February 09, 2016 article

The Challenges and Opportunities of Small Firm Mentorship

By Ronald K. Gardner

From where I sit, mentoring new lawyers today is dramatically different than it was over 20 years ago when I entered the profession. And in a way, that is true whether or not you are in a big firm or a solo practitioner. In my experience, the millennials who are coming out of law school today are, by and large, expectant of a mentorship program that is consistent with their prior life experience. For the most part, they have grown up in a culture that has gone out of its way to assist them in everything they have done, making sure that they feel validated even when their efforts fail. Indeed, multiple studies and articles have been written about the pros and cons of a generation who have grown up receiving participation trophies. See, e.g., Vivian Diller, "Do We All Deserve Gold? Setting Kids Up to Fail," Psychol. Today (Nov. 19, 2011).

That this is true is obvious to anyone who has done any sort of hiring in the last five or so years. I cannot recall a prospective employee who has not asked me directly about our mentorship program, and what he or she can expect to get as the mentee in this sort of relationship.

What I do think is probably different between big firms and small firms, however, is how those of us in the small firm setting can respond to this question. While our firm is a strong believer in mentorship, what that means, I suspect, is significantly different than what it means at our large firm competitors.

As a mentor of a brand-new lawyer, I think it is incumbent upon me, in the first instance, to teach that new lawyer how to be a lawyer. (I have yet to meet a law school graduate who was actually taught how to be a lawyer. In my experience, that comes in the first five years of practice.) At the same time, I must also instill in that new lawyer not only the "nuts and bolts" of practicing law, but the rules of the road imposed on such practice by both the culture of our firm and, more importantly for the long term, the ethics rules by which we are all bound, and by which I believe we all become professionals.

Accordingly, the first order of business at our firm with any new lawyer (or law clerk for that matter) is to read a manual that we have created over the years containing a description of the areas of law practice in which we practice, informative articles about those areas of practice, and perhaps most importantly, briefs that we have written that illustrate the types of arguments we want to make and creative thinking that we require of our lawyers in the face of difficult circumstances. We typically provide our new hires with about 20 hours' worth of time to get through this tome, asking questions of them along the way to make sure they understand what it is they are digesting.

At the same time, it is extremely important to us that our new hires become ingrained in our culture. They need to quickly learn not only about how we lawyer, but to find a way to fit into our social culture as well. New hires are encouraged to walk into the other lawyers' offices to ask questions (and partners are encouraged to stop by and ask new hires how they are doing and if they have any questions). Law clerks and young lawyers are typically asked to accompany a group of other lawyers to lunch on a daily basis. While we certainly do not "require" these individuals to join us for lunch every day, fast friendships and informal mentorship relationships are created through this mechanism.

The firm does appoint a mentor for each new lawyer—although it is frequently the case that the informal mentorship relationships that are formed in the social setting end up taking precedence over the more formal preordained relationships. Having a culture where the mentor and the mentee feel like the relationship is natural, where a bond of trust can be created between the two, has served us far better than a formal mentorship program, where meetings are forced, and topics are created, rather than having them flow organically from the work that is being done.

And perhaps that may be the biggest difference between our firm and others. We are a "learn as you go" operation. We are too small and too busy to be anything but. We expect all of our lawyers, from the newest associate to the most seasoned and tenured partners, to be doing "A+" work, and if that type of work product is not produced, to be getting assistance to quickly get the work product up to our high standards. Everyone here knows our internal motto of "A, or on the way to A (or on the way out)" when it comes to our work product. New hires who cannot meet that standard fairly rapidly do not end up working here for extended periods of time.

And that brings me back to my earlier point about the personality of today's new hire. It is my own philosophy that a mentee should not control the mentee-mentor relationship. That is turning the world a little bit too upside down for my taste. While people do in fact need to be encouraged, taught, and brought into the fold, they also need to understand that there are consequences for lack of performance and that "participating" is not simply enough. In order to be a lawyer in a small prestigious firm, one must not simply participate, but excel. It is my job, as a mentor, to tailor ways that will inspire the individual personalities of each of my new hires. This will hopefully allow them to succeed, thereby giving them the opportunity to become a long-term productive member of our team.

Keywords: litigation, solo practitioners, small firms, mentoring, millennials, young lawyers, law clerks, new hires

Ronald K. Gardner is the managing partner of Dady and Gardner, P.A. in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is a past chair of the ABA Forum on Franchising.


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