Practice Management — Mentoring
This space will regularly comment on issues that face early call lawyers in the practice of law. I anticipate coming forward weekly, from my desk at Mann Lawyers LLP, to identify, examine and offer solutions to issues that commonly occur. As might be expected, I use the term ‘early call’ rather than ‘young’ in recognition that many lawyers come to the practice of law after exploring other academic or entrepreneurial opportunities. The modern lawyer has many paths to consider on the way to the law before practicing in it.
Managing people and practices, or ‘practice management’ in the jargon, has been referred to universally as both an art and a science. Most activities that involve organizing, observing, assisting and /or supervising or managing human activity are a little of both. What makes a good system good? What makes an effective manager effective? Rather than the reverse, there are more answers than questions in management theory and practices, more solutions than problems — lots and lots of opinions and theories.
My own theory of practice management in a law firm (note importantly that I will not be referring to either operational or fiscal management of a law firm) is pretty simple. It has three levels. At the most superficial (passive) level, it involves being available to provide advice and guidance to newer practitioners as and when requested. At a more engaged level, it involves an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the practice and the lawyers working in it, together with a willingness to pro-actively step forward with comment or guidance (possibly whether asked for or not). At the ultimate level, it involves working closely with our lawyers to motivate and hopefully direct them in pursuit of their practice and personal goals. In combination, it involves the most significant practice management tool of all, mentoring. Mentoring early call professionals is the ultimate in the management of practice and service areas.
As every senior lawyer understands (often ruefully) mentoring of early call lawyers is something that law firms regularly discuss with the very best of intentions. Most law firms make genuine efforts to put a mentorship program in place. What law firm would not want it? The care and feeding of associate lawyers is a persistent challenge. There are no arguments against and many arguments for establishing a mentorship program. However, introducing a mentorship program can be more difficult to do than appears at first glance, and even more difficult to do (sustain) successfully. Pulling senior lawyers away from busy practices, already challenged by the demands of clients as well as the business itself, is not an easy thing to do. It is without a doubt for this reason alone, that the ad hoc counselling of junior lawyers (my level one above), as distinct from mentoring them, is more common and more commonly successful. This is because while counselling is more likely to be issue-oriented and less formally engaged (question asked, question answered), mentoring of younger lawyers, as a practice management strategy focusing not on issues but on people, is for the long haul, intended to challenge and benefit everyone engaged with it – the mentee, the mentor, and the firm, with lasting effect.
In their first five years of practice, in particular, new lawyers face considerable challenges. They have completed a legal education, been called to the bar, and are ready to enter into practice. One option, starting out on one’s own, fresh out of school, taking on the business of as well as the practice of law, is dramatically difficult without readily accessible guidance from more experienced lawyers (who in this scenario happen to be competing with you). Few neophyte lawyers successfully navigate the speed bumps of sole practice without help. Meanwhile, lawyers starting out as juniors in a firm, regardless of size, mitigate some distractions (because misery loves company?) but have additional challenges to address, such as satisfying internal stressors as well as personalities (clients or otherwise) beyond their control. Being surrounded by colleagues is not enough. It has been said cleverly that colleagues are a wonderful thing – but mentors are where the real work gets done (Junot Diaz). I subscribe to this view. Mentoring demands more than filling the office next door, and more than collegiality. To be truly effective, the mentor and the mentee must be formally assigned to one another, and subject to a carefully framed protocol.
At the very least, all new, or newer calls (regardless of age) should be afforded the privilege of a structured mentorship program. However, the truth is that every lawyer, at some stage in his or her career, and probably more than once, will yearn for the attention of (and attachment to) a mentor. This suggests that finding a willing mentee is no issue. The more difficult challenge is finding the right mentor, followed closely by connecting the right mentor to the right mentee. The mentor must have sufficient seniority and aptitude to share the gift of wisdom and experience, but also the desire, disposition, opportunity and determination to do so over the long haul. As noted, mentoring is both an art (an aptitude or skill) and science (a discipline). It is a communion, not to be undertaken casually. Both the mentor and the mentee must be excited about the relationship. While desirable, mentorship cannot be forced, but when the right relationship is formed it is synergetic: good for the mentee, good for the mentor, good for the practice not of just one but of both, and not incidentally, as noted above, good for the firm: there should be something for everyone.
Properly engaged, therefore, mentoring characterizes an organic, cooperative and reciprocal relationship. The mentor and mentee join in the pursuit of a common goal, a goal which both know cannot be achieved without transparency, trust and respect. Note that the goal is not to encourage the mentee to mimic the mentor, indeed hopefully this will be assiduously avoided. Rather, it is to provide stability and empowerment to the mentee. It is to build an enduring sense of confidence and opportunity and will foster continuous growth of your law practice with new talent.
Next: the W5 of Mentorship.