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Attorney Mentoring in the 21st Century

David B. Sarnoff, Esq., ACC

Natalie Loeb, M.S.

David Robert, MBA

Loeb Leadership

Finding someone who is willing to invest the time to be a mentor, offer career advice and teach technical and practical skills can be challenging. For many junior attorneys, the search can seem insurmountable. Although there are several factors that contribute to the degree of difficulty, one common culprit might surprise you: technology. Smart devices and artificial intelligence have replaced in-person interactions with impersonal electronic communications, such as text, email and video conferencing.

In the past, the law library and due diligence trips created opportunities for attorneys to spend time together. The very nature of being in close proximity lent itself to fostering both formal and informal mentoring relationships. Now, those manual tasks are largely completed by accessing an online server from the comfort of one’s office, thus reducing opportunities for attorneys to spend time with each other in person. A further complication is the current pandemic, which pulled people out of corporate offices and relegated them to the isolation of their home offices.

Although the legal industry has faced significant disruption over the past several years, the need for mentoring has remained unchanged. Mentoring continues to be a valuable tool to develop associates’ competence at practicing law and an effective way to enhance leadership skills and self-awareness. Typically, mentoring pairs someone with more experience in a specific area or discipline with someone who has less experience (or a different perspective) and therefore likely to have questions about their job or need guidance or advice. Mentoring differs from sponsorship in that a sponsor actively advocates for the sponsored party’s career advancement, while a mentor helps to train and advise his/her mentee. Oxford defines mentoring, in part, as “to advise or train someone, especially a younger colleague.”

An ideal mentorship would consist of a desire from both the mentor and the mentee to initiate the relationship. In the absence of a formal mentoring program, in which mentors and mentees volunteer to participate, it is important to speak up about your desire to either mentor or be mentored. “This can be challenging for a junior associate,” says Natalie Loeb, CEO of Loeb Leadership. “In some firm cultures, asking for help can be seen as a sign of weakness or vulnerability, but the risks of not doing it are too high.” She adds, “this is where partners can play an important role in helping to form a mentoring culture, by proactively seeking associates to mentor.”

According to Carla Harris, the author of Expect to Win: 10 Proven Strategies for Thriving in the Workplace, a mentor is the person you can tell "the good, the bad and the ugly to." You should feel comfortable sharing the intimate details of your career to this person, including goals and mistakes.

"By definition, it must be someone you can trust," Harris said. "Don't just say, 'Oh, she's been doing this 20 years; she'll be my mentor.' If she doesn't know you very well, she cannot be a great mentor to you. The mentoring job is tailored advice specifically to you and your career aspirations. If you don't believe that person has your best interests at heart 100 percent, they can't be your mentor."

Don’t assume, however, that mentoring is reserved exclusively for junior talent. “No matter where you are in your career, mentorships are extremely valuable not only for professional development but also as a support system,” says Jessica Hodkinson, Esq., General Counsel at Panasonic. “I think the keys to a successful and effective mentorship are mutual trust and open communication.” Ms. Hodkinson reflected on an experience she had with a mentor. “When working at a law firm early in my career, I was fortunate to have a female senior partner provide guidance, create opportunities and show me that anything is possible—beyond what I could imagine,” she added. “I’ve carried that with me, and it is why I have been equally committed to giving back in my role as General Counsel at Panasonic.”

Evan Weintraub, Esq., a partner at Wachtel Missry LLP, shared his personal experience in such a mentoring relationship. “Early in my career, one of the litigation partners took the time to meet with me to discuss each assignment in depth.” Weintraub, looking back on that relationship with gratitude, explained, “[t]he partner talked to me about the case, the clients, the claims, the strategy going forward, and the next steps in the case, etc., so that I had a better understanding of what we were trying to accomplish and where my assignment fit in to the overall strategy.”

