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Law Practice Today

June 2024

Mentoring in the Post-COVID “New Normal”

Zackary Zuroweste


  • Learn tips for maintaining any mentor-mentee relationship.
  • Mentorship has become a lot harder these days with fewer face-to-face interactions.
  • Mentees should be aware of the time a mentor spends on them, so be respectful of the mentor’s time.
Mentoring in the Post-COVID “New Normal”

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Since we returned to work after COVID, people often say that we are in a “new normal.” I’m not sure what the new normal looks like for you, but I suspect you have more flexibility performing the duties of your job than you did in, say, January 2020. We used to live by the first-in, last-out policy and regularly attended hearings and meetings dressed in a suit and tie (with suit pants and *sigh* dress shoes). Being at work meant physically being at work. COVID changed all that. Now, lawyers of all ages and firms of every size are virtual, hybrid, or have implemented their unique mix of remote-work policies. In fact, new lawyers practically expect some level of hybrid work. Yes, our profession caught up with technology, but with our newfound flexibility, we no longer work side by side with our younger colleagues daily. We use Zoom, Teams, email, text, and chat. And when we are at the office together, we still communicate electronically. So, how do we mentor young lawyers and elevate our profession in this new normal? Having created a few legal mentorship programs, I have some suggestions. But first, a story.

When I started practicing law almost 18 years ago, I arrived at the office early every day, stayed late, and worked weekends to prove my loyalty to the firm. Those working hours outside the 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. gave me opportunities to learn from my mentor without the phone ringing or someone barging in the door with an emergency. I treasure those times because I learned a ton, and I was fortunate to work with a mentor who was invested in me becoming the best version of myself. I do not know how many hours we logged working together, but it exceeded several hundred. Likewise, I’m sure you credit a mentor who helped you develop into who you are today. We now owe it to our colleagues, our firms, and our profession to pass on our knowledge to young lawyers so they can thrive in their careers. But mentorship has become a lot harder these days with fewer face-to-face interactions. Instead, we stay in our offices on Zoom to save time and money.

In some ways, technology like Zoom made developing relationships from afar much easier because you can read the other person’s facial expressions and sense their reaction to what you say. But just logging onto a Zoom call doesn’t make you effective. Most of us are so busy multitasking that we look at the camera while checking emails and reading the latest filing. It is efficient, but you cannot build true connections that way. It’s like scrolling social media on a date with someone new. In my opinion, our shortened attention spans on Zoom have spilled over into our in-person interactions. Notice how many of us talk to one another while also scrolling our phones?

If shortened attention spans are part of our new normal, we as mentors must go out of our way to teach the skill of connectivity. We, as mentors, should model establishing connections by being personal, genuine, and vulnerable with mentees. We should demonstrate that we are willing to share our mistakes, fears, struggles, and weaknesses. When we do that, it signals to younger colleagues—where there is already an unspoken power dynamic—that it is okay to be a genuine version of yourself. When we are genuine in any situation, we instantly build credibility and make personal connections. But when we are on a screen or in a hastened impersonal environment, we should be more conscious of communicating in a way that lets the mentee know we are serious about connecting with them. Having done this myself, I can tell you that it makes a huge difference. Conversations go from stiff stories about bar events to sharing dreams about careers, struggles with family balance, and career missteps. Mentees gain a ton of insight into their future, and you feel like those challenges were worth it.

So, how do you do this? My suggestion is, if you are meeting with a mentee, incorporate a personal share. Talk about what you thought lawyer life would be like and how wrong you were. Missteps you made in your career path you would not recommend. Fears you held as a young lawyer. Things you had to learn the hard way. Regrets. Those personal shares make you a real person and not just an intimidating older lawyer. (I said older, not old.) Try this and watch the reaction. You will see your mentee reciprocate, and before you know it, you will be in a genuine conversation, establishing a real mentorship connection.

Once you have established that connection, use it. Ask your mentee the big questions no one ever asks. Young lawyers have so much on their plate these days; they’re often just trying to make rent (which is crazy high!) and do a good job for their firms. Many do not have enough experience or perspective to thoughtfully consider their next career steps, the kind of life they want to create, and practical steps to get to where they want to be. You can be a soundboard, a reassuring voice, and a thoughtful friend with some sage advice based on your experience. Those nuggets of wisdom are the essence of true mentorship and what impacts young people forever.

Establishing a genuine connection is your biggest task as a mentor. When you have that, everything else follows. But you’re a lawyer, and like me, you need lists and rules to follow. So, let’s discuss a few rules to maintain in any mentor-mentee relationship:

  1. Establish an agreement with your mentee to commit to the mentorship relationship.
  2. Avoid too many war stories and self-aggrandizing tales. These can be helpful learning tools, but avoid dominating conversations talking about yourself.
  3. Introduce your mentee to other possible mentors. If you know a great connection close to your mentee, make the introduction! That is mentorship too.
  4. Set aside dedicated time to meet with your mentee. Yes, you are busy and have a ton to do. However, you can set aside an hour or two per month to dedicate your attention to a young lawyer who values your insight.

If any mentees are reading this article, thank you! I have some suggestions for you too:

  1. It is your responsibility to reach out to your mentor. The relationship is for your benefit, so the burden is on you to take the first step.
  2. Take the lead in the relationship and make the most of it. Show up prepared to guide the conversation. Have some things in mind you want to talk about.
  3. When you meet with your mentor, do not leave without setting your next meeting. If you clear the time now, you are likely to keep that future meeting.
  4. Make your mentor a priority. A mentor has chosen to invest time in you, so be respectful of their time. Avoid canceling meetings and showing up unprepared.
  5. Ask a lot of questions. Hot tip: Lawyers love to talk about themselves, so guide the conversation with questions on topics that are helpful to you.

Above all, have fun!