August 16, 2017 Practice Points

Don’t Underestimate the Power of a Successful (and Not So Successful) Mentoring Program

By Victoria Calhoon

Mentoring programs are practically commonplace in large companies and law firms, though as many attorneys are aware, they are not always a success, even when firms and companies aim to have meaningful mentoring programs. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Mel Jones asks the question “Why Can’t Companies Get Mentorship Programs Right?” and outlines some surprising findings for the impacts of strong and weak mentoring programs.

Mentoring programs are not just a matter of on-boarding an attorney or retaining talent, but can also ensure that institutional knowledge gets passed down to rising stars within a company. Formal mentoring programs provide a structured way to establish relationships between more senior employees with more junior ones. As Jones points out, this will become more “pressing” as more workers enter retirement and “companies risk losing a wealth of data and information as millions of people exit the workforce without passing much of it on.”

Litigation skills and experience can also be lost when senior partners who have tried a multitude of cases over decades were not directed to mentor less experienced litigators on their craft before the senior partners entered retirement. While some partners mentor more junior attorneys naturally and make a point of sharing their wisdom, other partners may forget that passing on these skills through a mentoring relationship could be invaluable to the future of a firm. This seems particularly important given the smaller number of cases that go to trial now and shrinking opportunities for civil trial experience.

Ms. Jones’ article highlights another issue with mentoring programs: they often fail to train the mentors on good mentoring skills. This can be caused by a lack of resources (time or financial) within an organization, or an assumption that good mentoring just happens. While a forced relationship hardly feels like a recipe for mentoring program success, providing mentors with guidance on how to support mentees makes good business sense given the stakes of retaining talent.

Just as important, bad mentoring can do much more harm than the good achieved by a great mentoring experience. According to Jones, research has found that “negative mentoring experiences caused more intense emotional and behavioral responses among employees compared to positive incidents. More, the ramifications of failed mentoring relationships can lead to emotional, psychological, and even physical ailments. And feelings about poorly executed mentoring programs can translate into negative feelings about a company.” Even though companies know the importance of a mentoring program, they may not recognize that a poor program can lead to issues within the organization beyond possibly losing some newer talent.

Interestingly, while formal mentoring programs are seen as an important part of companies, it is not the best solution for all companies or firms. As one expert interviewed noted, mandatory programs are more beneficial in a “knowledge transfer” scenario, whereas a focus on increasing employee engagement would make a voluntary program a better fit. Finding what works best for a firm’s culture and tailoring a mentoring program accordingly involve hard work, but could also reap many more benefits than copying what worked elsewhere.


Victoria Calhoon is an attorney at Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, Indianapolis, Indiana

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