Associate Mentoring is Good for Law Firm Profitability
By Jacqueline V. Guynn
As a first year associate at a large law firm, I once asked a very successful junior partner the secret to his success. His response — also the title to a Harvard Business Review article — was: “Everyone who makes it has a mentor.” That’s when I noticed that he did indeed have a mentor — a close working relationship with a very senior partner, who taught him how to achieve success in a law firm environment. Now, as a legal search consultant, I find that mentors are an increasingly important part of law firm life. Mentors boost overall firm profitability by helping associates — among the firm’s most valuable resources — succeed. In fact, associates with long-term mentors are more likely to make it to the coveted partnership ranks. Thus, mentoring improves recruiting, aids in associate retention, and can — if properly utilized — promote workplace diversity. Simply put, firms with successful mentoring programs can gain material marketplace advantages.
Mentoring is the now-familiar process where an experienced business professional takes a protégé under his or her wing to help that person develop business skills and judgment, help their career get off on the right foot, and develop leadership skills. Mentoring for law firms, as in other businesses, can be formal or informal. Formal programs are like “arranged marriages” between a partner and an associate, and like those marriages, may or may not be successful. Nevertheless, informative and supportive mentoring relationships can develop from formal beginnings if the senior lawyers are willing to make a meaningful commitment of time and focus. Informal programs, relying more on chemistry between the two attorneys, can often achieve a higher level of success for an equal amount of effort. Whether arrangements are formal or informal, firms benefit in many capacities.
Firms that support mentoring as an integral part of associate development also reap the benefits in their recruiting programs. Although students and lateral associates have different reasons for picking one firm over another, studies find that the key factor is the firm’s commitment to the development of its professionals, rather than money. Thus a firm effectively demonstrating its commitment to associates’ professional growth, as evidenced through mentoring, will be more successful at recruiting the best and brightest. Indeed, it has been said that associates who experience positive mentoring relationships can be a firm’s best recruiters.
Increasing Associate Retention and Firm Loyalty
Because many associates perceive partnership opportunities to be fleeting and feel no firm loyalty, they view law firms as just a pit stop along the road of their legal career, and retention woes result. Spending one’s career at a single firm seems sufficiently implausible that only 56% of all associates in a recent survey were interested in becoming partners. To some degree, this can be traced to the fact that many associates do not feel connected to the practice of law or their law firm. Associates often complete assignments without an experienced attorney explaining why certain key strategies were made. Mentors can stem attrition as they help associates understand legal strategy and strive for practice excellence through constructive criticism and praise. Associates with successful mentoring relationships are far more likely to stay with the institution that they feel has contributed to their success. Through guidance and coaching, associates become full participants in both their own professional development and the firm’s success. The net result is greater return on the firm’s investment in its human capital.
Promoting Firm Culture and Increasing Workforce Diversity
Successful law firms, like the businesses that they represent, have distinct institutional cultures yet must attract and retain a diverse body of attorneys to remain competitive in the global economy. Law firms which have adjusted to embrace diversity find that those changes are good for the firm culture and, more particularly, good for business as they attract and retain better clients. For example, Shell Oil recently hosted a “bake-off” for its strategic law firm partners based on not only the traditional factors of quality, cost-effectiveness, and professionalism, but also the number of women and minorities at their firms (Diversity Scorecard 2004, American Lawyer, 6/24/04). Shell’s General Counsel, Catherine Lamboley, explained that “when you use people with diverse backgrounds and different ways of looking at things, you get a better solution.” Shell is not alone. Currently, many companies are employing rating scales to select outside counsel — AMR, Bank of America, International Paper, Bell South, and Sara Lee, to name a few. As diversity report cards become more prevalent, firms demonstrating a proven track record of fully integrated teams in all matters have a clear advantage over those who fall short. In this regard, mentoring again plays an important role because it is a critical tool in the development and training of women and minority associates to become better associates and partners. Through skills benchmarking, career development advice and protection, and helping associates appreciate firm culture and adapt to the firm’s unwritten set of rules and regulations, mentoring helps all associates. This is especially true for women and minority associates, who traditionally have much higher attrition rates, in their efforts to stay on the road to partnership. And, not surprisingly, firms that can retain top-flight women and minority attorneys have a far better chance of attracting other sought-after women and minorities, and become known for supporting and nurturing such lawyers. Success breeds success.
Effective mentoring programs are integral to law firm success boosting associate morale and helping inexperienced attorneys learn how to attain excellence in the practice of law and how to better serve client needs. Meaningful mentoring efforts also improve firm profitability by increasing the effectiveness of the firm’s recruiting programs, decreasing associate attrition, and improving the firm’s diversity. In all, the time taken by senior lawyers to guide their juniors is an investment well worth making.
Eliza G.C. Collins and Patricia Scott, “Everyone Who Makes It Has a Mentor,” Harvard Business Review 56, no. 2 (July/August 1978): 89-101.
Ida O. Abbott, The Lawyer’s Guide to Mentoring (Washington, D.C.: National Association for Law Placement, Inc., 2000).
This article was originally published in The Law Firm Partnership & Benefits Report and can be cited as below:
Jacqueline V. Guynn, “Associate Mentoring Is Good For Law Firm Profitability,” Law Firm Partnership & Benefits Report, 10, no. 7 (August 2004).