Oregon State Bar Bulletin — OCTOBER 2006

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

By Paul Burton

Organic, mano a mano mentoring is all but extinct in today’s frenetic legal environment. The notion of spending non-billable time with another lawyer for the esoteric purpose of exchanging wisdom seems quaint. Yet, mid-level associates are leaving prestigious, high-paying positions in droves to pursue more collegial environments. They seek connection, a sense of purpose and involvement. In short, they seek what money can’t buy. And it’s an expensive proposition for the firms losing them.

There are many reasons for this state of affairs, all contributory and none solely responsible. Increased focus on partner production, technology-accelerated client and firm expectations, and the advent of cross-office and cross-national practice groups are just a few of the culprits. The net result is disaffected mid-level associates walking out the door with the huge firm investment in them trailing behind.

This two-part article will first analyze the landscape and current state of affairs surrounding mentoring, and in the next issue of the Bulletin, propose a solution, along with implementation suggestions, for firms to get in front of this rising problem.

The View From 10,000 Feet
Three observations bare mentioning at the outset. First, this is not a phase. Generational shift is taking hold. the Millennial generation, with its higher expectations of direction and involvement, is larger than the Baby Boomer generation. Their influence will be felt.

Second, firm size is irrelevant. Large firms feel the effects more simply due to their size. Small and intermediate firms are not insulated from this phenomenon.

Third, organic, or traditional, mentoring is different from firm-sponsored mentoring programs, where new associates are assigned to other lawyers as guidance counselors during their first years of practice. These programs are very valuable for their participants – new lawyers. The audience addressed here are mid-level and senior associates, who have moved passed the purview of most mentoring programs. And in whom the firm has a large, vested interest.

The Blind Spot
The last several decades have wrought enormous change on the practice of law. Firms have grown from local to global enterprises. Practicing law has become a business, big business, with much closer financial scrutiny. Specialization has pushed lawyers to organize around practice groups within firms or spin off into boutiques. Technology has firms struggling to meet expectations and demand.

These factors, along with others, have unraveled the sense of camaraderie and collegiality among lawyers. Simply look to the numerous articles decrying the loss of professionalism in the law for proof.

The same forces have also toiled insidiously inside firms. Compensation plans reward individual production. Practice groups vie for visibility and marketing dollars. Formalized management structures require a different, more-advanced diplomacy. With these new demands on partners, little time is left to nurture younger lawyers and tend the crop of the next generation. Mentoring has been lost in the shuffle and a corresponding lack of loyalty has developed. Thus, talented, hard working but unhappy associates are looking elsewhere for career satisfaction.

The Business Case
Is traditional mentoring a solution, or do current practice realities relegate it to a by-gone era? The answer lies in the following compelling reasons firms should explore re-introducing organic mentoring into their environment.

Reduced attrition. Individuals who feel appreciated and wanted are more loyal and less likely to leave. Believe whatever statistics you want, but it costs firms hundreds of thousands of dollars each time a lawyer leaves. Retaining lawyers puts that money directly to the bottom line.

Increased productivity. Lawyers who "get it" faster and who are more committed to their practice because of a mentoring relationship will increase productivity in two ways. First, their own work will get done more efficiently, increasing their hours billed. Second, they will require fewer management cycles, thereby increasing the managing lawyer’s billed hours. Time spent mentoring is directly paid back in more time for the mentor to produce.

Greater Career Satisfaction ("Balance"). Contrary to popular belief, balance isn’t just for new lawyers. Mentoring relationships can be very rewarding and satisfying for both participants. And reward and satisfaction are components of career satisfaction. Career satisfaction generates higher retention and increased productivity.

With so much to gain from traditional mentoring, it would seem that re-introducing it into firm life is an obvious priority. The more difficult question is, "How?"

What’s The Motivation?
Of course, the simple solution is for partners to embrace mentoring and just squeeze it into their already overloaded schedules. But that’s not likely to happen. Steven Levitt, author of the runaway best seller Freakanomics, states that all behavior is motivated by incentives. Without digressing into an analysis of his theory, suffice it to say that people do things to gain positives or avoid negatives.

Applying this view, firms must build incentives to revive organic mentoring. These can be positive, in terms of "merits" considered during evaluative periods (like compensation), or negatives, in terms of "demerits," applied during those same considerations. Individual firms must determine which side of the incentive coin works best for their environment, but without some form of prompting, it’s clear that traditional mentoring will not flourish.

The nature of incentives could be as simple as a suggested time commitment, via a unique billing number, for all partners to spend with one or more mid-level and senior associates. Another possibility is for each partner to be allocated separate, quarterly expense accounts for use in mentoring. Either way, establishing a measurement system for tracking partners’ mentoring activities is an objective, firm-wide methodology for encouraging this behavior.

But an incentive program alone isn’t enough to guarantee success. Firm management must embrace the concept and promote it relentlessly. This is where "leadership" is most tested. Mentoring does not directly create billable hours, nor does it put cash directly into the bank. It’s a cultural process — one that evolves and matures over repeated application. Its rewards are quieter: fewer lateral replacement interviews; increased team cohesiveness; stronger client ties. Firm management must adopt a proactive and promotional attitude towards mentoring, carrying the message tirelessly forward to the partnership.

Participant Benefits
The next step is to educate the participants on the benefits derived from the program and how best to engage. Starting first with the partners, they benefit from organic mentoring for the same reasons firms do:

Reduced Attrition. Fewer associates leaving means fewer investment dollars lost and fewer dollars spent replacing them. Fewer dollars lost and spent means more profits to share.

Increased productivity. Spending less time managing associates because the associates "get it" faster means more time for productive activities like billing and rainmaking. More production means more profits to share.

Greater Career Satisfaction ("Balance"). Research has confirmed that both mentors and protégés experience increased career satisfaction from these relationships. And partners deserve a little career satisfaction regardless of their opinion of the concept!

In a nutshell, then, engaging in mentoring benefits partners, because it results in more profits to share and increased satisfaction during their day. Pretty compelling arguments.

Turning to associates, let’s review the oft-cited litany of benefits that mentoring affords them.

Strategic. The opportunity to discuss high-level career initiatives with someone steeped in that expertise is invaluable for protégés navigating the ever-changing waters of a developing career.

Facilitative. All law firms involve human interaction. How a mentor interacts on a protégé’s behalf significantly affects his or her career.

Confidante. The ability to speak candidly, openly and in confidence goes a long way towards maintaining a professional demeanor. Mentors provide that forum.

Knowledge gaps. Mentors can provide timely and significant legal and industry knowledge quickly, greatly improving the protégé’s presence and understanding of situations in which they find themselves.

Networking. One of the greatest benefits of a mentor is the organic networking that occurs among the individuals.

Mentors function as navigational aides to ease the inevitable course corrections that occur in any dynamic professional career. Moreover, leveraging this relationship greatly increases a protégé’s effectiveness and productivity.

Next month, the second part of this article will delve into the mechanics of re-introducing mentoring of more senior associates in today’s firm environment.

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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