August 28, 2015 article

Mentor, Make Me a Better Lawyer

By Lisa O'Connor

In this post-recession era, there is new focus on mentoring young associates—if not in practice, at least in the amalgam of theories for how to improve our profession. The concept is simple and oft repeated. Mentoring leads to better lawyers.

While data indicates a modest uptick in entry-level associate hiring over the past five years, the profession is still far from its pre-recession heyday. This may translate into small firms hiring only one or two new associates over several years. Yet, simply by the numbers, this may also mean that there are more seasoned lawyers available and willing to mentor young associates. For those of us fortunate enough to be new hires, fewer numbers may provide greater and earlier development opportunities. For firms, with new hiring criteria and definitions of "quality" applicants, the prospect for effectively grooming the next generation is arguably now at a several-year high. Through mentoring, we all have the ability to use these circumstances to our advantage.

Mentoring is not one size fits all. There is no magic attribute that makes a mentor. Firms with mentoring programs do not all adhere to one specific method. Malleability in mentoring is necessary and to all of our benefit. Touting this importance, however, begs the question: In all of its varied forms, what makes mentoring successful? In other words, what is the common thread? From the perspective of a young associate, the answer is adherence to a simple goal: Make me a better lawyer.

This goal may seem more appropriately categorized as an obvious outcome. The concept—mentoring leads to better lawyers—makes sense. Yet, no matter how obvious, losing sight of the goal is a disservice to all involved. A young lawyer does not need a friend or another boss or even a hero. A mentor may serve in all of these roles but only when doing so comports with the goal. It is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which a friend may choose not to hurt feelings instead of helping a young associate develop into a better lawyer. Neither choice is right nor wrong, but successful mentoring entails, first and foremost, acknowledging and adhering to the goal.

Consider next a few of the facets of good lawyering. Even for those within the profession, the "sexy" skills we see on TV—the ability to persuade a jury in the first five minutes of an opening or to obtain admissions on cross examination, perhaps without the witness even realizing it—often come to mind. More generally, powerful writing and oral advocacy are likely to be at the top of any list. While the importance of mentoring to help young associates develop these legal skills cannot be overstated, slightly beneath the commanding display of good lawyering are skills less tangible but equally as significant.

"Soft skills," as many commentators refer to them, are client- and communication-centric. They include, for example, relationship-building, leadership, teamwork, management, business etiquette, client service—the list goes on. For many of us, these skills (as opposed to more "traditional" legal skills) form the foundation of our work on a daily basis. Every day, we do not take depositions, we communicate with clients. For small firms, these skills may even be a key to the future. As the lawyers with their names on the door retire, clients need to know and trust the next generation. This is fundamental to both retaining existing clients and generating new business, particularly through referrals.

The interesting phenomenon is that soft skills, despite their value, are easily overlooked or, maybe because they are difficult to teach, pushed aside in the context of mentoring. This is why adherence to the goal is so important. If a mentor is consistently working toward the goal of developing a better lawyer, it is impossible to ignore soft skills. Good lawyering does not exist without them.

Developing soft skills requires opportunity. Mentoring serves as a safety net, not to protect young lawyers from inevitable mistakes but to ensure that opportunity (regardless of how anxiety-inducing it may be) is offered with a purpose. Even on a small scale, the opportunity to attend a new client meeting, to respond directly to emails from an expert, or to participate in a case-strategy session makes young associates better. Opportunity may also help to alleviate a common fear—the unknown—and to empower young lawyers with a better understanding of their own capabilities, to all of our benefit.

As many have said, mentoring has immense potential to improve our profession, particularly in the current environment. Realizing that potential, however, is not automatic. Adhering to the goal—developing better lawyers—portends the desired result.

Keywords: solo & small firm, litigation, mentor, mentoring, young lawyer

Lisa O'Connor is an attorney with Cohen Kennedy Dowd & Quigley, P.C. in Phoenix, Arizona.


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