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Law Firm Mentoring Programs: A Better Approach

Mentor Earlier this month (September 18, 2006 issue), the National Law Journal ran an article entitled: Mentoring plans failing associates. The article noted that while many law firms are seeking to improve attorney retention by implementing mentoring programs for young associates, those programs have had little impact on escalating attrition rates (with 78% of associates leaving their firms by their fifth year according to a 2005 NALP report).

We agree with the observation in the article that structured mentoring programs often fail because they match up associates with partners randomly or based on practice area without any effort to ensure compatibility in terms of a shared background or common interests. The result is mismatches such as that described in the article where an African-American associate at a major Atlanta law firm was paired with a white male partner with whom she felt she had no connection. The associate ultimately left to another Atlanta firm that had African-American partners whom she felt could provide appropriate career guidance.

A better approach is what we call "mentoring circles" under which groups of associates and partners with common interests and backgrounds are matched, and then meet regularly in informal contexts to get to know each other better (e.g., periodic lunches, sporting events, etc.)  Over time, compatible 1-to-1 pairs will generally develop as participants gravitate to attorneys with whom they feel a connection.

To ensure a mentoring program is working, firms also need to solicit regular feedback from associates.

One law firm taking action is New York's Sullivan & Cromwell, which will soon roll out a new mentoring initiative that will feature separate programs for junior and senior associates. Under the supervision of Richard Pollack, co-head of the firm's general practice group, the program for junior lawyers will focus on acclimation and socializing while the plan for more senior attorneys (3-5  years) will focus on skills enhancement. The latter initiative will allow senior associates to select two partners to help them identify strength and weaknesses, and guide their professional growth.

The National Law Journal site can be found here, but you will need to open an account to access the archived article.

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I agree that mentoring circles are a good approach. The New York /Women's Bar has had them for many years, and I passed on that approach to the Georgia Association of Women Lawyers as well. The idea is two-fold: It is often difficult for mentors to spend as much time with mentees as they would like as we all are so time-pressured. Equally central to the mentoring circles is the idea that an individual really needs several mentors who can be helpful in different areas of work and life. So the circle tries to cover those bases with regular meetings and a group to call upon who have gotten to know each individual.

Whether or not a formal mentoring circle or other formal program is made available, I encourage my coaching clients to take the initiative and seek out their own Board of Mentors one by one with specific purposes in mind. And when they approach a desired mentor, they need to be prepared to offer something i return, although a mentor doesn't usually ask for reciprocity. It is always appreciated and motivates the mentor to devote more time in the relationship.
My favorite concept is "mutual mentoring." I have written a few articles on it and related infiormation can be found on the Practice Development Counsel web site: Here is the link to one:
The best mentoring relationships are the ones you initiate. So don't wait for your firm to organize something and hope they've made you a good match. And be prepared to give what you can to it. Surprisingly good things will happen!
Phyllis Weiss Haserot
Practice Development Counsel

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