The Importance of Mentoring in Turbulent Times
Law firms have difficulty sustaining mentoring efforts in the best of times. At a time when most firms are anxious about declining profits and some firms are worried about their very survival, it is hard to focus on associates' learning and development. The immediate need for more work and higher revenues understandably receives more attention than the long-term investment in legal talent. But this is precisely the time when mentoring can be most beneficial to individuals and firms. Except for firms that are truly facing existential threats, now is the time to make mentoring a priority.
Mentoring is an investment in talent. It represents a mentor's personal commitment to help another person succeed. Over the last few years, numerous law firms have started mentoring programs, in large part as an effort to stem associate attrition. Firms know that lack of mentoring is one of the primary reasons associates leave law firms. They also know that all associates need and benefit from mentors, but many associates do not find mentors naturally. Because mentoring programs ensure that all associates will have at least one mentor in the firm, they reasoned that mentoring programs would reduce the high rate of attrition. And while mentoring alone cannot achieve that goal, many firms did find that a strong commitment to mentoring, coupled with other development efforts and a supportive culture, had a favorable impact on retention.
Of course, these are not normal times, and attrition is not currently an issue for law firms. Very few associates are leaving firms by choice, and workforce reduction has supplanted mentoring and retention as the associate issue of the day. Rather than fretting over the high costs of attrition, law firms today are concerned about the high cost of retaining associates during a severe decline in legal work. In a recent article describing the financial savings from associate layoffs, the chair of one large firm explained that his firm is using associate layoffs as a business strategy for replicating the high annual attrition that his law firm had grown used to over the last few years: "We have an entire machine built around 25% attrition... We have to engineer that just to stand still."1
If firms are no longer concerned about too many associates leaving, they may be tempted to give up their mentoring initiatives. They should avoid that temptation because giving less attention to mentoring would be a serious mistake. Containing attrition is only one of the reasons that mentoring is important. Mentoring plays many vital roles in promoting the firm's long-term business success. Among other things, mentoring creates personal learning relationships that advance associates' skills and increase their professionalism; it fosters communication and trust; and it keeps lawyers engaged, inspired and committed to practice. Mentoring relationships benefit partners not just by ensuring that they have capable and reliable associates to serve them and their clients, but also by serving as sources of information, feedback and fresh ideas that partners need to manage the firm effectively.
Three specific areas in which mentoring can be of particular benefit during these turbulent times are expanding social capital, accelerating learning and development, and improving practice management.
1. Expanding social capital. Lawyers do much of their work with other people in the firm. The quality of their relationships with those people determines whether the work goes smoothly or not. When people trust, respect and feel loyal to each other, they behave reliably and cooperatively. Lawyers' membership in the firm's informal networks also contributes to the process. If lawyers can call on people in their networks for information, assistance, expertise, ideas, resources, business leads, or referrals, they can get things done more easily and efficiently.
The relationship- and network-based assets that facilitate collaboration constitute social capital. Individuals with high social capital can draw on their relationships and networks to get things done for themselves and the firm. Firms with high social capital are able to achieve desired goals through cooperative action.
Mentoring promotes social capital because it, too, occurs in and depends on personal relationships and mutual commitment. Mentoring and social capital both grow rapidly when people are generous with their talents, knowledge and advice, and actively contribute to others' success. Both require open communication, shared understanding, and trust. Layoffs of colleagues and friends create great stress for those who remain in the firm. Relationships can easily fray; trust may give way to doubt and insecurity. In times like these, building and strengthening relationships among partners and associates fosters institutional resilience and stability, and increases lawyers' willingness to work cooperatively to achieve business objectives.
2. Accelerating learning and development. When a group of associates leaves the firm, there is greater pressure on those who remain to learn very quickly and perform at a high level. Mentors can accelerate and optimize associates' learning in countless ways: by providing challenging work experience, asking probing questions, giving feedback that aids reflection and understanding, prodding the associate to think in a new way, or just listening to the associate debrief what happened.
Mentors are also important sources of guidance about changing expectations, standards and competencies that may be required of associates. Assessing performance and giving honest feedback about both performance and advancement prospects are important in the best of times. When the norms of practice are in flux, associates need this information more than ever.
Few lawyers, partners or associates, feel secure in practice today, but associates are particularly vulnerable. Mentors can keep associates steady, focused and engaged. They can let them see how a partner handles stress and uncertainty, talk it through with them, and help them develop coping strategies. By paying close attention to associates' work experience, mentors can also identify high and low performers and offer appropriate guidance to both. High performers need reassurance and encouragement. Mentors can let them know the firm wants them to stay and succeed. By helping high performers get through the hard times, mentors can also help preserve the firm's future talent pool.
