By David B. Sarnoff
As any attorney who has been through the experience knows, the life of a junior law firm associate can be a lonely and challenging position. It has been written and discussed countless times that law schools do not prepare junior attorneys for the rigor and demand of law firm practice and culture. This experience crosses all areas of practice whether it is a small firm or one of the AmLaw 100 law firms. Any junior associate can tell you that the first week on the job can be frightening when that initial assignment is handed out. The associate may not have dealt with the issue as a law student or clerk and may not know the ancillary resources that would help address the issue. Also, there is apprehension as to whether or not the associate’s work product is complete or meets the standards of the partner who assigned it. One way to alleviate this pressure and stress of a junior associate is to be under the stewardship of a mentoring attorney. However, not all mentors are created equal.
Many law firms claim that they provide mentoring programs for junior attorneys. Some do an excellent job of pairing partners or senior attorneys with junior attorneys. That pairing can be an invaluable resource to junior associates. However, other firms may not provide high caliber mentors, in part, because the attorneys assigned as mentors do not necessarily know what it takes to guide junior attorneys. Also, some partners went through a hazing type of experience when they were starting their careers and, unfortunately, merely repeat the cycle. There are basic guidelines that are helpful for mentors to practice.
First, a mentor should not be judgmental and expect that a junior attorney is going to get it right every time. A mentor should demonstrate patience and listen to the concerns and questions of the junior attorney, offer guidance and problem-solving solutions without actually doing the work for the junior attorney. Please keep in mind that many junior attorneys grew up in the era of helicopter parents and some may lack the independent thinking and problem-solving skills that seasoned attorneys may take for granted. A mentor needs to establish a personal rapport and trust with the junior associate. It is crucial for the junior attorney to believe that he/she can confide in his/her mentor for it to be a meaningful professional relationship.
Second, in order to be an effective mentor, a partner must commit the time to get to know his/her mentee and observe work habits, work product and interaction with colleagues and clients. This is often difficult given the focus of billable hours in most areas of legal practice. However, time commitment is a critical component of any mentorship. There needs to be regular meetings and opportunities to address questions and problems that may arise in day to day practice.
Next, a mentor should be clear in his/her desire to share knowledge, experiences and strategies to his/her mentee. There also needs to be an understanding that the mentor will be objective and offer constructive evaluations of work product and point out where improvement is needed and not just be critical. Without an honest assessment, the mentee will get little out of the exercise. A mentor should lead by example and practice what he/she preaches.
Mentorships can be an invaluable tool to groom junior associates into strong midlevel attorneys and partners. Conversely, if a mentor is not dedicated or committed to the mentorship, it can have a negative impact on the junior associate in his/her performance and outlook towards the profession. A positive mentorship program can also reduce attrition, strengthen loyalty and be a strong recruiting tool.
For young attorneys, a mentor can provide an invaluable resource to improve and refine writing and research skills. It can also be a strong networking channel to meet other attorneys and potential clients. If your law firm does not offer a mentoring program, please refer to your local bar association for mentoring programs.
David B. Sarnoff, Esq. is a legal recruiter and Principal of his search firm, Sarnoff Group LLC. He has over eighteen (18) years of experience as a recruiter and career counselor. He has placed partners, counsels, associates and groups into law firms. He has also placed attorneys into companies and hedge funds in many cities. He has been a frequent presenter to various Bar Associations on recruiting, marketing and branding for attorneys. Feel free to contact David for a confidential conversation at 646.665.4899 or email@example.com. David also practiced at a New York law firm in the areas of complex commercial litigation and white-collar defense. He is a member of the Board of Education in Fort Lee, NJ and currently serves as the Board President.