October 23, 2012

Mentoring: The Prelude to Succession Planning

As the legal profession continues to change, new trends continue to arise. But one of the most important trends of the day is not new to law firms. It is the return of the oldest, tried-and-true approach to associate development and retention—mentoring.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “mentor” as “an experienced and trusted advisor.” And for decades, mentoring was the standard, and almost the only, way of training associates. Although mainly an informal effort in small firms, larger firms developed and implemented formal mentoring programs as a means of institutionalizing and ensuring associate development. Then increased competition and heightened pressure for more billable hours, a turbulent job market and spiraling attrition caused firms, unfortunately, to reduce or altogether abandon these programs.

Now, as a result of both layoffs and reduced entry-level hiring, there is a smaller pool of associates involved—as well as a growing generation gap in many firms, particularly large ones. Therefore, effectively training and developing associates has become more critical than ever and has fueled the return of mentoring initiatives.

What the Programs Involve
Mentoring programs today are more comprehensive and formal than they were decades ago. Of course, they still include the development of the basic skills required to be a competent lawyer, such as taking depositions and writing briefs, as well as the development of competence and experience in the associate’s specific area (or areas) of practice.

But now mentoring also includes training in client service and relationships, supervising other lawyers, process management of cases and client work, marketing and business development and the effective use of technology. In addition, a strategic objective of mentoring programs in many smart firms is to identify and develop potential leaders and senior management for the firm.

However, one of the traditional, and critical, responsibilities of a mentor remains the same: Providing one-on-one counsel to young lawyers. Many associates need guidance in developing relationships within the firm and in dealing with conflicts with other lawyers. They can be unsure of their opportunities within the firm, or if they have a future with the particular firm. They may even be struggling with the question of whether or not they have chosen the right career. A good mentor can help the associate address issues such as these.

Formal vs. Informal Relationships
As in any other profession or business, mentoring relationships in law firms can be formal or informal. In today’s environment, most are formal and need to be. These relationships could be described as an “arranged marriage” between mentor and mentee, which in some cases may not be successful. If the relationship isn’t working out for either party, then a change should be made, of course.

Generally, formal mentoring relationships can be successful if the senior lawyers regard their role as an important responsibility and make a meaningful commitment of both time and interest. At the same time, informal programs, which rely more on chemistry between the two lawyers, can often achieve a higher level of success for the same amount of effort. In some cases, the younger lawyer will have a formal or assigned mentor and also develop a separate relationship with an informal mentor, which can be especially beneficial.

Traditionally a mentor is a more-senior partner in the firm. One reason for this is that he or she not only has the required legal experience but also has the most knowledge about the firm and its culture. Many associates prefer this type of mentor. However, to be an effective and successful mentor in this day and age, a senior partner must also have the ability to bridge the generation gap and know how to communicate with an often much younger associate.

On the other hand, some firms have had success by designating as mentors, at least initially, a young partner or even a senior associate who is on the brink of becoming a partner. This arrangement reduces or even eliminates the generation gap issue with new associates. In many cases, after the first year or two of this arrangement, a more-senior partner then becomes the mentor.

But no matter which approach a firm follows in selecting mentors, it’s important that each mentor be evaluated on his or her performance in that role. The main components of this evaluation involve an assessment of the younger lawyer’s professional and personal development and the mentee’s input on the relationship, accompanied by his or her evaluation of the progress experienced as a result.

Ultimately, if they want to design and implement a succession program, law firms must have potential successors available in the firm. An effective mentoring program is the prelude to developing them.