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Solving the Associate Retention Challenge With Developmental Networks

As a coach, I am intensely interested in how we – professionals in the legal sector – can help retain young lawyers in the profession.

The young lawyers I speak with have a healthy perspective. They have the types of strengths and interests that align well with a career in law. They are interested in building meaningful and rewarding careers that also leave room for a life outside of law. I believe they are vital to helping transform the practice of law for the better.

And we need to retain them in the profession.

Too many young lawyers are leaving legal practice, which isn’t news to anyone reading these words. Do a Google search, and you will find a list of articles from the past decade all pointing at the same stark picture.

I frequently find myself on the front end of this crisis as I am contacted by young lawyers in distress, suffering from various forms of mistreatment by their law firms or the partners they work with.

As Jordan Furlong referenced in his 2021 report to the Law Society of Alberta (citing a 2018 consultation paper by the Law Society of Ontario): some will experience a degree of “difficult or even damaging personal experience” during their articles, and I would add in their initial years of practice.

Even for those young lawyers who land in better circumstances, the first years of practice are tough. Everything is new. New law school graduates don’t know anything about the actual practice of law and face a steep and challenging learning curve.

Other challenges may include:

  • The career path is unclear.
  • The practice area an associate is hired into isn’t one they wish to pursue in the long term.
  • The chances for having some semblance of work/life harmony appear unlikely.
  • A lack of feedback and learning opportunities from senior lawyers.

I hear anecdotally from junior associates about the despair they are experiencing. Some of the comments shared with me include:

  • All law firms are the same.
  • It’s not possible to have a life outside of law.
  • I don’t want to be a partner – look how miserable they all are.

Many junior lawyers are voting with their feet to leave the profession entirely.

Traditional Mentoring Isn’t Enough

There is a traditional approach to mentoring in law of assigning one mentor to one junior lawyer. Mentor and protégé meet for one-to-one meetings on a regular or semi-regular basis. The success of these relationships depends in large part on the protégé’s proactive participation, the mentor’s availability, the relationship between mentor and protégée, and the “fit” between the two, which can mean the type of law practiced, personality, background, and more.

I have heard a lot about the hit-or-miss nature of mentorship programs. Sometimes, a protégé is paired with a mentor who is a good fit and who actively engages with the protégé. Other times the fit is off, or the mentor too busy to engage, so no rapport is established.

In mentoring relationships within law firms, there is an additional challenge around issues of confidentiality and trust. Partners are business owners, and associates are employees. There is a question about how much can be shared by the protégée with their mentor. Additionally, in some cases, the mentor is a partner to whom the protégée reports. This overlap in roles adds a further impediment to the psychological safety of the mentor/protégée relationship.

Finally, senior lawyers may themselves have not received mentoring or much support as juniors. They are unlikely to have had any leadership training. The pearls of wisdom they are passing on may be less than helpful.

If mentoring programs are to equip junior lawyers to establish a solid foundation for a successful career in law. It is unlikely for monthly or bi-monthly meetings with one senior lawyer to achieve this objective.

It Takes a Village – The Power of Many

Law Societies, law schools, law firms and legal organizations are striving to implement programs to give young lawyers the tools and resources they need to succeed.

Strategies currently being planned or deployed include expanded mentorship programs and an educational curriculum for newly called lawyers. However, more educational programming and individual mentoring relationships aren’t going to be enough to stem the attrition of young lawyers from the profession.

The focus on mentorship and education in law needs to expand to a constellation of mentors and supporters – a developmental network – as it is called in the field of mentorship studies.

Two decades ago (yes, this isn’t a new concept), researchers Higgins and Kram reconceptualized mentoring as a development network in their 2001 article “Reconceptualizing Mentoring at Work: A Developmental Network Perspective,” unleashing a flurry of ground-breaking research in the field.

Applying this idea of the developmental network to law, in their 2010 paper “Is More Truly Merrier?: Mentoring and the Practice of Law, Fiona Kay and Jean Wallace found that “individuals benefit more from having multiple mentors over the course of their career.” Having access to a diverse “constellation” of mentor-like relationships contributes to lawyers experiencing greater career satisfaction.

