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New to the firm, fresh out of law school, and alone in his office finishing work late one night, a young associate at a large firm received a phone call from his supervising partner, who had just gotten finished reviewing his billable hours for the month. “He said, ‘This is just unsustainable. If this continues I’m going to have to intervene,’ ” recalled Joshua Levenberg, an associate at San Francisco’s Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe. “ That was really heartening.” Levenberg describes an act of mentoring that’s hard to institutionalize. But in the age of furious associate job-hopping and correspondingly high associate attrition rates, law firms are beginning to pay careful heed to the timeless notion of mentorship. Determined not to leave such important matters strictly up to chance, firms across the country are innovating their mentoring programs. They’re doing their best to institutionalize structures they hope will facilitate the relationships that have heretofore been left to chemistry. Nearly all of the major San Francisco Bay Area firms have some sort of mentoring program in place, though each appears to be exploring ways of retooling them. Some firms have devised elaborate step systems for moving associates through a succession of mentors. And some have implemented bureaucracies so they can monitor the progress of mentoring programs. Still others have balked at institutionalized measures, instead pairing new associates with more senior ones in an effort to help them get oriented, and “encouraging” lawyers to forge mentorship relationships as a way to nurture associate career development. Still, it’s clear that the firms are not simply shooting in the dark. Jennifer Foster, director of associate development at New York’s Debevoise & Plimpton and the director of the Professional Development Consortium, has done extensive research on mentoring, and says it has a crucial impact on helping associates bond with the firm. This is becoming obvious to the large, national firms in her consortium, she said, and agendas in recent years have been peppered with sessions on implementing effective mentoring programs. A LOWER RATE OF ATTRITION The trend of increased emphasis on mentoring is still new, and it’s premature to tell how effective it’s been. Data on associate programs and attrition rates is only available dating back to 1997, when lay opinion had it that associate attrition was at an all-time high. The current year’s data from the National Association for Law Placement shows that firms with mentoring programs enjoy a slightly lower rate of attrition: 38.1 percent attrition for third-year associates, as compared to 38.8 percent at firms without programs. The most recent NALP study also showed 38.3 percent of associates leaving their firms after the third year and 59.6 percent leaving after the fifth year, down since 1997 from 43 percent and 64.6 percent respectively. In the San Francisco Bay Area, a handful of the major firms are radically innovating their mentoring programs. During the peak of associate attrition — 1998, by most estimates � San Francisco-based Morrison & Foerster surveyed its associates and concluded that they desired more mentorship. This fall, the firm rolled out a pilot mentoring program that shifted its focus from firm integration to professional development, and lays out loose guidelines and minimum expectations governing the frequency of mentoring contact and the gamut of professional experiences the associates will be exposed to. The firm’s attorney recruiting manager checks in with the pairs monthly. Heller Ehrman’s program appears to be the most innovative, as the firm has charged the human resources department with enforcing a series of rules made to ensure that associates receive a baseline standard of assistance from their mentors. The program mandates the “counseling” of associates by partners, but with the hope that deeper “mentoring” relationships will arise from the structured mandates. Heller Ehrman HR director David Sanders got the idea for the program after a convention of law firm training professionals he attended several years ago left him with the feeling that mentoring programs — including his — were nothing more than trite titles with little effect behind their efforts. And worse, he recalls concluding, the programs ran the risk of breeding cynicism among associates. “It makes associates think that something good was going to happen: that you’re going to have a counselor, and the counselor’s going to take care of you and give you advice. And then nothing ever happens!” Sanders said. “The problem is that the counselors don’t really know what they’re supposed to do, the counselees don’t really know what’s supposed to happen, no one in management is tracking what’s happening … so nothing happens!” So Sanders came back and started the Results-Based Counseling Program, which requires the associates and their partner mentors to agree to three achievable goals at the beginning of each six-month mentoring session. The goals are to be submitted to the HR department, which then follows up over the course of the session and requires that the pair fill out a form at the end outlining to what extent the goals were met. “Left to your own devices, I think it would be difficult as a new associate to come up with a few things you want to get done, and to come up with your own internal timeline,” said third-year associate Robb Adkins, who in his first session chose to focus on deposition skills, brief-writing and oral argument, all three of which he was ultimately able to spend time working on. So far, the program has been through three six-month sessions. The completion rate of goals has been between 67 and 70 percent, a result Heller Ehrman chairman Barry Levin said he’s pleased with. And Heller Ehrman has been able to bring its attrition rate down to 18 percent, from a 1996 and 1997 all-time high of 31 percent, a drop both Levin and Sanders are not ready to attribute solely to the new mentoring program. Another trend Foster has noted nationally is a break from the traditional model of matching a new associate up with a seasoned partner. “The new perspective on mentoring that’s coming out is that a young person in whatever field needs a variety of mentors,” Foster said. ASSOCIATES AS MENTORS In a model that is taking hold at firms such as San Francisco firms Pillsbury Madison & Sutro, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, Thelen Reid & Priest and Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, junior associates are being matched up with more senior associates to get them through the initial acculturation process. Then they’re “graduating” to having partners mentor them, once they have mastered the law firm fundamentals and are more ready to scrutinize the direction of their professional development. At Brobeck, the newly implemented mentoring program brings associates through three stages of mentorship, each with its own campy name: The “guide” stage, where brand-spanking-new associates are paired with associates only slightly more their senior; the “coach” stage, where the more senior associate mentor begins to dispense advice on work assignments and career decisions; and the “advocate” stage, where a non-supervising partner is eventually brought in to begin opening doors professionally and within the firm. “Partners can be sort of godlike at the beginning; also, they may not have the time to devote,” said Brobeck firmwide training manager Sue Trigg, who said new associates need more of a peer in their initial months at the firm. Still, while nearly all major San Francisco Bay Area firms are formalizing or innovating their mentoring programs, some remain convinced that only a minimum amount of structure should be institutionalized. “If we start asking for a written report every three months saying exactly what they’ve done, then that can be off-putting to people,” said Christopher Latham, a senior counsel in Pillsbury’s San Diego office. Latham said he wondered whether forms like those being used by Heller Ehrman might feel intrusive to the lawyers involved. San Francisco’s Farella Braun & Martel has only paired associates up with other “associate buddies,” and has left professional development guidance up to the supervising partners. An experiment in having the supervising partners and their associates draw up a personal plan for goal-setting was scrapped quickly after its implementation two years ago, when it became clear that lawyers didn’t appreciate having more paperwork to fill out. “We started a few years ago with some pretty lofty goals, and we’ve found that we need to move a little more slowly,” said Farella’s professional development director Mark Peterson. “Developing mentoring relationships is not something you can legislate, and what we try to do is create mentoring opportunities.” At Thelen, the current mentoring program links new associates up with more senior associates, and with supervising partners within their work groups only. “We provide a lot of guidance in general terms, but we’ve resisted reducing things down to a checklist, because we feel the role is very elastic, and the relationships very individual,” said Thelen partner Walter Brown Jr., who does associate development work for the firm. Still, only time — and more research — will tell whether intricate mentoring programs really influence associate morale levels. But even at firms with the most structured of programs, partners are still mindful that chance and chemistry will trump all other factors and give way to the most rewarding relationships. David Brownstein, Heller Ehrman’s San Francisco managing partner, said he knows full well that his firm’s program will never rise to the level of importance that natural mentoring relationships hold. And that’s the reason that Heller’s program uses the term “counselor” instead of “mentor.” “In other words, we try not to let the perfect get in the way of the good,” he said. “We really hope that mentoring relationships grow out of some of these counselor-counselee programs.”

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