“Oh, oobee doo
I wanna be like you
I wanna walk like you
Talk like you, too
You’ll see it’s true” From the Jungle Book: I wanna Be Like You
But is it true?
“One of the largest national studies on associate attrition found that the availability or lack of mentoring and feedback frequently affected associates’ decision to stay with their firm or to leave”. (US Study – NALP Foundation for Research and Education. Keeping the Keepers: Strategies for Associate Retention in a time of Attrition, 1998)
The buzzword in many South African law firms right now is “mentoring programme”. These programmes are being introduced to combat a number of issues facing law firms in today’s climate:
- High attorney turn-over rates
- Lack of collegial atmosphere – (workplace cultures focused solely on profit and pleasing clients don’t build staff relationships)
- Young attorneys ill-equipped to withstand the pressures of the legal profession as their university training focused on academic training only
Firms are realising that “Associate happiness is also likely to be increased if you encourage development of each lawyer’s specific strengths and skill sets”. (from The Happy Lawyer, Nancy Levit and Douglas O Linder). But many of the firms are not entirely sure how to do this and are placing the success or failure of such programmes at the door of already over-burdened HR managers.
If you are implementing or designing a mentoring programme in a law firm right now, here are 5 things to bear in mind, based on global research.
- Most lawyers don’t naturally make good mentors. Mentoring is a different skill to lawyering. The first example: lawyers don’t like to listen! They are trained to give advice! The very opposite is required in a mentor who needs to listen and help the mentee find their own solution. It’s likely that most young associates if given the choice will choose the same partner or group of partners as mentors. However, mentoring skills can be taught, to an extent, if mentors are willing to put in the time necessary to learn them and are incentivised to do so.*
- Forward thinking firms are including in their compensation plans “an upward evaluation of partners by associates in categories of supervision availability, respect for associate work-load…openness to questions,…career guidance”. In other words, partners who are good mentors and managers are rewarded.
- Most young attorneys have not been encouraged to consider their vision for their careers or to assess what areas of law best match their personality, values and skills. If they’re academically strong, they end up in large firms by default, based on a fairly swift hiring process before they’ve graduated. The complex process of helping someone with personal discovery and insights, learning what one’s values are and being familiar with one’s strengths, is not really part of the senior attorney’s job description. Bring in professionals.
- Low levels of trust can be an issue: for example, will a senior partner be willing to hold an honest conversation with a junior about the downsides of her job, if the conversation might get back to her superiors and affect her own career trajectory?
- Generational differences: “Lawyers from Generation X (born between 1965 and 1979) and Generation Y (born between 1980 to 2000) often work in law firms where the senior partners are Baby Boomers (born between 1946-1964) – The Happy Lawyer. These are not arbitrary distinctions but crucial to understanding each other. Some examples: Boomers want the corner office, Gen X’ers see freedom as the ultimate reward, while Gen Y’ers seek work that is meaningful to them. Gen X’ers want to work smarter rather than harder and they tend to like flexibility. Gen Y’ers want to be judged on their productivity and the quality of their work, not their seniority.
The best mentoring programme is one that recognises the limitations of its attorneys as mentors, and supplements associate training with professional coaching.
A professional coach can design a far-reaching programme that can be transformational for both the mentors and mentees. In the next few posts I will lay out some of what a Professionally Designed Law Firm Mentorship Programme might contain.