Instant Insights / Law Firms (Slowly) Improving the Associate Experience

Big Law finally has gotten the memo that keeping associates happy—at least those they want to retain—makes good business sense. For sure, long hours and demanding partners are still a major part of associate life, but firms are recognizing that paying attention to junior lawyers’ needs, whether its career development programs or more time with family, can yield benefits for everyone.


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Since its inception in 2005, the Baker Donelson Women’s Initiative has included a mentoring component for the firm’s women attorneys. Over the years, our Women’s Initiative has listened to the concerns of our women attorneys and learned how to best equip them with the mentoring relationships most beneficial to them and their career development. Based on this feedback, the firm introduced a revamped, multi-faceted program in 2015. With a few years and even more feedback under our belt, we hope our journey to develop a robust mentoring program will help you create or expand women’s mentoring networks at your company.

The need for formal mentoring relationships for women is supported by strong statistical evidence. Research shows there is a positive correlation between strong mentoring programs and women’s advancement in law firms. It should be no surprise that more support from accomplished women can contribute to one’s success and advancement. The 2014 National Association for Women Lawyers (NAWL) report identified the key obstacles to the retention and promotion of women in law firms, including lack of mentors for women in leadership, attrition as women leave firms for better opportunities, work-life balance issues, and lack of business development opportunities. With these obstacles in mind, we set out to create a mentoring program that (1) ensures every woman lawyer and adviser has multiple options and avenues for mentoring at the firm; (2) creates an environment in which women receive feedback and advice to help them take ownership of their careers and advance within the Firm and the profession; and (3) develop a firm culture that supports and values mentoring.

After conducting several focus groups throughout the firm’s offices and honing in on our women attorneys’ concerns, we found there is not a “one-size-fits-all” model. In the same way that each person has different ideas and expectations about their careers, each person has different mentoring needs. Reports from our focus groups revealed there are varying opinions, interest levels, and requested types of mentoring. We concluded that the best approach is to offer our women attorneys and advisers a menu of options and opportunities in order to develop meaningful mentoring relationships. The Women’s Initiative constructed four overarching options and avenues for mentoring.

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