Volume 19, Number 1
By Martha Fay Africa
Mentoring and training, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder. Everyone, whether associate or partner, has a different definition. That's the problem. Without a consistent view of what constitutes training and mentoring, people don't recognize that they are receiving it. Can't you just visualize a senior partner announcing to an associate, "I'm mentoring you now, don't you feel it?" Absurd scenarios aside, if a lawyer isn't conscious of getting or giving what the other offers or needs-feedback about improving a brief, or a stroke for a job well done-the intent is wasted. Isn't that a shame? We used to think of law as an apprentice profession, one in which it took at least three years after law school for an associate to become useful to a client or to advance to a senior status in the firm. A junior lawyer ritually carried a more senior lawyer's bag-literally and figuratively-and training occurred by osmosis. Both parties understood that the junior lawyer would learn something as a result of accompanying the more senior lawyer, if only by watching and not participating. Sometimes the client was billed for these "passive" experiences, and sometimes not, but they were recognized as contributing to the professional maturation of the junior lawyer. As lawyers in this state of close proximity grew to trust and respect each other, mentoring relationships often developed naturally. But as law shifted from a profession to a business and clients made it clear that they were unwilling to pay for training, the rituals practiced during the era of "law as sacred profession" changed. Today, junior lawyers, for the most part, get more responsibility earlier, whether or not they can handle it, because the economics of the profession dictate that junior lawyers must be profitable earlier. Training and mentoring might be profitable activities for the law firm that takes a long view of its relationship with junior associates, because the firm expects to realize its investment. However, law firms with short- to mid-range views are less likely to train. Senior lawyers may think: Why train someone who will leave anyway? Why train when I can't bill for it? Why train when no one trained me? Why train when I haven't a clue about how to go about it and I don't even like this associate? And finally: Why am I paying these associates all this money if they can't figure it out themselves? This is the problem that young associates face in firms of all sizes.
Big Firms: Training, Not Mentoring
In big firms, training programs are often institutionalized. The firm possesses a body of training materials, access to state-of-the-art technologies to link lawyers by remote, rooms in which to hold training sessions, lawyers with the expertise to deliver, and novel client matters that consistently challenge the edge and provide a rich stream of new training experiences. These training experiences are essential in big firms because they provide associates with the often-missing ingredients they crave: human contact and interaction. If you talk to third-years in a major city practice who seldom deal directly with a client and almost never get to deal with "real" people's problems, you'll find that they feel isolated and lonely. Training sessions give them an excuse to see and interact with others while learning at the same time. This is not to say that if a firm is large it has no mentors, or that one-on-one, hands-on feedback never occurs. But such time-consuming feedback is likely to come from a more senior associate, possibly at the expense of his or her own future. One associate ruefully told me of a mentor relationships she had with a junior partner in a mid-size firm who was, to her and to many of her peers, a true mentor: He trained, gave negative and positive feedback, and took risks for them when he thought they were right. Associates flocked to him. The firm criticized him because he wasn't billing enough (although he was working outrageous hours) and, seeing his compensation reduced because of his associate training and mentoring activities, he left. Yet some larger firms actually retain partners who may not be rainmaker types, but are good at mentoring and training, to lead these activities. Associates seem more likely to recognize the firm's efforts to train them when the role is centralized and led by a partner they like and trust.
