Mentoring: Changing programs for challenging times

Volume 35 Issue 2

In January 2007, the Alabama State Bar held a festive gala to roll out a statewide lawyer mentoring program that featured 70 mentees selected from nearly 300 applicants. They were grouped with 17 mentors, who were hand-picked by a blue-ribbon task force that spent two years crafting a mentoring program.

A year later, the number of applicants fell by more than half and changes were made to address problems raised by mentors and mentees.

By early 2009, the program had been disbanded.

“We were shocked. We thought we did everything right,” recalls Edward Patterson, the bar’s assistant executive director. “People have lofty ideas about mentoring, but when you get into the trenches, the devil is in the details.”

While the Alabama State Bar’s tale might seem extreme, struggles with fostering and guiding effective mentoring programs are not altogether unusual for bar associations, particularly those at the state level, leaders say. Generation gaps, geographic hurdles, mismatches, time constraints, liability concerns, and limited bar resources have all had impacts on mentoring programs.

Despite the challenges, many bars continue to promote mentoring, often through a mix of incentives and new approaches designed to address previous pitfalls that they and other bars have encountered. Lingering concerns about professionalism and liability, along with a desire to improve the profession and build interest in the bar among new lawyers, remain strong drivers for bar-fostered mentoring programs. And in recent years, a weak economy that has forced many lawyers to lose jobs or go solo has kindled new interest in mentoring at many bars.

It is those interests and concerns that will likely continue to keep mentoring at the forefront for many bar associations. But many leaders say that bars must also carefully explore the best ways to provide mentoring opportunities that are meaningful for members without unduly draining resources. And as the economy and social times shift, such programs must also be prepared to change in order to succeed.

 

The need remains

Developing and overseeing mentoring programs can be tough for bar associations, acknowledges Melvin F. Wright Jr., chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Professionalism. “It’s a challenge, where it’s not required or mandatory,” he says. “I think we’re still developing the best ideas and approaches.”

Three states—Georgia, Utah, and Delaware—have mandatory mentoring through their state bars, with Oregon seriously considering a similar proposal. While some state bars have voluntary mentoring programs of some sort, Wright says, the majority of such programs are at local bars.

Wright is familiar with the arguments against bar involvement in mentoring—and can see merit in many of those concerns—but he believes bar associations can, and should, play a role in supporting mentoring, particularly via newer approaches that address some of those concerns.

“There is a need in our profession for newly admitted lawyers to seek out mentoring,” he says. “You hope that [bar] leadership ferrets out the good ideas and the bad ideas and they’ll say, ‘This is an item that’s important, and we need to provide new lawyers with assistance.’ ”

 

One bar’s hard lessons

The task force formed by the Alabama State Bar in 2005 was meticulous in its research and development of a statewide mentoring program, according to Patterson. The bar looked closely at other such programs across the country and talked to lawyers throughout the state before recommending the pilot program that was implemented.

The program established 11 mentoring groups along geographic, practice, and firm-size lines, with monthly meetings planned among mentors and mentees—including two to four “mentoring social events,” according to the task force recommendations. The program also built in time to allow mentors and mentees to have the freedom to develop professional relationships.

Buoyed by large numbers of mentee applications and enthusiastic responses from selected mentors, bar leaders believed the program was headed in the right direction. But as the first year wore on, and as anecdotal reports came in, it became apparent there were problems with the program.

A more formal survey of those first-year mentees confirmed some of the problems:

 

“No one, mentors or mentees, can put time into it.”

 

“Lots of people [in my group] were disappointed. Mentor should be someone who has been in practice less time … just told war stories.”

 

The responses from mentors were just as stinging.

“Mentors complained about a lack of responsiveness from the mentees,” Patterson says, “and the mentees complained of pretty much everything—many of their complaints quite petty—which led us to conclude that there is an ‘entitlement attitude’ among some segment of newer lawyers entering the profession.”