Weintraub’s mentoring relationship with that particular partner wasn’t a one-directional transfer of knowledge. “At the conclusion of case discussions, he would ask me questions to ensure that I understood the issues, arguments, etc.” Weintraub also found the mentorship experience provided space to enhance and develop interpersonal relationships. He recalled, “after a successful outcome in a case, that same partner took me and another associate out for a celebratory dinner where we learned another side of him (i.e., his background and non-legal interests), which resulted in a lively discussion about non-work topics.”

“It really boils down to culture,” says David Robert, Chief Talent Strategist at Loeb Leadership. “High-trust workplace cultures require alignment between organizational practices and people. Mentoring, when done correctly, can play an important role in demonstrating that you’re serious about offering practices that develop and nurture talent.” Although mentoring can serve as a great practice to reinforce a desired culture, be careful to avoid looking for an “off the shelf” solution. “That’s the challenge of culture work,” adds Robert. “Every firm is different and therefore must find an approach to people practices that reflect the firm’s uniqueness. No two firms will approach mentoring the same way, nor should they.”

This is not to suggest that firms can’t learn from each other. Sharing best practices is encouraged, as the process is likely to spark ideas about what a mentoring program could look like at your firm. Consider the following advice:

  • Be mindful of the life experience of those being mentored. According to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion expert Joy Stephens, “it is imperative for a white mentor to learn as much as they can about diversity, equity and inclusion, and cultural differences before trying to mentor a person of color because, without that understanding, the mentor could end up dismissing real concerns as trivial, misunderstanding cultural norms or trying to convince the mentee to assimilate to his/her style.”

  • Be open to leverage mentorships to elevate not only technical skills but also leadership skills, such as executive presence, emotional intelligence and active listening. Demetria Johnson, Esq., Inclusion & Diversity Manager, Talent Acquisition Strategist at Gilead Sciences, says, “as a mentor, I listen to ‘hear’ when my mentee talks. I listen for the things they don’t say.” Then, “I share a few words of advice that have helped me.”

  • Formally track who is being mentored to ensure that mentoring opportunities are open to everyone. If you see disparities, speak up. Your mentoring program should reinforce a culture of inclusion rather than being seen as a program of exclusivity.

  • Make sure the objectives of your mentoring program are clearly articulated.

  • Think outside the box. Ms. Hodkinson describes the innovative mentoring approach at Panasonic. “Through NJ LEEP, a college access and readiness program, and our diversity summer associate program, we offer ongoing mentoring and a glimpse into the day-to-day realities of an in-house legal department. Hosting these programs helps our attorneys build management and leadership skills, and reflects our core values including diversity, mentorship and contributing to society.”

  • Balance the need to offer guidance and advice with not offering too much detail. According to Elliot Silverman, Esq., a retired litigator who practiced at large and mid-sized law firms, “the key to mentoring is the ‘Goldilocks’ principle—you don’t want to do too much or too little.” He elaborates, “if you’re mentoring a young litigation associate who has never drafted a motion to dismiss a complaint, you can’t just throw the complaint at her and say, ‘draft a motion to dismiss.’ She’ll feel lost, will flounder around wasting a lot of billable time, and wind up giving you a draft that will likely need significant revisions.”

There is no magic formula for establishing an impactful mentoring relationship. Motivation, curiosity and patience will serve you well as you navigate through the process. However, if both parties are committed, establish clear expectations, actively listen and demonstrate empathy, a positive outcome is more likely.

For more information about attorney mentoring, including the evolution of mentoring in the legal profession, mentoring in uncertain times, and the role mentoring plays with inclusion, check out the authors’ Mentoring Attorneys in the 21st Century program, available from PLI Programs On Demand.

Please feel free to contact the authors directly with any questions:

DAVID B. SARNOFF, ESQ., ACC, is Director of Strategic Partnerships of Loeb Leadership and a Certified Executive Coach.

NATALIE LOEB, M.S., is Founder and CEO of Loeb Leadership and a Leadership Coach.

DAVID ROBERT, MBA, is an Organizational Culture Expert and Chief Strategy Officer of Loeb Leadership.

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Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and official policies of Practising Law Institute.

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