Why Mentoring Programs Fail (And How to Fix Them)

Most law firms intuitively understand the value of mentoring. Unfortunately, that rarely translates into a successful mentoring program. Here’s what’s wrong with them, and how to fix them.

There are so many skills a young lawyer needs to develop in their formational years, and so little time in which to do so. Additionally, it’s so easy for a young lawyer to make a misstep that might cost them their future at the firm. It just makes sense to pair younger lawyers with more seasoned ones who can watch over them, shorten the learning curve and speak up for them within the partnership should anything go wrong.

The catalyst for many mentoring partnerships has been the need for either in-depth legal training or oversight, or marketing education. Firms will select senior partners with successful careers to either speak in presentation format or meet regularly one on one with lawyers in a marketing mentoring role. It seldom works.

  • Most senior lawyers are good at talking and sharing, not teaching. No, it’s not the same thing. Today’s young lawyers prefer experiential learning, as opposed to be lectured to.
  • This sharing is ultimately of little value because the world in which a lawyer must market or practice today is entirely different from the world in which that senior lawyer successfully built their practice. For example:
    • There was less competition before (from within the bar and beyond);
    • The internet was in its infancy. Clients weren’t as easily informed and educated. And SEO certainly didn’t exist;
    • Social media didn’t exist. Networking back then looked and responded very differently than networking today; and
    • Today’s lawyers are a different breed. They were raised to believe they are capable of anything, worth more than they might be in reality, and deserve instant respect and reward just for showing up. These attitudes couldn’t be more different than that of their typical mentor. The two simply don’t speak the same language, and frankly don’t live in the same worlds.
  • Most firms don’t understand the purpose of mentoring, how to do it effectively, and how to assess its effectiveness. As a result, programs are light on frequency and substance. They have no contract, consistency or boundaries; they require very little actual mentoring; and they have little to no accountability.
  • Firms tend to assign “successful” lawyers with younger lawyers, regardless of the mentoring skill of that lawyer. Frequently, the senior lawyer may be a fabulous biller and the world’s worst mentor. This will increase the younger lawyer’s sense of alienation from the firm and the practice of law…the opposite effect of that desired.
  • There is seldom any training for mentor or mentee. Instead, they “feel their way” through what is essentially a non-billable activity in an environment that values billable activity more. As a result, they put minimal effort into the activity. A lack of results re-enforces their lack of commitment and the spiral moves downward.

I’ve interviewed or coached over 1,000 associates in my career. During this process, I’ve learned that associates consider mentoring to be a key consideration in their valuation of their firm – and not just for marketing but for all aspects of their role. Associates recognize that in order to survive and thrive in a firm, they need fairly regular direction and wisdom from someone who can help truncate the marketing mastery time but also to help educate them on areas of law that you can’t read in books, and to navigate through political and personality issues within the firm.

A well-run mentoring program will not only help an associate to be a better lawyer and marketing sooner, but also assist with associate retainment. Isn’t this worth doing well?

1. Understand What Mentoring Is:

A mentor is an experienced and trusted advisor. Their goal is to support the growth and development of their mentee. These are usually long-term relationships, where the mentor provides wisdom and advice that might involve very specific goals, but could also include more general advice to help the associate with their day to day life at the firm, and their overall career planning.

Coaching, on the other hand, assists with building (or eliminating) certain skills or behaviours in the present. This is a finite engagement, with a declared purpose.

2. Define the Purpose of Your Mentoring Program:

Do you simply want some of your senior lawyers to spend a lunch-hour sharing marketing war stories and ideas with your associates? It might be an interesting lunch, but that isn’t mentoring.

Determine what you want your mentoring program to accomplish. Here is an example of a mentoring program mandate:

    • To provide practice and career advice and support;
    • To provide advice on intangible issues (firm politics, interpersonal issues, etc.)
    • To provide advice and encouragement on marketing;
    • To assist the associate through development of the wider range of skills needed to be a successful lawyer in the firm (i.e. delegation, file or client management, accounting issues, etc.);
    • To speak up for the associate within the Partnership.

3. Define the Mechanics of the Program:

How will mentees and mentors be identified and prepared? How will they be matched? What is the confirmation process (so each can veto the match)? How long will the relationship continue initially? What are the requirements of each mentoring pair? For example, how often will they meet? How will the initial conversations be structured? How will the pair be accountable to the firm? In time, each team will work out the ideal conditions for their own relationship but it helps to have a baseline established as a starting point.

4. Provide Training:

Have at least one training session for mentors, and one for mentees. Don’t train them together, as they have very different roles and responsibilities. Of these, the most important session is for mentors. Be clear on their purpose, their role, and the baseline actions required. Clarify that their role is not to pontificate, but that they are ultimately responsible for supporting their mentee through growth and development in an informative, constructive and encouraging manner.

5. Create an Accountability Process:

Ensure there is a consistent accountability process back to the firm. This could be in the form of quarterly or annual reports from each of the mentor and mentee assessing the relationship.

Be open to the idea of switching mentors after a period of time. Some mentors might be very strong in supporting their mentee through a particular area (marketing, for example) but once that’s done, it would make sense for the mentee to get a new mentor to go deeper into another skill or knowledge base (such as legal or practice management skills).

Also, be open to allowing mentors beyond the firm. It’s understandable that the firm would want to keep firm events and circumstances within the firm. It’s obviously not appropriate for one of your younger lawyers to be mentored on the law or firm issues by one of your competitors. That said, I often suggest to lawyers that they consider selecting different people as mentors for different needs. For example, for many years I had a mentor on management issues that was not from a law firm, but who was an excellent manager of people and projects and knew me very well. I had a different mentor for things related to not-for-profits (as I was running one at the time, in my spare time). I had another mentor for the more personal elements in my life…etc. I recall encouraging a coaching client to seek out a mentor from their own client base – a developing business – to help them better understand how to marketing to and support that target client type. You might encourage your associates to think about the specific support they need and to seek out mentors who can ably help them in each area.

And finally, learn to be comfortable with the fact that not every senior lawyer in the firm will want to be a mentor, or will be good at it. You might need to include mid-range lawyers as part of your mentoring team (and they might be fantastic!) Or you may need to engage outside coaches as an alternative to mentoring in some instances.

Either way, mentoring and coaching are an investment in a critical component of your business: your younger lawyers. Supporting their growth and development is a good business practice, and will be seen by many to be a positive differentiator for your firm, inspiring loyalty as well as greater productivity and happiness. It’s well-worth doing it right.

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