Editor's note: This post originally appeared on at www.meehanboyle.com and is reprinted with permission.
In the nearly ten years that I’ve been managing Meehan, Boyle, Black & Bogdanow, P.C., one of the most important aspects has been mentoring – both my own mentoring of associates, and my ensuring that non-attorney staff members receive the mentoring they need. It entails an investment of time that is critical to the development of thoughtful, successful professionals who are actively and positively engaged in what they do. If you fail to provide serious, thoughtful mentoring, the result will be burnout, increased turnover of personnel, and low morale. Provide it and you will have excited, constantly improving attorneys and staff members who contribute greatly to the firm and are happy to do so.
As with most things we do, there is no single, magic “key” to good mentoring of a law firm associate. Life isn’t quite that simple, but there are some key ingredients: sustained communication, learning the mentee’s strengths, weaknesses and developmental needs, helping them enter the general legal community and providing opportunities to practice law beyond sitting behind a desk.
Communication means listening and providing feedback. Over the past thirty years, law schools have become better at providing “real world” opportunities, but new associates are still filled with questions about what is going on around them. How does the law firm operate? What brings a client to the firm, and how does the firm decide whether to take on that client? An associate’s questions often go far beyond how to write a persuasive brief, or plan an oral argument. It is important to teach them about the legal world, and not simply about what to do in a particular case – although that feedback is important too.
Discovering your associate’s strengths and weaknesses is critical to the mentoring process. If she is a great writer, then provide her with increasingly more important writing projects – not just internal research memoranda. If not, then providing feedback and training in legal writing is even more important. If writing will never be her strongest skill, then offering them complex appellate work probably isn’t the right way to go – there are many other alternatives for work in a law firm. Some weaknesses can slowly become strengths, such as fear of oral argument. A mentee with great oral skills may still be nervous about his first court appearance. If so, find a relatively minor event – a non-dispositive motion or a status conference. Have them attend oral arguments of more experienced attorneys, so that they get a sense of what is entailed. Offer to listen to them in “mock arguments” before they argue a motion. Little by little, they can develop into effective oral advocates.
Bringing a new lawyer into the legal community is essential. Bar association meetings and dinners, conventions, seminars, fundraisers, political or charitable events are all great venues to introduce new associates into the greater legal community. Introduce them to bar leaders, find them appropriate committees to join, guide them into associations that are good fits for them. In this way, associates can start the path toward developing more relationships and serving as leaders in the legal community. And if they have interests outside of the legal profession, help them find ways to maintain them as well.
Boredom and burnout are two very different forms of malaise, but both are harmful to your associate and, therefore, to your firm. By nurturing the development of new lawyers, you can help them grow into their roles as successful attorneys who contribute to your firm and to the profession as a whole. And the mentoring process can also be quite rewarding and enjoyable for the mentor!