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A commitment to mentoring young attorneys has become a boilerplate promise among large law firms seeking to recruit and retain top talent. But most mentoring programs apparently are failing associates who continue to leave firms in droves. Associate attrition at law firms is 78% by the time attorneys are in their fifth year of practice, according to a 2005 report released by the National Association for Law Placement (NALP). Last year’s figure marked a significant jump since 2003, when 53.4% of associates fled by their fifth year. With law firms keeping a scant 22% of their new lawyers beyond their first few years, associate turnover is costing millions of dollars in training young attorneys who then take their expensive knowledge base to other firms. To stanch the bloodletting, mentoring programs in recent years have become a common strategy to woo would-be lawyers and to help acclimate new attorneys to large-firm life. But the forced pairings often created by the formalized nurturing are falling short for those in the lower ranks who say they need genuine guidance instead of packaged programs. “I don’t think you can make it in the legal world without real mentoring. You have to have it,” said Tommie Wilson, a fifth-year associate who joined Covington & Burling’s San Francisco office in July. A former associate at Jackson Lewis, Wilson said that although her previous firm had a structured mentoring program, most beneficial to her was the network of mentors she developed on her own. She was able to connect with a few senior associates and partners she admired and with whom she felt a connection. But it took gumption to set it up and make it work, she said. “You can’t be shy,” she said. “You have to call for help, even when people are busy.” Wilson said she moved to Covington & Burling primarily because of the kind of transactional work she could pursue. She added, however, that her switch partly was based on the support she knew she could receive from one of the partners in her practice group. “It’s critical,” she said. Losing the time clock The common approach among law firms in developing mentoring programs has been to match incoming associates with partners, usually in their particular practice group. The idea is that the partner will answer questions for new attorneys and provide feedback about their work. The goal is to give the fledgling lawyer a sense of belonging and an opportunity to learn from those who have come up through the ranks. But firms often pair attorneys without much input from associates and do little else to ensure that a beneficial relationship develops. Some programs may require participants to meet no more than a few times each year and to complete reams of reports about their mentoring encounters. “The programs lose focus,” said Ida Abbott, author of The Lawyers Guide to Mentoring (NALP, 2000). A significant shortcoming with mentoring programs is the basic disincentive created by the billable-hour structure at law firms, Abbott said. Law firms need to provide opportunities for partners and associates to step away from the time clock, she said, so that mentoring efforts are not an infringement on billable-hour requirements. “You can’t penalize people for taking the time to do it,” she said. Abbott said that law firms have begun to rely on formal programs as the primary way to promote mentoring. The most effective mentorship, she said, comes from relationships that develop naturally between the two parties. Instead of putting two lawyers into an artificially created situation, Abbott, also a consultant, advises firms to create an environment that encourages those relationships to develop spontaneously but at the same time provides enough support for them to thrive. Since new lawyers do not yet know who will make a good mentor, law firms may want to encourage “buddy” type programs to help the newest of associates “get squared away,” and career development programs for more experienced associates, she said. Regardless, random matchups are a mistake, she said. Being thrust into a formal mentorship arrangement was a disaster for one associate at a major Atlanta law firm. The associate, now in her third year of practice, requested anonymity for this story in order to speak candidly. As a black woman, she was paired with a white male, with whom she felt no connection, she said. “I frequently felt like he didn’t like me,” she said. The two attorneys met quarterly, as required by the firm’s mentoring program. They also had to fill out an eight-page document about her progress and the mentoring process. An absence of leaders with whom she felt an affinity at her former firm contributed to the disconnect, she said. “For me, it’s important to look up the ranks and see someone who looks like me. I feel like I can go to them to find out their experiences and how they got there,” she said. The associate said she decided to move to another Atlanta firm because her new office had black partners who could provide guidance. According to a report recently released by the American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession, 62% of minority women attorneys surveyed in large firms said that they believed they were excluded from formal or informal networking opportunities. Although receiving effective mentoring is a challenge that may be more acute for minority attorneys, the basic psychological profile of attorneys in general likely contributes to a more widespread problem for all associates. Larry Richard, a psychologist and consultant with Hildebrandt International, said that the typical lawyer, under the Myers-Briggs modes of personalities test, is a thinker, not a feeler. As such, law firms approach mentoring programs based on “logical steps” rather than communication and caring, he said. “Lawyers are not skilled to do anything that says, ‘I’m really interested in you,’ ” Richard said. But as their associates fly out the door and take their newly acquired skills with them, law firm leaders may yet become the sensitive types. Many firms are redesigning their programs to make them more effective, Abbott said. For example, New York’s Sullivan & Cromwell is in the process of revamping the mentoring program for its general practice group in New York and Washington. Previously, the firm assigned incoming associates with partners. “We found that it was spotty,” said Richard Pollack, co-head of the firm’s 350-attorney general practice group. “Sometimes it worked incredibly well, and sometimes it just didn’t work.” Now, the firm is designing separate programs for junior associates and for senior associates. The plan for newer lawyers focuses on acclimation and socializing. Midlevel associates serve as mentors for these attorneys. The program for third-, fourth- and fifth-year associates focuses on skills enhancement. The plan is to have associates work on substantive matters with two partners who will help the lawyer identify professional strengths and weaknesses. Mentor selection is based on associate input, Pollack said. Associates with additional experience will meet with partners for more intense developmental discussions. The goal, said Pollack, is to address the different needs at different stages of an associate’s career. Sullivan & Cromwell will roll out the new plan for junior associates this week. It will start the plan for more experienced associates in the next few months.

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