Small Firms: Sink or Swim
But what of smaller firms-how do they do it? A.J. Rollins, a third-year associate at Atlanta's six-lawyer firm of Jackson & Tyler, LLP, is pleased with the training he received in corporate and tax law. The firm had a mix of formal and informal training, and he was particularly enthusiastic about its utilization of tapes from the Southern Federal Tax Institute. Gathering with other junior lawyers for lunch once a month and listening to the tapes gave them the opportunity to relate the information to client matters currently being dealt with at the firm. At other firm lunches, associates were encouraged to raise issues relating to their work and kick around various solutions to client matters. Rollins says his biggest surprise about practicing law was that he assumed the lawyers he practiced with would know all the answers to issues that came up-just like his professors seemed to in law school. He was unprepared for the fact that lawyers do not know all the answers, and also for the range of disagreement about specific issues. But both the open-mindedness and the disagreements made him feel better about the trajectory of his learning curve, and he became more patient as a result. Brian Davis, managing director at the New York office of Major, Hagen & Africa, is a 20-year veteran lawyer who practiced in smaller firms. He says that even lawyers expect law to be intuitive, "and it's not. You have to be taught, step by step. Sometimes I would begin to explain a project to a young associate, and I could see when they got it: Bingo-the light went on! Other times, I'd have to go through the process again." Davis says one of his hires, a Harvard Law School graduate, once told him, "When you start practicing law for the first time, it's the first time in your life that you have to be told things twice!" The associate felt humiliated that she didn't immediately understand how all the pieces fit together. Part of most non-traumatic learning is, after all, learning to recognize patterns, and people usually do that by repetition. This associate hadn't seen most patterns occur twice, so she couldn't predict whether "a" would be followed by "b" or by "d." Many associates want a thorough grounding in some discrete area before venturing afield to learn new ones. Contemporary law practice seldom affords that luxury, so first years often are spent in periodic anxiety. Just knowing there is someone to go to with that dumb question is all most of them need but often don't find. Associates in small law firms are often confronted with a revolving door of matters. Many express frustration with the never-ending learning curve of practices that deal with small businesses, divorces, drunk driving, real estate, litigation, and criminal matters. How can a new associate cope in such a kaleidoscopic environment? One associate told me, "Just find the firm 'rabbi' and take lessons from him." Another says, "I look for the great person and I figure if I work with a great person, I can become a great lawyer." In smaller firms there is a smaller talent pool to choose from. Should an associate who can't find a great teacher in his or her first law firm leave? Not necessarily. There are other choices.
Do It Yourself
One option is to make a commitment to or mentor yourself, building a network of colleagues from law school, the local bar association, and acquaintances in other firms who know more than you do. Another option is to take advantage of firm resources in terms of form files and documents that can teach you how others solved that same problem. Start with what's at hand, readily available, and free of confidentiality conflicts. Take home a few documents every night: Read them, understand the differences between them, and try to learn why one lawyer solves the exact same problem differently than another. As you learn more, you will gain more confidence in your own judgment. Go to the lawyers who wrote the puzzling document you read the night before and ask a few questions about it-it might flatter them, and it will certainly demonstrate your desire to learn. (All the better, of course, if you are fishing through documents that relate to your current workload.) There's little point in reading through material that you don't have immediate use for unless you expect to use it soon or are intellectually curious. The point is, we all want someone to take us by the hand, but sometimes there is no other hand but your own, so take it! Thank heavens for the Internet. Many training and networking opportunities exist because of the Net, many of which are free. It is also a way to hook up with lawyers outside your jurisdiction and ask questions. And remember CLE courses. Your state probably requires some, and, even if your firm does not pay for them, they often provide inexpensive ways to meet your requirement while learning material you can use at work. One lawyer tells me that when a new matter comes into his firm, he simply calls the Practising Law Institute and orders relevant books on the subject. The books are always written by authorities in the field, are usually affordable, and retain their value. Another associate told me that he hung on to his bar review books as a resource for when he knew next to nothing about an area. Still another suggested the "In a Nutshell" series, which includes brief study guides to various areas of the law. Self-training may be tougher to accomplish than working with the friendly rabbi, but once you get the hang of figuring out an area by yourself, the habit will stand you in good stead. Don't forget your friends-they work at other law firms with different (and sometimes better) form files and can send them without breaching confidentiality, thereby bringing you up to speed and providing a much better result for your client. Ask other lawyers out to coffee and find out how they learned to practice. After you scratch the surface of the profession, you find that few practicing lawyers under age 50 had the fabled mentor who took them by the hand and helped them toward the answer. Maybe that was already a myth only 20 years ago. On the other hand, it is likely that lawyers then were not expected to mature professionally as quickly as they are today. So learn from your individual strengths and mentor one another. When you realize that you can be your own mentor, that there are pieces of mentor in all the lawyers that you meet, that the single source mentor may no longer exist, then you can relax. As A.J. Rollins found, partners still have to pick up books in order to answer client questions. You may not see them doing it, but trust me, they do. And you will for the rest of your life in the practice of law. Be patient with that aspect of your profession, be supportive of those who are junior to you, and appreciate the wonder of a profession in which you will never know all there is to know.
Martha Fay Africa is a founding member of the global attorney search firm of Major, Hagen & Africa (www.mhaglobal.com) and is located in the San Francisco office.