Case Closed: Law Firm Mentoring Programs Benefit Entire Organization

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Young lawyers need guidance, even if they graduated at the top of their class and seem like can’t-miss recruits.

In addition to traditional on-the-job training, forward-thinking partnerships offer junior associates formal mentoring programs. These help bridge the gap between mock trials and real-world courtroom arguments, or between commercial law lectures and actual boardroom negotiations.

The key word is “formal.” When firms depend on mentoring to occur organically, it often doesn’t happen. The lack of formal law firm mentoring programs sends young lawyers the wrong message: You’re on your own to make connections and build relationships.

At Chicago-based Jenner & Block, partner and chief talent officer Charlotte Wager runs the firm’s formal mentoring program and believes mentoring is a real differentiator.

“It changes everything,” Wagner said. “Law firms benefit immensely from the presence of a well-organized mentoring program because it provides the structure to teach associates the firm’s culture and the skills they need to achieve success. It also demonstrates the firm’s commitment to their growth.”

Formal programs ensure everybody gets the benefit of the knowledge of senior lawyers, which Wagner says is particularly important to women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community.

Navigating Daily Challenges

For associates interested in litigation, mentors offer insight into the complexities of a case as it comes in the door, as well as its chances of success. They shed light on the nuances of performing successful depositions and judging a witness’s credibility. They give guidance about discussing possible settlements with the client, and they also talk about courtroom strategies, decorum and judge/jury tendencies.

For associates on the commercial side, mentors discuss the breakneck pace at which many business deals move. They show associates how to advise a client to turn down an enticing transaction when it’s not in the client’s best interests. They also emphasize the importance of getting to know a client’s business, as clients want attorneys who speak their language.

Mentorships help associates learn the firm’s culture and understand its personnel. Mentors may talk about who at the firm communicates best through email, for instance, or who prefers an in-person conversation. They may counsel associates about what type of non-work topics are best to avoid.

Jumping Hurdles

Law firms face many obstacles in this “Era of the Client,” but mentoring programs help partnerships strengthen their greatest assets: their people.

  • Mentoring functions as a recruiting tool, as young lawyers increasingly seek firms that offer one-on-one guidance.
  • It teaches associates people skills — something they don’t always learn in law school.
  • It reduces attrition because associates are less likely to leave when a partner is looking out for them.
  • Mentoring strategically positions associates in the partnership pipeline and moves them toward leadership roles, ultimately enhancing succession plans.

Wager says clients tell her they see a big difference in the ability of her firm’s associates to “get it right” and have credited the firm’s mentoring efforts. After all, the clients want to hire a firm with trained, skilled associates who can do some of the work at lower associate rates.

Mixing It Up

Many lawyers have the traits necessary to efficiently mentor, which include:

  • The capacity to listen and ask as much as they instruct.
  • The knowledge that associates often change practice areas. For example, the first-year associate who wants to practice environmental law may become fascinated with intellectual property law by her third year.
  • The willingness to introduce mentees to other lawyers and encourage them to build relationships.

Variety is a key to successful mentoring. Jenner & Block, for example, assigns new mentors to mentees each of their three years in the program, offering associates three different perspectives, personalities and practices.

Align people with diverse backgrounds and let them find commonalities while discovering one another’s diversity. This creates relationships across differences and inhibits institutional biases from developing.

Don’t trust that once the mentor-mentee arrangement has been set up, the two attorneys will actively engage each other. Check in to ensure they’re meeting and holding discussions. This will prevent associates from falling through the cracks. Honor the confidential nature of their discussions.

Not all partners are cut out to be mentors. If they are not genuinely interested in developing people and investing their own time, they might not be right for this. Be careful about using very aggressive lawyers as mentors if they can’t effectively nurture young attorneys while pushing them to succeed.

Sponsorships: Taking It a Step Further

Some firms also have established sponsorship programs, which serve as valuable corollaries to mentoring initiatives.

Sponsorships usually move the mentor’s role to a more active advocate for the mentee (protégé). While historically aimed at a more narrowly defined group of attorneys, often women and minority lawyers, it may make sense to move the mentee/mentor relationship to a protégé/sponsor relationship for attorneys more experienced than junior associates.

These programs require more engagement from both the high-level senior partners and the mid-career practitioners they sponsor. Sponsors often influence whether an associate makes partner and help junior partners become rainmakers by using their career connections.

While law firm mentoring programs prepare associates to tackle client matters more quickly and place them within an immediate support system, these initiatives help over the long term, as well.

Mentoring breeds transparency and trust, which fosters a culture of mutual respect and contributes to the firm’s financial and professional success.

Case closed.

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