Mentoring Makes Sense

By Josh Ross, Stoll Berne and YLS Futures Committee member.

In his 2008 Professionalism Award acceptance speech, Jeff Batchelor shared a list of the traits of lawyers and judges that, throughout his career, had inspired him. At the top of that list, Jeff described the inspiration he felt from seeing lawyers and judges share their time, experience, and wisdom with young lawyers. Jeff, I believe, was speaking of lawyers and judges who are and were great mentors; that he placed mentoring at the top of his list, I am certain, was no accident.

Quality mentoring is unquestionably valuable. Dedicating the time, resources and effort needed to guide a new lawyer to a successful career benefits not only the mentee, but the bar generally and the mentoring lawyer or firm who, in many ways, stands to gain the most from the new lawyer's success. Mentoring helps new lawyers build confidence, boosts efficiency, reduces the risk of malpractice, and sends the invaluable message that the mentoring lawyer or firm wants to invest in its new lawyers. Mentoring helps new lawyers become productive lawyers. Mentoring makes sense.

Those facts, perhaps, are obvious.

And yet are we as a profession, proactively dedicating the time and resources necessary to maintain the high standards of the bar? The 2006 Generation Gap Survey suggests we may have some work to do. Over 50% of responding lawyers said that they want and would benefit from additional mentoring, training or coaching - and it's worth noting, over 70% of the responding lawyers had been practicing for over seven years. Of greater concern, only 16% of us strongly agreed with the statement "My firm offers sufficient mentoring and/or training to support success." Because mentoring does in fact support success, those statistics should concern us.

At a minimum, there is always room for improvement. To be sure, effective mentoring takes proactive planning, time, and a willingness by the mentee and mentor to make sacrifices (read: forego billable hours). Thus, many lawyers and firms stick to the basic model of pairing new lawyers with willing partners or senior associates. That model, no doubt, provides new lawyers a great resource and helps to develop relationships.

However, a few local firms have developed mentoring programs aimed at teaching skills and providing resources that new lawyers need. At Tonkon Torp, all new lawyers attend weekly discussions of nuts and bolts topics like the firm's internal processes, working with staff and work-life balance. Tonkon also matches new lawyers with an entry-level mentor and, after the new lawyer acclimates to life at the firm, a separate professional mentor is chosen, in part, by the mentee. Tonkon also provides frequent individual evaluations and a weekly forum for dialogue among new lawyers.

In addition to pairing new lawyers with mentors, Gevurtz Menashe requires its new lawyers to complete the "Mentoring Protocol." There, new lawyers must seek out partners who help them complete a substantive training checklist that guides them through the firm's specific practice. For example, new lawyers must read through and discuss all relevant statutes with a partner, sit in on intake meetings and participate in discovery. At Smith Freed & Eberhard, new lawyers have the option to enroll in the "Black Belt Trial Skills Program," in which new lawyers present mock opening statements and receive critiques from partners, watch a series of trial skills videos, and attend classes - taught by acting coaches, and specially designed by the firm - that teach trial skills such as speaking, presentation and body language.

While these programs vary in scope and focus, each aims to provide new lawyers with the skills needed to successfully practice law. As a return on their investment, these firms have seen improved job satisfaction, efficiency and skills, and believe their programs have a direct impact on their ability to retain talent for the long term. The Generation Gap Survey teaches us that, as a profession, we can share more of our time, experience and wisdom with young lawyers. We should make an effort to do so. For ideas on what steps you can take, consider contacting the following people and books.

  • Loree Devery, Manager of Recruiting & Professional Development at Tonkon Torp (www.tonkon.com)
  • Saville Easley, Shareholder at Gevurtz Menashe (www.gevurtzmenashe.com)
  • Jeff Eberhard, Managing Partner at Smith Freed & Eberhard (www.smithfreed.com)
  • Todd Cleek, Chair of the MBA Professionalism Committee (www.k-hlaw.com)
  • Being an Effective Mentor: 101 Practical Strategies for Success and The Lawyer's Guide to Mentoring, both by Ida Abbott, Esq., and available (with many other resources) at www.nalp.org.