Despite an attempt to revamp the program in the second year by providing more bar staff support (a Listserv was provided, generating few hits), adding a CLE component, and reaching out to mentees in rural areas who often felt left out, interest in the program dropped dramatically. The bar considered adding more resources to save the program, Patterson says, but leaders decided that a highly successful bar leadership development program deserved more support, and mentoring was dropped.

The bar has been up-front about the mentoring program’s demise.

“We concluded most of our mentees want the basic introductory CLE courses for new attorneys, rather than a mentoring experience, so we discontinued the program in early 2008,” the bar states on its website. “After looking at a number of models for mentoring programs, we decided to remove it at the state level, concluding it works best in local communities and cities as opposed to being managed from state bar headquarters.”

 

Differing expectations

The problems that confronted don’t surprise Rick Allan, director of the Nebraska Lawyers Assistance Program and overseer of mentoring activities for the Nebraska State Bar Association. A traditional mentor-mentee matching program in was scrapped a few years ago when “it became apparent that most of the new lawyers were merely hoping for referrals, networking, and jobs,” Allan says. Instead, Allan—a lawyer with 40 years of experience—attempts to answer questions from new lawyers, with assistance from a list of volunteer attorneys. The service, he adds, generates few calls.

Allan believes many bar associations are involved in mentoring to try and fill a growing gap at many law firms throughout the country, places where mentoring was a long-standing tradition. “Law firms are failing in the area of mentoring,” says Allan, a former firm member. “I understand overhead and that law firms have to be profitable, but I’ve seen so much overreaching and greed in our profession. The emphasis is on hours billed, and they’re not paying attention to good mentoring.”

That feeling, Allan and others say, is part of a continuing cultural shift in the legal profession that is impacting mentoring at a time when it may be most needed. Some of those mentoring gaps start appearing at law schools, according to Wright, where many schools no longer teach “the nuts and bolts” of solo and small-firm practice at a time when more attorneys—many out of necessity—are turning to that practice.

And while Patterson laments that “many of our mentees really just wanted an experienced lawyer in their wallet they could pull out like a 20-dollar bill when they needed help,” he also understands the growing pressure on many new lawyers faced with tens of thousands of dollars in law school debt, dimmer job prospects, and the need to work long hours to maintain their positions.

“The legal profession has changed so much, even in the last three years, with the economic downturn,” he believes. “Young lawyers’ needs and wants are much different from what they were 10 to 15 years ago.”

 

Renewing, and retooling

For Melvin Wright and other bar leaders, the shift away from mentoring at firms and the disillusionment among more new lawyers are indications that mentoring through bars or other such groups is still needed. And adding to that call, they say, are insurance companies that are increasingly concerned about malpractice among newer, inexperienced lawyers, and lawyers who, finding themselves out of work, are often forced to turn to solo practice or a new area of the law.

“We want to try and make our profession better, and mentoring is one of those ways that many of us think will help,” Wright says. It’s one reason that Wright’s home state of is making changes to its mentoring program.

The voluntary North Carolina Bar Association has had a mentoring program for several years, says bar President Eugene Pridgen, “but I don’t think the bar association as a whole has paid much attention to it. Young lawyers have told us that, and they’re right.”

The bar has also gotten a push for change from Lawyers Mutual, which provides professional liability insurance to lawyers. “They’ve seen some sad malpractice claims, and they’re interested in helping,” Pridgen says.

To address the issue, Pridgen formed a Young Lawyer Initiatives Task Force, which will not only look at changes in mentoring, but will also look at improving leadership and training skills for new attorneys. Just what role the NCBA will play in mentoring will be determined by the task force, he says.

“Is it coffee once in a while, or is it more substantive help? There are a lot of questions that aren’t being answered,” he notes. “Law firms and the metropolitan bars might not reach everybody. Where do we feel [the NCBA] fills in the gaps? We want to step back and see what to talk about.”

