Mentoring in Law Firms?

Talented law school graduates value learning and development (L&D) opportunities equally as salary and career prospects when choosing their future employer. One of the most effective ways for a firm to meet this demand is to maintain a mentoring system. Among L&D tools mentoring is one of the most productive, providing an on-going support, tacit knowledge transfer and development opportunity for junior lawyers. The beneficial effects of a functioning mentoring system is way beyond the professional development of juniors, mentoring offers considerable advantages to the mentors and the firm too. 

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” /Benjamin Franklin/

The concept of mentoring is rooted in the Greek Mythology. In Homer’s Odyssey, before setting sail to the Trojan war, Ulysses has entrusted his son Telemachus to the care and direction of his trusted friend Menthor. In the 21st century, mentoring is a well-established form of personal and professional development used in many organizations as an effective development option. Conceptionally, Mentoring is referred to the relationship, where a more experienced person care for and train a less experienced without judging by sharing his/her own experiences. In other words, mentoring is a “deliberate paring of a more skilled or experienced person with a lesser skilled or experienced one, with the agreed-upon goal of having the lesser skilled person grow and develop specific competencies.”

A 2013 study, “Career Benefits Associated with Mentoring for Mentors,” published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior, discovered that people who have the opportunity to serve as mentors experience greater job satisfaction and a higher commitment to their employer. Other studies assert, that mentoring can extensively boast employee engagement. Furthermore, mentoring can also increase efficiency at work: senior associates may simultaneously enhance their people management skills, learn to delegate tasks better, and as a result gain more time and capacity for business development.

A good mentoring system pays particular attention to the mentor-mentee pairing process and it is voluntary for the mentor. It is also crucial, that the mentor and the mentee define sharp, specific goals and objectives to achieve right at the beginning of the mentoring process, since without a well-defined direction the mentoring relationship can easily become a talking exercise. Regular monitoring of the mentoring process serves this goal too, as well as the evaluation of the end result. Mentoring in itself is not sufficient to meet all the professional development needs of young associates: it has to be part of a larger, firm-wide L&D program, which is designed to improve the technical knowledge, as well as the soft skills of the young talents.

Are lawyers perfect or do they need mentoring?

Although the business world has long known and relied upon mentoring as a proven technique for developing in-house talent – nowadays already 71 per cent of Fortune 500 companies offer various mentorship programs – law firms tend to lag behind.

In order to have a better understanding of the inner motivations of graduating law school students, last year DLA Piper Budapest conducted a survey involving 160 students from various law schools. According to the results of this survey, a considerable majority of law students mentioned the existence of a mentoring system – knowledge transfer between seniors and juniors -, as one of the key practical aspects they consider when deciding where to start their carrier. Such preference may seem as surprising at first sight, especially when considering other strong preferences, such as long term financial stability, attractive salary and career perspectives, nevertheless. The strong demand for mentoring system is more evident if taking into account that junior lawyers are members of “Generation Y” and as such value self-fulfilment and continuous professional development (CPD) equally or even over money and status, the main driving forces of “Generation X”.

In light of the above, it seems obvious that mentoring may indeed serve as an effective L&D tool for lawyers too. When it comes to mentorship, there are, however certain challenges tend to be more specific to law firms than other organizations. Such challenges may include:

  • Giving meaningful time;
  • Creating the mentoring, sharing culture instead of an individual high performing attitude;
  • Quantifying results of mentoring, measuring success;
  • Working across, not within, practice groups;
  • Respecting confidences;
  • Dealing with difficult people;
  • Respecting the boundaries of the mentoring terms.

The success and sustainability of the mentoring programs at law firms often depend on how successful the law firm in overcoming the above challenges. In order to overcome the law firm specific issues, mentor programs operated by law firms are recommended to comprise certain special features:

  • Driven by the mentee

Mentoring process is recommended to be driven by the Mentee. Thereby the Mentor is only required to be available and the driving force of the mentoring process could be the person, who may benefit the most of the program. Such approach may not only make the mentoring process sustainable – by not putting too much burden on the mentors – but also increases the engagement level of the mentees.

  • Focus on tacit knowledge

Mentoring shall never be the only knowledge cascading tool. Hence mentoring is best utilised for sharing knowledge that is hardly or not at all available otherwise, i.e. ‘tacit knowledge’. Tacit knowledge comprises the unwritten set of complex practical experiences and knowledge obtained by the senior members of the firm.

  • Facilitation helps

Active facilitation and oversight of the mentoring process by an HR or L&D manager is a crucial point for sustainability of the program, as hectic workload can often override implementation of non-fee earning activities.

  • Separate from regular work sessions

Crucial to the success of the mentoring process is that it shall clearly be separated from the regular everyday work related relationship of the mentor and mentee.

As a conclusion, even if lawyers are perfect they too can improve both their knowledge and skills by mentorship activities.

* * *

For the above reasons and based on the vast experiences offered by our multinational network, DLA Piper Budapest has recently launched its mentoring program.

Papp Gábor

Papp Gábor

Szakmai fejlesztési vezető

Papp Gábor

Gábor a DLA Piper Hungary szakmai fejlesztési vezetője. Több éve nemzetközi szinten foglalkozik tudás-, tehetség- és szervezetfejlesztéssel, illetve coaching-gal.
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