This is an abridged version of one of my first posts from several years ago.
Supervising lawyers fall into two groups.
- Those who will devote no effort to training Associates beyond what is necessary to get their work done. They may teach their Associates 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: (i) mark up the Associate’s draft, but will not spend the time to explain why the changes are necessary; (ii) involve the Associate in a part of the file, but exclude them from meeting clients where the strategic considerations are being discussed; and (iii) have the Associate draft the agreement but not involve the Associate in the negotiation of the document with the other side. Every decision is based solely on whether it advances the short-term interests of the senior lawyer. I call these senior lawyers the “Users.”
- At the opposite extreme, there are those who assist their Associates to develop to their full potential. They spend as much non-billable time as is required to achieve that goal, even if doing so is not profitable in the short-term. I call this group the “Mentors.”
The Users justify their approach in many 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 do not want to expose their Associates to their clients and risk losing the loyalty of the clients.
In my experience there are more Users than Mentors, and I believe that there is a historical reason for this.
In the old days, lawyers joined firms with a view to working their way up the ranks, becoming partners, and cashing in. Senior lawyers were willing to spend their time and effort in developing their Associates who would be their future partners and stay with their firms throughout their career.
Then things changed. Salaries of Associates increased beyond their actual value to the firms. In bad times, firms cut Associates loose. In good times, Associates rewarded the lack of loyalty by jumping from firm to firm for more money. Partners had to put in more hours to maintain the levels of profitability that they had come to expect, and gradually senior lawyers developed the attitude that they were not going to invest their time at personal cost in lost billings to train Associates who would likely not be with them that long anyway.
So here we are. We now have Mentors who will sacrifice their time and short-term billable hours to help the next generation develop, and Users who will not.
The challenge for new Associates looking for jobs is to find out who is willing to work with them to help them reach their potential, and who just wants to use them.
“This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”Hamlet – William Shakespeare.
I drove into the Big City the other day and had brunch with an old friend who I will call Sandy, because that is her name.
It is an incontrovertible fact that young lawyers destined for private practice arrive at law firms without much clue as to how to practice law.
A lucky few are welcomed into a structured environment where good quality training, mentoring, and resources are provided to teach them their craft and to maintain quality control and client service while they learn.
New lawyers need real mentors. Not the type of mentors who are assigned by the firm to be sure that you know what is expected of you in terms of docketed hours and evening and weekend work, but the type of mentors who care about your success and your progression in the profession.
Here are ten things that real mentors do:
Those of us who hang out with lawyers know that there may be some wine involved, but more often, there will just be whining.
Lawyers complain about many and varied things, such as how hard they work, the stress, their demanding clients, their Associates, and their Partners. The list of gripes goes on and on. In my retirement, I have learned to tune most of them out. However, recently a rising crescendo of complaints from young lawyers about the scarcity of good mentoring has risen above the usual cacophony of complaints and careened into my consciousness.
Many of us think that the legal profession is broken, because too many lawyers are stressed out and miserable. Law firms are throwing money at the problem. Apparently unsuccessfully. A few brave souls are attempting to start solo practices or small firms which operate on different, and more humane and sustainable principles. But apart from that, the profession seems to be lurching along as it always has and continuing to chew up, and sometimes spit out, those lawyers who are determined to have a life outside of practicing law.
Those who know me would not be surprised to learn that I think that I was a brilliant supervising lawyer and mentor. Not necessarily because I was, but because I had a fairly high opinion of my own skill set. Many of us lawyers do. Not all of us are right, although I am.
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.