In her article “Having a Mentor vs. Having a Developmental Network: Diversity is Key!” University of California Davis Professor Greta Hsu writes:

“A developmental network is more than just a group of individuals who provide you with professional support and guidance. To be effective, your network must also be diverse, including a balance of contacts inside and outside your organization, hierarchical level and demographic group. This may sound excessive, but it is not. How many times have we heard someone state an opinion as if it is fact? How many times have you seen people derail their career because they are unable to see issues in fresh and more neutral ways? A diverse network enables you to address these challenges.”

For junior lawyers, a developmental network provides a range of people to turn to for advice, answers, and for working through challenges. The diversity of this group offers a variety of perspectives and insights. Having the support of a developmental network makes it easier to access the courage to take on challenges and stretch learning opportunities.

I know a senior associate who successfully established a developmental network for herself. She invested in individual coaching, established close supportive relationships with senior lawyers and colleagues from within and without her firm and external to law. This network has been instrumental in helping her make a critical transition to a different firm, expand her practice into a new related area, and achieve her initial successes in business development.

Young Lawyers – Take the Initiative

Hsu urges young professionals to build their own developmental network proactively:

“There are many ways one can go about building a developmental network. Step one is to honestly evaluate your current network, looking for diversity gaps.

The next step is to build a development plan that is measurable and actionable. You must invest in relationships that have strategic value, identify and connect to relationship brokers, and minimize contact with those who demand too much of you. You must take advantage of programs, practices, and communities that allow you to access diverse others with shared interests.”

I encourage all of us who are engaged in supporting young lawyers to promote the idea of developmental networks by explaining the benefits and helping young lawyers to form these networks for themselves.

Yes, intentionally forming a developmental network takes some reflection and planning, and it can be accomplished in small steps. Here are some questions to guide the process:

  • Who the people I currently reach out to for support?
  • What is missing that could make a difference?
  • What programs are out there that could help me fill these gaps? Examples include CBA Young Lawyers Section, CBA Women Lawyers Forum, The Advocate’s Society, Law Society resources and mentorship programs, practice advisors, and more.
  • Are there individual lawyers I can connect with?
  • Do I have law school colleagues with whom I could collaborate on this?
  • What are some small next steps I can take?

Associate Mentoring Plus (AMP)

In response to my work on the frontlines with distressed lawyers, I launched a pilot developmental network for junior lawyers in 2020 called AMP (Associate Mentoring Plus).

When I created AMP, I did so from the instinct about what was missing that could make a difference. My aim was for junior lawyers to have access to a community of support with coaches, mentors, and colleagues. I wanted to combine this with educational opportunities of a kind rarely available in standard CLE training.

The initial cohort launched in October and is going strong. A second cohort will begin in May.

I’ve learned from the first cohort that the highest value of AMP is the small and tight-knit community that has formed between the members, mentors, and coach. For the members knowing there is a group of people who “have their back,” having access to a safe space for discussing challenges and having the benefit of various perspectives has had a positive impact.

Comments from members have included:

“Prior, I was convinced that I had to leave law, that it just wasn’t for me that I couldn’t make it, I wasn’t finding my people, I wasn’t finding my space and I couldn’t see a future that I wanted in law. Now, I’m excited to be a lawyer again.”

“It’s made a huge difference. I feel like it’s given me a safe constructive space and community to explore some of the challenges that I’ve felt – alone or isolated with steps that you can take to set yourself up for success.”

That’s the power of a developmental network.

Going Forward

There are some practical steps I suggest:

Help young lawyers weave their own developmental networks from within and without their firms including mentors, colleagues, professionals from other sectors, coaches, counsellors and others from their social network.

Host an education session on developmental networks and introduce initiatives aimed at helping young lawyers build their own networks.

Lawyers of all years of call can continue volunteering as mentors and connecting your protegees to your network.

Implement leadership training programs for mentors and principles and indeed all senior lawyers at your firms. I haven’t addressed this in the article, but I understand that some Law Societies are considering measures to provide training and certification for lawyers seeking to act as mentors or principals. I encourage this as it would likely reduce the incidents of abuse.

The bottom line is that together we can make a difference for lawyers joining the profession.

And by supporting their growth and development, we can help transform the practice of law for the better.

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