Conversations with underperformers need to be prompt, candid and sensitively handled, especially if associates are at risk of being let go. While these conversations are never easy, a mentor may sometimes be the best person to deliver a tough message. It may be more painful for the associate to hear unpleasant feedback from the mentor, whom they do not want to disappoint. But when the associate knows the mentor is genuinely concerned about his or her best interests and has no hidden agenda, that can often cushion the blow. It can also inspire the associate to higher levels of performance.
3. Improving practice management. Effective management requires open lines of communication in every direction. Many partners in management roles take great care to get their messages out, but they are not very good at hearing from the people they manage. While communicating to associates is critically important, managers also need to know what associates are thinking, feeling and experiencing. This is especially true when people are anxious about the future. To run the firm effectively, managers need to know – and correct - the news and rumors that travel along the firm grapevine. They must understand what associates are thinking, how they view the firm and their jobs, and what kind of work experience they are having. Making decisions about associates without this information can cause the firm to make serious miscalculations with long-term negative repercussions.
Mentoring enhances communication between associates and partners, which is essential for effective management. Mentors who listen to associates' concerns and are interested in what they have to say engender trust. When they take associates' ideas and anxieties seriously, mentors make associates feel their views are valued and they are being heard. When such communications and relationships occur repeatedly, feelings of respect, trust and commitment permeate the firm culture.
Mentors also have much to learn from associates that can assist them in practice management. Many young lawyers have a great deal of knowledge and experience to offer the firm in areas where partners may be deficient. For example, young lawyers have grown up networking online. They use Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and similar networking sites to stay in touch with hundreds of friends and contacts. They can disseminate information to these contacts frequently and instantaneously. Partners who implore associates to build networks of contacts and business prospects have a mental image of "networking" as face-to-face meetings, business cards, databases, and possibly client management software. If they know of social networking sites at all, partners often consider them a waste of time. Few partners understand what powerful tools these sites can be for business development, client relationship management, or other business purposes. Rather than disdain them, senior lawyers should try to learn from their mentees how such sites operate. Then mentor and mentee can jointly explore ways to use them to benefit their practice.
Mentoring relationships can be a strong source of personal and professional support in difficult times. Mentoring is a cost-effective way to maximize the firm's investment in associates' learning and development, and a wise use of lawyers' extra time when business is slow. Mentors can include associates in business development efforts, discuss client matters in greater depth than usual, and go over work product in detail. They can give associates in-depth feedback and discuss career plans. As activities like these become the norm, mentors' investment in associates builds the foundation for the firm's future success. Later, when the economy turns around, associates will stay in the firm for the right reason: not because they have no other job options, but because it is a great place to work.
1 Leigh Jones, "Just how much do law firm layoffs save? A lot," The National Law Journal, February 9, 2009.
Real World Education for Law Students and Associates
The legal profession is looking for ways to ensure that lawyers have the skills and experience they need to be productive, effective practitioners and rainmakers as quickly as possible. Here are examples of how a law school and two law firms are teaching law students and associates practical legal skills, and how two firms are encouraging associates to become rainmakers by giving them a personal stake in the firm's business.
Legal education: Washington and
Lee University School of Law is launching a "real world" program for
third-year students in the fall. The program will be voluntary through
the 2010-11 academic year and then will be mandatory for all third-year law students
starting in 2011-12. The school hopes to transform students' classroom learning
into an experience more like what they will face in law firm practice. Traditional
classroom instruction will be replaced by practice simulations using fictional
cases in which students will go through exercises as if they were representing
actual clients. The idea is to immerse the students into the "actual" practice
of law. Read more at law.com (free
Shadowing: Under the current law firm economic model, associates often miss out on the broad range of practical experiences they need to become effective lawyers. Young lawyers learn experientially, i.e., through the work they do, so they need to experience many different aspects of law practice. However, the emphasis on maximizing hours and billing rates has deprived many associates of the very experiences they need most. Clients justifiably refuse to pay for the time associates spend in meetings, closings, hearings, or other activities where they are learning their craft rather than contributing value to the endeavor. Partners who cannot charge the client for the associate's time, or who have to go through an onerous process of writing off that time, leave associates out of important sessions and processes.
