Mentoring – what it is and why it matters

Training young lawyers to become great, mature lawyers is hard work. It starts with legal training in university, continues through clerkships, gets serious when they are hired full-time and should gain steady momentum after that.

Emily Morrow

Ideally, by the time a lawyer is ten years “out”, he or she should have technical expertise, well-developed communication and interpersonal skills, strong work habits and excellent judgement. Easier said than done in many cases. An excellent way to ramp up this process is for a law firm to provide a really well-designed, in-house mentoring programme.

What is an optimum mentoring programme and how can a law firm, in-house counsel’s office or barristers’ chambers develop, implement and continually upgrade such a programme? Lawyers often assume a mentoring programme can be developed rather informally by encouraging older and younger lawyers to talk and spend time with each other a little bit more. Although this approach can generate some benefits, it is a “hit-or-miss” affair and is not a true mentoring programme.

Mentoring consists of a more senior professional imparting practical information to a junior professional from the perspective of “I want to support your professional success”, or “This (approach etc) worked well for me and maybe it will help you advance more effectively/ efficiently in your career”. It involves the mentor being transparent about his or her professional experience and having a continuing, high quality/ high trust dialogue. Beyond that, one is often getting into the counselling/coaching/performance management areas.

Mentoring is important because, without it, younger lawyers will need to learn by trial and error and will lack the benefit of a quicker ramp-up into true professional competency. Young lawyers will, no doubt, learn left to their own devices, but they will learn more slowly and run the risk of developing some bad habits.

Developing an optimum mentoring programme

Optimum law office mentoring programmes:

  • integrate well with the office culture;
  • have a clear, appropriate, realistic and achievable programmatic mission;
  • are tailored to address the needs/interests of the mentees/mentors/management (“bolt on”, “off the shelf” programmes tend to be problematic because they don’t “embed” well);
  • are developed collaboratively based on what participants (mentors and mentees) say they really need and want to achieve; and
  • are constantly being reviewed and fine-tuned in real time.

If a law firm is committed to developing a programme to support the professional success of its younger lawyers, I suggest the following approach.

Phase I: Information gathering

To meet, if not exceed junior lawyers’ developmental needs, a law firm will need to know exactly what those needs are. The best way to do this is to conduct one-on-one interviews with prospective mentees and mentors to determine their needs and how to address them. Alternatively, one can conduct “focus group” discussions, but participants may be somewhat less likely to be candid in such a setting. Such discussions are best done with the understanding that the interviewer will be seeking to identify common themes to inform programme design. Without that, the process could be viewed by participants as lacking integrity. This phase of the process is often done by an external consultant to ensure confidentiality.

This information will also inform articulation of the the programme’s mission. In other words, what needs is the programme trying to address, what are optimal outcomes and what would success look like several years out? This is critical to give the programme direction, focus and accountability over time.

Phase II: Findings and recommendations

The interviewer/external consultant should next summarise findings and scope out the programme’s design and implementation process. For example, is skills training an issue, what is the mission of the programme, do mentees mostly need a confidant and friend who will take a special interest in them, what level of confidentiality should be expected in discussions, how are mentors/ mentees to be selected, how are mentors to be trained and so forth?

The recommendations should be clear, concise, tailored, achievable but also challenging. They should spell out the first “iteration” of the mentoring programme pilot project, so that everyone knows what they will be doing.

Phase III: Pilot roll-out, buy-in and constant upgrade

Assuming a mutually acceptable design can be developed that meets the needs of mentees consistent with the interests of mentors and management, the next step is to roll out the programme. Typically, the following things will need to be addressed:

  • What training will the “mentors” need? What do they need to know and what will they be doing?
  • Who should be invited to be a mentor? In my experience, not all senior level lawyers are necessarily created equal in terms of being adept at cultivating younger lawyers. To be an excellent mentor, an individual needs to have both high IQ and high EQ, as well as being an insightful, excellent communicator and lawyer. Some people, not surprisingly, are naturally better at doing this than others. They are the ones who should be involved in the programme. Other people can be supportive of the programme, but not actively involved.
  • Carefully consider the pairing-up between mentors and mentees. Who gets along with whom, who has respect for whom, what lines of high trust communication already exist, who has complimentary capabilities and developmental areas and so forth?
  • Start the programme off with some clear guidelines and benchmarks. Tell everyone that this is a “pilot programme” and that all participants will be asked to give candid, confidential feedback on a regular basis, particularly during the initial roll-out. If problems develop, these should be identified and addressed quickly. If something works, go with it. If not, change or eliminate it. Adjust the programme as needed and do not get too committed to a particular approach. It is a creative process that moves inexorably towards increasing success. Everyone needs to be part of the process and all opinions/input matter.
  • Someone (ideally in-house) should be charged with overseeing the programme, both to communicate with participants and give ongoing feedback to management. This role should be spelled out with some specificity from the outset.
  • Build in regular evaluation of the programme. Who will do this, when will it be done, what type of written follow up should be prepared and with whom will this be shared? Do not put your mentoring programme on autopilot and expect it to glide forward effortlessly. It probably will not.

A practical experience

In connection with writing this article, I interviewed the managing partner of one of New Zealand’s larger law firms, which has begun developing an in-house mentoring programme for associates. The idea developed of having a partner meet with a few interested associates to discuss the partner’s own business development and other professional experiences. This gradually led to the development of a somewhat more formalised initiative. In describing the programme, the managing partner said,

“Our mentoring programme focusses on like-minded people finding each other and beginning to identify what the ‘end users’ would like to learn to further their professional development. It is a completely voluntary initiative, so there is no stigma to opting in or out. The selection of the topics to be discussed is left up to the mentees. As we went through the information-gathering stage, we learned a lot and were surprised, to some extent, by who opted into the programme, including some people we did not expect to do so. The feedback from mentees is that they are very appreciative we have done something and that we are genuine in our desire to support their success. My advice to any other firm is to jump in and try it, be open and transparent, don’t worry about perfection and focus on the end users”.

A successful mentoring programme encourages the development of high trust/ high communication professional relationships so everybody does their best work and feels good about it. This is what it is all about. It should embed well and become part of the fabric of a law office (in other words, “how we do things in this office”). When this happens, it encourages the development of more generalised, informal high trust/high communication professional relationships by enhancing everyone’s interactions with each other. The formal programme provides the momentum for enhanced informal interactions and how everyone treats each other in the work place. Law firms predictably experience better retention, higher morale, enhanced communication and productivity, better work flow and so on.

Developing a carefully-crafted mentoring programme takes a bit more time and effort than a casual “hit-or-miss” approach. However, you get back what you put in and you get one chance to do it right the first time.

Emily Morrow, BA (Hons), JD (Hons, Juris Doctor), was a lawyer and senior partner with a large firm in Vermont where she built a premier trusts, estates and tax practice. Having lived and worked in Sydney and Vermont, she now resides in Auckland and provides tailored consulting services for lawyers, barristers, in-house counsel, law firms and barristers’ chambers focusing on non-technical skills that correlate with professional success; business development, communication, delegation, self-presentation, leadership, team building/management and strategic planning. Emily Morrow is a skilled and experienced retreat facilitator for law practices. She can be reached at www.emilymorrow.com

Contact Us
Phone 09 303 5270
Fax 09 309 3726
Email reception@adls.org.nz