The Exceptional Lawyer

August 19, 2008

Mentoring Associates: A Litmus Test for Partners

Filed under: Uncategorized — joshuahornick @ 9:17 pm

Earlier today, an associate, seven years out of law school, at the Chicago office of a leading firm, ranked partners’ effectiveness in supporting associates’ career development at 6.5 out of 10.  On a grade scale, that would be a “D.”  This is a big deal, and it’s very curious.

It’s a big deal because a firm’s effectiveness relies on well-developed associates.  It makes associates happy.  They stay.  The substantial cost of getting (and training) new associates is diminished.  Also, the associates do better work, both because they are happier and because they are better-trained.  Clients that are served by these associates receive better legal services.  Partners also get the benefit of more loyal, harder and better-working associates.  If the partners at a firm give anything less than A+ career development support to associates, they are shooting themselves in the foot.

The curious part is that law partners know this.  They know the importance of associate career development.  Law partners tend to be extremely smart people, people who know not to act against their own best interests.  So, what’s going on?

I can identify at least three causes that ultimately boggle smart partners ability to provide the kind of associate career support that we’d expect.  

The first of these is cultural and varies greatly by firm and geographical location.  One partner with whom I spoke last month started her legal career in Montreal.  There, she said, she received excellent mentorship.  It’s part of the firm culture.  She described the mentor process as “incredibly useful.”  Her mentor partner took a great interest in her development and took the time to make sure she was honing her craft and learning the ropes of the business.  My research so far indicates that, while a long way from the Montreal experience, firms in smaller cities tend to make more time for their associates than in larger cities.  

Second, making it even harder to break the cultural rut is the pressure of American big-city law firm life.  The former Montreal lawyer told me that the whole firm stopped working for a social hour at the end of the day on Friday.  Almost everyone showed up.  The culture there seemed to have a lot more elbow room, room to socialize, room to relax, room to mentor associates.  The culture of pressure relates to and exacerbates the culture of not mentoring.

As any executive coach or OD consultant knows, it’s a challenge for a firm to change its culture.  It’s doable, but it’s a challenge.  The same associate who gave the 6.5 ranking told me that his firm had adopted a mentoring program, which was great for about a month.  Then, it was forgotten.  Lasting cultural change requires ongoing support until the change has become routine.  As a result, many firms are stuck in this non-mentoring cultural rut.  But, firm culture is only part of the problem, and it may be the smaller part of the problem.  

The third cause has to do with the partners themselves, not the culture of the firm.  The same associate ranked partners “genuine concern” for the professional development of associates at 7.5 out of ten, a “C.”  One way of looking at this is that the concern of partners accounts for a 2.5 point drop (from a perfect 10 to a 7.5) and the firm culture pulls the quality of associate support for career development down to the 6.5 level.  

How do we account for this lack of genuine concern?  I expect it is a combination of pressure, inertia, and a failure to see the big picture.  This is where the idea of a litmus test comes in.  

An exceptional lawyer’s judgment is largely immune to pressure.  An exceptional lawyers will fight inertia to attain valuable results.  And, most importantly, an exceptional lawyer’s good judgment is founded on a solid, big-picture perspective.  These are qualities that distinguish exceptional lawyers from the rest.  A partner’s involvement in mentoring associates may be a particularly good litmus test for these qualities.  While there are many measures of an attorney’s success, such as income, rainmaking, win/loss record, size of deals closed, client list, and experience, they don’t always point to an attorney being immune to pressure, bold in the face of inertia, or having big-picture perspective.  This is not to say that a lawyer who mentors associates is necessarily exceptional, but it is a useful metric in making that determination.

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1 Comment »

  1. An example from another professional may be helpful. One well-known consulting firm has three levels of partner. To make it to the top level, a partner must be able to identify three or four junior partners he or she mentored into partnership–and these younger partners have to concurr. This requirement is seen as key to the firm’s growth.

    Ford Harding

    Comment by Ford Harding — August 21, 2008 @ 1:50 am | Reply


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