At the voluntary State Bar Association, Maryann Williams, the bar’s director of sections, uses the term “refurbishment” to describe a retooling of that bar’s mentoring initiative. She is in the midst of moving the bar from an unstructured “social meeting program” form of mentoring to more substantive matching of interested mentors and mentees.

To bolster the program, the ISBA received permission from the state’s chief justice to provide program participants with continuing legal education credits—an important carrot in a state with mandatory CLE requirements. “You’ve got to have a hook, and free CLE was ours,” Williams says.

Under the program, which rolled out in October, mentors and mentees will either be paired up by Williams, or the bar can approve an independently arranged pairing. Mentors and mentees must then meet at least six times in person over the course of a year, with each receiving six CLE credits upon completion.

While new lawyers will likely be big beneficiaries of the arrangement, she says, lawyers who have lost their jobs and are looking at new areas of the law can also benefit, as can those who have been disciplined and are looking to restore their careers by gaining more knowledge of ethics and professionalism.

Williams began reaching out to newly sworn-in attorneys in October by putting information about the program in their information packets. She provided mentor applications to lawyers the ISBA recently honored for being 25-year and 50-year members of the bar.

“In the first week, I had applications from 30 new mentees and 15 mentors,” she says. “Nobody has turned me down yet.” The goal is to get as many as 500 attorneys as mentors.

 

Economy adds urgency

While state bars such as Indiana, North Carolina, and Oregon move forward on active mentoring roles, many local bar associations continue to foster and fine-tune existing programs or look to introduce new approaches in response to changing times.

At the 4,400-member Mecklenburg County (N.C.) Bar, the economic downturn and discussions with members indicated that expanding the mentoring program was needed—although it is happening with caution and with a few changes in the existing mentoring program, says Nancy Roberson, the bar’s executive director.

“Our attorneys want to spend time with each other and learn from each other,” she says. “There are a lot of unemployed attorneys, but we didn’t want this to become a career placement service.”

Because some participants had expressed disappointment in previous matches and meetings, the bar is taking a more active role in talking to mentors and mentees to gauge their expectations in order to improve matching, says Maya Madura Engle, the bar’s director of compliance and ethics. “It’s more like a lawyers’ match.com,” she says.

The bar is also taking a more active role in monitoring the program, known as Linking Lawyers, by checking in regularly with mentors and mentees and requiring them to attend at least two bar functions together. Bar leaders hope that will also have the added benefit of getting new lawyers involved in more bar activities.

At the same time, the bar launched a separate mentoring program in January that matches midcareer minority associates with senior in-house counsel mentors from local legal departments. The bar also maintains a “drop-in” program that encourages lawyers to explore informal mentoring opportunities.

Informal—and quick—was the approach that the Santa Clara County (Calif.) Bar Association took in October. The bar sponsored a two-part session; the first part, which earned attendees one hour of CLE credit, was a panel discussion with judges and lawyers on the importance of mentoring and the particulars of establishing and maintaining this type of relationship. This was followed by a “speed mentoring” program that allowed lawyers to meet in pairs with mentors who were also paired—one junior, one senior—for 10 minutes at a time to discuss mentoring philosophies and ideas.

Once the 10 minutes were up, the mentee teams moved on to another team of mentors, with the hope that some connections would be made by the end of the evening, says Christine Burdick, the bar’s executive director. The approach was a break from previous unsuccessful and time-consuming mentoring attempts that relied on more traditional matching of mentors and mentees, she notes.

“Our objective was to get people talking and that maybe the panel would give [mentees] enough information to go back and talk further with some of the people they met [during speed mentoring],” she explains. “I think it went great. People hung around and continued to eat and drink and talk.” The event also succeeded in using less of the bar’s time and resources, she adds.

At the Dallas Bar Association, a program that combines six required mentor-mentee programs for CLE credit with six informal sessions has proved successful and is expanding, says Alicia Hernandez, who coordinates the Transition to Law Practice Program and is also director of the bar’s Volunteer Attorney Program and community services. The transition program, which was started in 2008, will also now involve mentoring for attorneys looking to start their own law practices.