To remedy this situation, some law firms allow associates to "shadow" partners in order to observe or participate in work activities without the client being billed for the associate's learning time. There are several variations of shadowing programs. In most programs, associates receive credit toward their billable hour requirement for the time they spend in shadowing activities. The number of hours of credit they receive typically ranges from 50 – 250 hours per year. Most shadowing programs are limited to first-year associates. Other programs also include associates after their first year, with the number of creditable hours decreasing each year.
The shadowing program at O'Melveny & Myers is unique because of its flexibility: it is not strictly limited to first-year associates, has no set number of hours that can be billed as "shadow hours," and permits partners to decide when an associate should receive credit for shadowing activities. The program was created to help associates get critical on-the-job training during these difficult economic times. Although it is primarily intended for first- to third-year associates, more senior associates have also received shadowing credit when the need was present and the experience was appropriate. Partners may give associates shadowing credit for any activity that constitutes an important on-the-job learning opportunity (e.g., attending depositions, deal meetings or trials) when a client would not normally expect or pay for a junior lawyer to participate in the activity. Associates write down their time and get full credit for the hours they put in; partners can write off the associate's shadowing time without any impact on their realization; and clients are generally pleased when they know associates are attending and learning, but at no charge to them.
Another firm, Ford and Harrison, combines shadowing for some associates with a unique training experience for all first-year associates. In 2007, Ford & Harrison eliminated billable hour requirements for first-year associates. Instead of being concerned with keeping their hours up, first-year associates focus on learning to practice law. Little of their work is billed to clients at first, but as the year goes on and they become increasingly proficient, more of their work becomes chargeable. During this first year, partners teach associates their craft, provide learning opportunities, and introduce the associates to clients. Clients appreciate that associates' time is not charged to them until it clearly adds value to the matter.
The firm also provides a shadowing program for associates who started before the class of 2007 and who need certain learning experiences. Second- and third-year associates are entitled to 150 hours of shadowing credit, and fourth and fifth-year associates up to 100 hours. In this program, associates must submit proposals to the Professional Development Director for attending or participating in specific learning events. The proposal includes the name of the partner who is involved, an explanation of the associate's involvement in the project to date, and how the associate will use the experience to become more productive or expert in the area in the future.
Early rainmaking credit: One of the lessons of the recession is how vitally important it is for lawyers to have their own clients. As firms have scaled back or dissolved, we have seen that partners with a strong client base have been able to move smoothly to other firms, while associates and partners without clients struggle to find work.
Many firms provide business development training or coaching for associates, especially as they get closer to consideration for partnership. But few firms offer incentives to associates to make rain, and many firms actively discourage associates from bringing in their own clients. Even firms that claim to be entrepreneurial often waste the talents and energies of their most resourceful young lawyers who are motivated and eager to become rainmakers.
The time is ripe to focus on encouraging associates to bring in business. One very effective incentive is giving associates origination credit for any business they bring in. Nothing engages lawyers in client service more than giving them a personal stake in the client's work. When they are serving their own clients, they "think like owners" because they are. Firms that offer associates origination credit find that rewarding associates for their early rainmaking efforts pays off in profitable new business now and ongoing business generation in the long run.
Sedgwick Detert Moran and Arnold is one firm that encourages and rewards associate rainmaking. For many years, it has had a fee sharing program in which associates and special counsel receive 10% of the new business they originate. Their share is based on bills that are paid or settled with a 95% realization rate with less than 5% written off. Associates are paid quarterly and receive their 10% as long as the matter remains active in the firm. During 2008, 30-40 associates and special counsel have been compensated through this fee sharing program.
Meyers Nave goes even further. For many years it has been giving associates full origination credit for the work they bring in. Associates need a responsible partner to oversee the matter, but the associate receives the origination credit, which is awarded in the form of substantial discretionary merit bonuses. Associates who demonstrate rainmaking skills can also advance to partnership more quickly. The firm, which specializes in public law, has had associates bring in several significant clients ranging from public agencies to individuals and small businesses.
The turmoil in the legal markets is making it more apparent every day that law firms must change in order to survive, much less prosper. The College of Law Practice Management has launched its search for winners of the 2009 InnovAction Awards, honoring law firms and other legal services providers that are engaged in extraordinary innovative efforts. Now that firms are starting to take innovation seriously, those that have already tried new approaches to client service, billing practices, or some other aspect of practice management can step up and receive the recognition they deserve.
The InnovAction Award entries are judged on the following criteria:
For the first time, the InnovAction Awards will also present Honorable Mentions to entries that have taken an existing innovation in the practice of law, transformed it in a unique and valuable way, and made it better than before.
For further information, including submission deadlines and an application form, see www.innovactionaward.com.
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