If new associates could submit wish lists to their partners and supervisors upon embarking on their legal careers, the request for mentoring would probably top the list. The value of the mentee-mentor relationship has steadily grown as a major concern for law firms because of its direct correlation to recruitment and retention. While most firms believe they have heeded the call to mentor by providing firm-assigned mentors to newly minted associates, such mandated relationships often result in infrequent (and mostly rescheduled) lunches, happy hours and occasionally, dinners. So what’s a new associate to do — wait until her firm-assigned mentor finally reaches out and bestows pearls of wisdom about the practice of law? Of course not. Most associates understand that while law firms bear some accountability for helping them forge meaningful professional relationships within the firm, the onus for one’s professional development lies squarely on the associate.
The question with which many associates grapple, however, centers on finding the right mentor. Answering this question requires associates to think about mentoring and mentors in new ways. Associates often make the mistake of gravitating to those who look and think like they do and ignoring those who do not. Such an insular approach to mentoring can stunt an associate’s growth personally and professionally, and impliedly suggests that only one type of mentor is sufficient for a successful legal career. No longer is that the case — it’s time to think outside of the box.
What’s The Big Deal About Mentoring?
As law firms are well-aware, associates are more likely to thrive — and remain — in environments where they feel supported, encouraged and advised. To achieve the coveted result of retention requires law firms to look introspectively at their mentoring programs to assess their effectiveness. Many law firms regard recruitment as an easier task than retention because retention requires the consideration and efforts of the entire firm. By supporting strong mentoring relationships, however, firms create an additional recruiting tool to retain talented, young attorneys. In the article "Fostering Professionalism Through Mentoring," the authors observed that mentored associates are more likely than their nonmentored colleagues to make partner, and that female mentees are afforded more job and career opportunities. Evidence also showed that mentored lawyers have higher job satisfaction and are less likely to leave the firm when given a viable option. (Hamilton, N. & Montpetit Brabbit, L., "Fostering Professionalism Through Mentoring." Journal of Legal Education 57 (March 2007): 102-129.)
As such, firms should support and encourage mentoring relationships by providing budgets for mentors and mentees and offering special billing numbers, credits and other incentives to reward in-firm mentoring relationships. When young attorneys observe their law firms supporting and encouraging mentoring relationships — especially across age, race, gender and cultural lines — young attorneys connect more personally with the firm because of the firm’s investment in their growth and development as attorneys and people.
On the same token, firms should also encourage informal or organic mentoring relationships. Organic mentoring relationships develop artlessly; they happen when people naturally gravitate to one another and establish a relationship that reaches across all boundaries. Such pairings usually flourish because both the mentor and mentee truly want to develop and cultivate the relationship. Commentators recognize the benefits of organic mentoring, and have described this type of relationship as "a cultural process that evolves and matures over repeated application. Its rewards are quiet: fewer lateral replacement interviews, increased team cohesiveness, stronger client ties." (Burton, P., "What Money Can’t Buy: Administrators Can Play Key Roles in Reintroducing Organic Mentoring Processes in Their Law Firms — Essential Programs that Drive Associate Retention and Bolster the Bottom Line." Legal Management 27, no. 2 (March-April 2008): 44.)
Maximizing the Mentoring Relationship
While most firms make a valiant effort to pair new associates with senior associates and partners with proven track records, in many instances, these artificially created relationships fail. The reasons for such failures are often obvious: The mentor feels no connection or responsibility to the mentee; the mentee fails to seek advice proactively from the mentor; the firm fails to hold the mentor accountable for the progression or regression of the mentee; and neither the mentee nor mentor is interested in the other’s career. Added to these obstacles, intangible differences in age, race, gender and culture can also impede the development and growth of mentoring relationships. In his article, "The Truth About Mentoring Minorities — Race Matters," David Thomas notes that, while the inherent difficulties to building cross-race mentoring relationships usually stem from negative stereotypes and identification challenges, when these complexities are well-handled, cross-race relationships can flourish. Thomas points out, "if a mentor and protege trust each other enough to work together in dealing with touchy race-related issues, then they will likely have a sturdy foundation to handle other problems." This foundation allows the mentor and mentee to "explore other kinds of differences, thus broadening the perspectives of both parties." Learning successful ways to handle differences in age, race, gender and culture in mentoring relationships enables the associate to reap several ancillary benefits: a broadened and diversified network, new ideas about career and life, and personal growth inspired by differences.
