When it Comes to Mentoring, Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid

Some years ago, there was an automobile manufacturer whose products had developed a reputation for breaking down. Rather than re-engineer the products, it launched a major advertising campaign touting the quality of its vehicles.

There is a parallel in law firms, where there is a real issue with how young lawyers are trained. Accordingly, we hear a lot from the firms about their training and mentoring programs.

I would suggest that there is a fundamental problem with training and mentoring in law firms. Law firms typically rely upon each generation of lawyers to train and mentor the next generation of lawyers. Of course, there is a real issue as to whether lawyers, who generally have no training as educators, have the required skills to teach each other how to practice law. Some do and some don’t, but that is a discussion for another day. 

Let’s get straight to the heart of the matter. When it comes to passing on their skills to junior lawyers, senior lawyers fall into two groups. 

There are those who are focused exclusively on getting their work done and will devote zero effort to training junior lawyers beyond what is absolutely necessary to get their work done. These “trainers” may teach their juniors how to do things but will not take the time to teach them why they are being done or why they are being done differently in different situations. They will mark up the junior’s draft document but will not spend the extra time to explain why the changes are necessary. They will involve the junior in a part of the file but exclude them from meeting clients where the strategic considerations are being discussed. They will have the junior draft the agreement but not involve the junior in the negotiation of the document with the other side. Each and every decision is based solely on whether it advances the short-term interests of the senior lawyer.

And then there are those who are focused on helping their juniors develop to their full potential. They spend as much non-billable time as is required to achieve that goal, whether or not doing so advances the short-term agenda of the senior lawyer.  

Those senior lawyers who fall into the first group can justify their approach in several ways. They are too busy. They do not believe in “hand-holding”. The “sink or swim” approach is the best way to train someone. At the end of the day, it is all nonsense – these lawyers simply do not want to earn less money by wasting billable time, and sometimes they do not want to expose their juniors to their clients and risk losing the loyalty of the client.

In my experience there are more of the former type than the latter type, and I believe that there is a historical reason for this.

In the good old days, lawyers joined law firms with a view to working their way up the ranks (and being paid modestly until they had done so) and then becoming partners and cashing in, and senior lawyers were willing to spend their time and effort in developing the juniors who would be their future partners and stay with their firms throughout their entire career. 

And then things changed.  The salaries of junior lawyers increased beyond their actual value to the firms. When times were bad, law firms quickly cut juniors loose. Juniors rewarded the lack of loyalty by jumping from firm to firm for better financial rewards. Partners had to put in more hours to maintain the levels of profitability that they had come to expect, and gradually more and more senior lawyers developed the attitude that they were not going to invest their time at personal cost in lost billings to train juniors who would likely not be with them that long anyway. Juniors who learned in the “sink or swim” environment did not feel the need to “pass it forward”.

So here we are. There remain some great senior lawyers who will sacrifice their time and short-term billable hours to help the next generation develop, and many who will not.

The challenge for junior lawyers is not to be taken in by the advertising and to find out who is willing to work with them to help them reach their potential, and who just wants to use them.

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