Oregon State Bar Bulletin — NOVEMBER 2006

Managing Your Practice
What Money Can't Buy:
A strategy to reintroduce organic mentoring in firms, part 2

By Paul Burton

The first installment of this article (October 2006) surveyed the current mentoring landscape for mid-level and senior associates and found it wanting. The result of many factors, mentoring has declined as a development focal point for partners in the last decade. The consequences are lowered career satisfaction and increased attrition, both costly for firms.

Concluding that everyone benefits from an active mentoring environment brings us to part two of this discussion. Here now are several methodologies and components to consider when seeking to revive one-on-one mentoring in your firm.

Building Blocks
Understanding the characteristics of a successful mentoring relationship greatly improves the likelihood they will develop. Virtually all mentoring relationships consist of the following traits:

Mentors’ Mechanics
Because this is organic mentoring there is no defined course and no finish line per se. That is not to suggest a lack of structure or purpose. All mentors have some specific responsibilities:

The Protégé’s Role
As the most significant benefactor of this process, protégés must understand and adhere to several key components for a mentoring relationship to develop and prosper:

Protégés are well advised to remember that they stand to benefit the most from mentoring relationships. It is their careers that are most directly affected. Holding up their side of the bargain constitutes a minimum commitment on their part and all should seek ways to rise above this level.

Match Making
There are a number of ways to implement an organic mentoring program. Before delving into the details, it merits restating the importance of executive management commitment to and relentless promotion of this program to ensure its success. Without regular, vocal support from the firm’s leaders, those charged with execution will run into all the usual barriers partners can erect against change.

With an incentive model constructed, the participant’s educated, and firm management on board, a structured organic mentoring program can be implemented. It can be an add-on component to an existing mentoring program or a free-standing one. The advantages of adding it on are reduced administrative angst and smooth transition. The benefits of a free-standing program are increased visibility and flexibility of a uniquely separate program

Before getting to the selection process, a central reporting and clearing process must be established. If the firm currently has a mentoring program in place, assigning the administrative function for this program to those people would be easiest. If that’s not possible or advisable, an administrator must be assigned who is responsible for managing the development of mentoring relationships and periodic reporting requirements established by the firm. Utilizing a unique expense account or non-billable tracking account makes this latter requirement fairly simple. The objective is to facilitate this process, not burden anyone with arduous reporting duties.

So how best to get partners mentoring associates? Here are several suggested mechanisms for launching a bolt-on or stand-alone organic mentoring program:

Natural Selection. Provided the firm has developed sufficient partner incentives to actively engage in a protégé search, the most likely path to success will be to allow the partners and associates to self-select. This ensures the highest level of volunteerism. A near-term deadline should be set for the partners to report to the program administrator that they have a) identified and b) engaged with an associate for the purposes of developing a mentoring relationship. Note: One of the initial functions of the program administrator is to make sure there is relatively even distribution of relationships being built; that is, that everyone’s getting picked to play.

Bolt-On Assignments. This method is especially effective if the firm has an existing mentoring program. By extending the program to cover a larger population of associates, the current administrator and process need only be expanded to allow for the additional relationships.

Speed Dating. A more creative matching idea is to host, maybe at a retreat, a speed dating style of matching. Here, the partners remain stationary and associates move from seat to seat every few minutes. The attorneys get the opportunity to discuss their relative mentoring interests and objectives in rapid fashion minimizing the risk of mismatches. At the end, each attorney submits several choices and the program administrator matches everyone, allowing for equitable distribution. In addition to being fun, this method gives all lawyers a chance to meet associates in different parts of the firm.

Matching. This method is similar to medical residency program matching. Each attorney submits a list of several associates/partners they would like to work with. The program administrator matches everyone, allowing for equitable distribution.

There are endless methods for getting partners and associates matched up. Implementing a system that is easy to understand, repeat and maintain is a key to success. Enthusiastic participation will ensure a successful launch and greatly increase the likelihood of a long-term productive program.

Traditional mentoring has historically been a cornerstone of the legal profession. The current pace of practice has caused it to become virtually extinct. The unintended consequences of this fact are rising mid-level and senior associate dissatisfaction, resulting in decreased loyalty, increased attrition and lost investment. Initiating or incorporating a firm-sponsored organic mentoring program can increase associate satisfaction, along with its attendant loyalty and investment savings. Non-financially, these programs increase productivity and promote better collegiality. Simply stated, the benefits far outweigh the difficulties of program initiation.

Paul Burton is a former corporate finance attorney with an extensive background in professional and organizational development. His firm, Vision Mechanix, works exclusively with lawyers and law firms, providing clients training and consulting in the areas of business development, management and productivity. He can be reached at paul@visionmechanix.com. © 2006 Vision Mechanix LLC.

© 2006 Paul Burton

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