Consequently, there is no such thing as a "one size fits all" mentor. In order to maximize mentoring relationships, associates must first understand that they will need several mentors for different reasons throughout various stages of their career. Just like friends, associates should assign mentors to unique categories. After all, most friendships are composed of various friends who each bring something different to the relationship. The same is true in mentoring relationships. Seeking diverse mentors broadens the experiences and overall development of associates and challenges associates to appreciate differences. The following list identifies different types of mentors who can offer varying perspectives on career and life:
• The subject-matter mentor: These mentors are usually the easiest to identify; they comprise the senior associate and partner ranks of an associate’s specific practice area or department. These mentors have excelled in their areas of practice and are often lauded as "experts" or the "go-to" leaders in specific practice areas of the firm. At first blush, attempting to develop a mentoring relationship with a subject-matter mentor may seem intimidating, but this kind of relationship usually develops naturally in an associate’s career. A subject-matter mentor often supervises the work of an associate, which allows the associate to develop a close professional relationship with the mentor. Working personally with a subject-matter mentor provides a platform for the associate to ask questions about navigating a particular practice area and to request feedback on specific projects. To get the most out of a subject-matter mentoring relationship, associates should take a hands-on approach in seeking advice from these mentors on how to develop and sharpen particular skill sets.
• The professional development mentor: A professional development mentor does not necessarily work in the same department, or even the same firm, as the associate-mentee. The significance of the professional development mentor lies in the name, "professional development." A professional development mentor takes an active role in the professional aspirations of the associate and provides recommendations for ways to increase the associate’s profile and visibility in the legal community. For example, a professional development mentor may suggest organizations for the mentee to join; introduce the mentee to other professionals in the legal community; and recommend ways to begin developing business relationships. In other words, professional development mentors want the associate to succeed inside and outside of the firm.
• The life coach mentor: The life coach mentor is a special mentor. As the name implies, the life coach mentor coaches, counsels and helps guide the associate’s personal and professional ambitions. Evaluating the associate’s "big picture" for career and life, the life coach mentor helps the associate manage the delicate balance of life, work and family. Finding a suitable life coach mentor requires the associate to evaluate her collegial and professional relationships to select the person or people with whom she feels the most comfortable sharing details about her career and life. Put simply, an associate trusts the life coach mentor and her advice. Life coach mentors often function as therapists — they’re the people who listen to the problems, joys and dreams of the associate and propose ways to handle them all. In most cases, life coach mentors are seasoned professionals who have walked similar paths as the associate and can relate to the associate on personal and professional levels.
It Takes One to Know One
A good attorney knows — and probably has learned from — a good attorney. Mentoring provides an incredible learning opportunity for both mentors and mentees: It gives mentees the tools to learn from seasoned attorneys and allows mentors to contribute to the growth of younger attorneys. Although the advantages to mentees appear obvious, mentors also gain significant benefits in mentoring relationships. Good mentors most likely had great mentors of their own, and genuinely want to contribute to the development of young attorneys. Even when mentors have not experienced effective mentoring in their own careers, the "nonmentored" mentors may desire to help young attorneys even more passionately because they understand the importance of having meaningful relationships with seasoned attorneys who have traveled similar paths.
Done effectively, mentoring advances an associate’s short-term professional development and influences long-term career satisfaction. The Nigerian proverb, "It takes a village to raise a child," reflects an often overlooked reality that many people can contribute to the development and success of one person. Diverse mentoring relationships illustrate this proverb’s truth — having multiple mentors adds perspective and depth to the personal and professional development of an associate and ultimately contributes to the associate’s overall success.
Petrina Hall McDaniel is a senior associate in McKenna Long & Aldridges litigation department where she focuses on commercial disputes and government/public policy litigation. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Lauren Bellamy is a litigation associate at the firm and handles cases involving contracts and business torts, telecommunications litigation and consumer fraud class actions. She can be reached at email@example.com.