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Vol. 44, No. 1

Mentoring done right: What helps a program succeed?

By Dan Kittay

If your bar has struggled to come up with a successful mentoring program, you're not alone.

"I've seen it done [with] old school one-to-one matching; cohorts, with first-year lawyers mentoring law students, third-year lawyers mentoring the first-year lawyers; mentoring circles, where people are matched by areas of practice or geography," says Ellen Miller, director of strategic partnerships and initiatives at the California Lawyers Association and a long-time bar executive.

"All of them fail,” Miller says. “All of them fail, at least in my experience, for a few reasons." One reason, she believes, is that bars don't define clearly what they want from the mentor, which leaves the mentor feeling frustrated over time. The same is true when bars don't make it clear what they expect from mentees.

Many programs do not set clear goals for the programs, or even discuss whether a mentoring program is necessary, Miller notes. "What is the point of doing the mentoring program?" is a question that bars should be able to answer definitively before starting one, she says.

A good match is key

There are bars that report success with their mentoring efforts. One such bar is the Orange County (Fla.) Bar Association . The OCBA has one track focused on law students and a separate one for new lawyers, says Kristopher Kest, who chairs the committee that oversees the OCBA Mentoring Program

The new lawyer program runs for four months, and asks that pairs meet at least four times in person, Kest says. The meetings can include anything from a hearing to a luncheon or a bar-sponsored social event. OCBA chose four months for the duration believing that it made it easier for new lawyers to commit to the program.

Kest and others interviewed for this article say a key to a successful program is matching mentors with the right mentee. One of the reasons that many bar mentoring programs tend not to be effective is "they're very staged," Miller says. "What makes mentoring relationships succeed is just the organic nature. You click with somebody or you don't." Since programs tend to match people somewhat randomly, there is less of a chance of the mentoring relationships succeeding, she says.

For a more personalized approach to matching pairs, bars can look at the method that Cecilia Sepp uses when matching partcipants in the Professional Mentoring Network of the 501c League, a group she founded for nonprofit organization professionals. It's an outgrowth of her work as principal of Rogue Tulips, an association management consultancy.

"We can meet people who will become mentors for us, or who we can ask to be a mentor for us, but for a lot of people, it's difficult to make that initial ask," Sepp says. She decided she would take the role of connecting mentors with mentees.

Some mentors might be consultants or industry partners, or staff from a different profession, as long as she believes the mentoring pair will be effectively matched. While it is more time-intensive to match people this way, Sepp believe it leads to a more rewarding experience for both participants.

Designed for new lawyers, by new lawyers

One frequent question about mentoring programs is whether young lawyers are as involved as they should be in designing them, to help ensure that they best meet mentees’ needs. Lindsay Powell started a mentoring program when she was a member of the Northern Virginia Black Attorneys Association, and is now a co-creator, with Brittney Sandler, of a mentoring program for the Virginia State Bar Young Lawyers Conference. Both had been on the mentee end of programs in recent years, and wanted to bring their experiences to the new VSB program.

“My mentor in law school was really helpful for access to information and support, and made law school easier for me,” Powell says. “I want to see the same thing for others.” While mentoring programs are often created by more experienced lawyers, she says it’s helpful to have a diverse group offering input, as needs of new lawyers can change over time as new technologies are introduced.

Powell and Sandler conducted a survey to see what most interested both mentors and mentees, and at press time were going through the results. Some of the early respondents said they were open to being mentors but wanted to work with mentees who were willing to "guide the relationship" and focus on what they wanted to know, Sandler says. While the final format of the program remains to be developed, she expects it will be relatively informal, with participants “allowed to put in as much time as they want to.”

Different models for mandatory mentoring

Some states have made mentoring mandatory. In Oregon, the New Lawyer Mentoring Program requires mentors and mentees to cover multiple areas during their one-year mentor relationship, including: introduction to the legal community; professionalism, rules of professional conduct, and cultural competence; and introduction to law office management. Within that structure, participants have freedom to cover the topics as they choose, says Catherine Petrecca, new lawyer programs coordinator at the Oregon State Bar.

The bar provides recommended activities within each category and allows the mentoring pairs to choose which they will complete, Petrecca says. Upon completing the program, the mentees fill out a checklist and sign a certification of completion. Mentees pay $100 and receive six MCLE credits, she says. There are currently about 400 mentoring pairs in the program.

The State Bar of Georgia's mandatory Transition Into Law Practice Program allows for three types of mentoring: Inside, for those who work in large firms where they are assigned a mentor; Outside, for solo practitioners who have connected with a mentor; and Group, for those who have not connected with a mentor and/or prefer to work in a group setting. The TILPP arranges topics and speakers for the group program, says Michelle West, TILPP director.

In recent years, West says, the number of new attorneys who choose outside, one-on-one mentoring has gone down, with more of those lawyers choosing to be in group mentoring. About 30 percent of the approximately 1,100 new lawyers who join the program each year choose the group program, with about 10 percent opting for individual mentors. "I think that's just the times," she says, noting that younger people seem to prefer working in groups.

Is mentoring only for new lawyers?

West and Petrecca participated on a panel devoted to mentoring programs at the 2019 NABE Midyear Meeting in January. Another panelist was Barry Grodsky, the immediate past president of the Louisiana State Bar Association, who helped implement the bar’s Transition Into Practice program. TIP is a voluntary program for new attorneys, who pay no fee. Among the requirements for mentees, Grodsky says, are: attending civil hearing or trial in State District Court; attending a criminal hearing or trial in State District Court; attending a civil hearing or trial in Federal District Court; and attending a criminal hearing or trial in Federal District Court.

The LSBA had worked with some of the state's law schools in teaching professionalism to law students, and realized that more help was needed, Grodsky recalls: "You can't leave them off on professionalism when they get out of law school." This led to having the mentor program focus on new lawyers, but then the bar realized that there should be more help available for lawyers in further stages of their careers.

"You can't leave off a one-year lawyer and say, 'OK, we're done,'" Grodsky believes. The LSBA created a program focused on attorneys who have been practicing from two to seven years. They hear from professionals such as accountants and bankers about issues such as trust accounts and malpractice insurance.

The LSBA has also focused on issues related to senior lawyers, matching them with younger attorneys who may be more savvy in the use of technology and other practice issues, Grodsky notes.

Creating relationships, facilitating connections

This "reverse mentoring" is a concept that sometimes gets overlooked when bars talk about matching mentors and mentees, Miller says.

"We focus on mentoring relationships making the assumption that the mentor is the one bestowing the wisdom on the mentee,” she notes. “There has been discussion in several bars about 'How do we create the opportunity where new lawyers learn from seasoned lawyers, but also seasoned lawyers learn from some of the skills that new lawyers do naturally?'"

Miller cites understanding metadata on document discovery, and using social media as part of an effective marketing campaign, as just two examples where new lawyers are likely to be able to help more experienced lawyers.

Calling these interactions "mentoring" may no longer be appropriate, Miller believes. "We should be focused on more of an organic networking. What bars can do to support all of our members, not just new members, is creating relationships and facilitating connections between lawyers.

“Maybe those networking relationships will be about old-fashioned referrals, maybe they'll be about traditional mentor-mentee relationships, and maybe [they] will be something else to support the newer lawyer."