuable mentorship opportunities, and the resiliency and creativity they deploy to find other sources of mutual support, guidance, and career advice.


    My research team and I conducted a broad review of empirical studies and normative assessments of mentoring across disciplines, then narrowed our literature review to scholarship published after 2003 (a decade before the initial research for this study began), and organized it according to three themes most relevant to this project: (1) scholarship that defines the scope and range of mentoring relationships, (2) authors who critically engaged with power relations that shape and constitute mentoring and mentorship, and (3) the few explorations of mentoring within the legal profession. (10)

    1. Defining the Nature and Scope of Mentorship

      The dominant view of mentoring relationships is that mentors ought to perform two primary functions: first, they facilitate career growth of the mentee through sponsorship, exposure to new ideas, and coaching; second, they provide psychosocial assistance through role modeling, confirming the validity of life choices, and counseling. (11)

      Mentorship may be formal or informal, and has recently taken on new configurations and modalities such as peer-to-peer mentoring or e-mentoring. (12) While it is sometimes difficult to draw a strict line between formal and informal mentoring, the former is organized, institutionalized, and involves a controlled matching process, ideally coupling "those who have been successful in achieving [milestones, goals, successes] with those aspiring to reach" these outcomes. (13) Formal mentoring, when deploying effective structure and screening methods, and when enabling mentees to have a measure of input into their selection of mentors, (14) has been found to generate collegiality, enhance career aspirations, and increase employment satisfaction. (15)

      With informal mentoring, the protegee and mentor are said to organically "find" one another and develop a relationship through one or more interactions, leading to "spontaneous career nurturing." (16) Some scholars argue that informal mentoring is more effective for marginalized groups, (17) and particularly for Indigenous peoples. (18) As Catherine Hansman explains, this result may be attributable to formal programs not being structured to "remove barriers to advancement for marginalized groups," still "reflect[ing] the power and interests inherent within organizations [that may be] served at the cost of employee or human interests." (19) Yet other scholars emphasize the importance of formal programs that are designed for and by members of marginalized groups, because these members still have significantly less access to situations where they will "organically" find a similarly-situated mentor. (20) On this point, the Law Society of Upper Canada's Equity and Aboriginal Issues Committee recently found in 2015 that "widespread barriers experienced by racialized [and Indigenous] licensees within the legal professions" included "negotiating concepts of 'culture' and 'fit,' and lack of mentors, networks and role models." (21)

    2. Intersectional Readings of Mentoring Relationships

      There is an implicit bias in traditional definitions of mentoring towards evaluating objectives and outcomes according to the experiences of people who already occupy spaces of privilege (generally, heterosexual men who are racialized as white). (22) In light of some problematic assumptions in formal mentorship programs that reinforce a classical view of mentoring, many contemporary scholars locate mentoring relationships within intersecting structures of power, including race, (23) culture, (24) disability, (25) sexual identity and gender expression, (26) and/or age. (27) This body of research explores the importance of one's personal characteristics and social location along axes of advantage and disadvantage--whether as mentor or as mentee--in the constitution of fruitful mentoring relationships. To some authors, dominant mentorship models are ineffective and reproduce oppressive structures because they are marked by a legacy of colonialism and racism, gender inequality, and class-bias. The language that gives shape to mentoring relationships, such as mentor and protege, exemplifies how these structures can tacitly retain a paternalistic undercurrent. Protege is the past participle of the French proteger ("to protect"), taken from the Latin protegere ("cover in front"), which implies that mentors "assume the role of parents and consider it an obligation to provide protection to others under their care" while "[subordinates... reciprocate by showing loyalty, deference, and compliance." (28) Further, the term mentorship is embedded in the dominant culture, (29) and culturally-specific, and thus, may implicitly betray a bias against particular worldviews. As Raven Sinclair (Otiskewapiwskew) and Sherri Pooyak (Cree/Assinniboine/Saulteaux) point out, no English word appropriately conveys Indigenous tutorship methods, values, or techniques. (30) Nevertheless, tools that translate wisdom inter-generationally are integral to maintaining Indigenous spirituality, and a way of life anchored in reciprocity, learning, and community responsibility. (31) In congruence with this perspective is the reality that historically formal peer mentorship programs in Canadian universities and colleges have not been designed with Indigenous students' needs and challenges in mind. (32) Consequently, Indigenous students may feel as though they are less privy to the implicit normativity of the law faculty, as though they are, as Calder et al. note, "'landing' into a whole new world with special rules that seem obtuse and inaccessible; not knowing how to go about learning those rules and sensing that the rules are tied to privilege." (33) As Breda Bova explains, Black women also face particular challenges in having their "experiences and life histories" recognized when being mentored by white women. (34) As a result, "the needs, concerns, and achievements of Black women" may be overlooked in favour of untested assumptions and "stereotypical images and expectations of these women still held by many [mentors]." (35) Similarly, Patton found that white mentors, regardless of gender, may be "unable to and in some cases unwilling to understand" the perspectives of their African American mentees, (36) while, Reddick documents how white male mentors may be less self-reflective about their role in systemic racism. (37) Further, Leck and Orser found that male mentors may, unwittingly perhaps, assume that their female mentees are less competent or eager to succeed, and less actively mentor them based on those assumptions. (38)

      Unsurprisingly then, research has shown that shared experiences--based on race, cultural background, sexual orientation, gender expression, first language, and gender, and their subsequent shared understanding of systemic racism, homophobia, linguistic hierarchies, and sexism--can be relevant in forming mutually enriching mentoring relationships with people with whom they identify. (39) Women, for instance, still tend to prefer to...

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