“It’s really being driven by the economy, and lawyers hanging out their own shingle,” Hernandez says. “We’re always tinkering with the program to make it work better.”

The Dallas bar’s program began as a pilot for what has become a successful state and local bar partnership—one in which the State Bar of Texas is the central point of connection but works mainly through local bars to deliver the intensive, hands-on service that can be a challenge for large state bars to provide. (See “The Texas model: A boon for big state bars?” page 9.)

 

Whose bar is it?

While the Alabama State Bar’s mentoring program did not meet expectations, that doesn’t mean that Edward Patterson or other bar leaders have lost faith in the mentoring concept. “It is a noble gesture,” he says.

What the experience and other similar ones have shown Patterson and other bar leaders is how carefully mentoring needs to be considered at all bar levels, from geographically large states to urban and rural bars. The experiences also show how outside economic influences, competing programs, often limited bar resources, and social changes can affect mentoring approaches. Gone are the days when veteran lawyers casually provided sage guidance to new attorneys at law firms or the bar association front porch.

“You have to be selective and strategic about where you use your time and resources,” Patterson advises. “Don’t assume you know what your mentees want or need. It’s not your grandfather’s bar anymore.”

 

The model

A boon for big state bars?

 

Marilyn Cavicchia

 

Say you’re a staff or elected leader at a large state bar, in a state that does not have a mandatory mentoring program. You believe strongly in mentoring but aren’t sure you can effectively provide it, in part because of the sheer size of your state. What could you do?

One helpful model for state bars in that situation might be a relatively new program called “Transition to Practice: A Mentoring Initiative for Local Bar Associations.” This program, which launched in the summer of 2009, is administered by the State Bar of Texas—but instead of getting heavily involved in matchmaking and other details, the state bar provides a comprehensive toolkit that local bar associations, law firms, and corporate or governmental law departments can use to provide mentoring in their own locales.

On hand to discuss the program at the August 2010 Annual Meeting of the National Conference of Bar Presidents were Roland Johnson, immediate past president of the State Bar of Texas, and Hon. Douglas S. Lang, a past president of both the Dallas Bar Association and the National Conference of Bar Presidents.

In 2006, Johnson recalled, Lang came to the bar’s professionalism committee with some research he’d done on mentoring programs in other states—including one from the State Bar of Georgia, whose mandatory program has been used as a model for countless others, both mandatory and voluntary. What arose from that and other discussions was the idea of a pilot project in , which would feed into a statewide effort—the latter of which became a major initiative during Johnson’s presidential year.

The state bar’s resource material, which Johnson jokingly called a “cookbook,” is available at www.texasbar.com. It includes templates for letters to both mentors and mentees, a timeline for the program, and anything else a local bar or other such group might need. It also includes a detailed agreement that outlines all of the expectations—including some boundaries for the advice to be given, and that the mentor can’t be held liable. “Everybody is more comfortable if there’s a signed document,” Johnson believes.

The Texas Young Lawyers Association offers “mentoring in a box” materials that are particularly useful for lawyers in counties where there is no local bar, he added.

The state bar opted to partner with local bars rather than running its own program in part because of the immense scope of the project, Johnson said, noting that the state’s lawyer population is more than 90,000, with about 2,500 admitted each year. “We couldn’t staff up for that,” he explained.

Which isn’t to say it’s easy for local bars, even with access to the state bar’s resources. The program has rolled along with great results and very few disasters, Lang noted, but it has required a lot of effort on the part of staff and members alike—especially when it was just getting started.

Particularly now that so many lawyers can’t find a job and end up going solo without first gaining any practice experience, mentoring is important enough to justify the investment of staff time, volunteer time, and other resources, Lang believes.

In his mind, it all comes down to one question, which he posed to the NCBP members in attendance: “Am I going to leave the values of the profession to accident?”

 

 

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