Tips on Developing and Implementing a Mentor-Protege Program

by Joel A. Rose

Partners in law firms of all sizes and specialties are able to articulate the benefits derived, as a result of implementing mentor-protege programs as part of a firm-wide career development initiative. However, for a variety of reasons, in a majority of firms, mentor-protege programs have not been implemented with much success.

To illustrate this point, let's take the case of a midsize law firm that is in a dilemma over its current associate complement. The associate "oversight functions" are performed by a committee of partners with assistance from the firm's office administrator.

Most committee members agreed that communications between partners and associates were inadequate. With the exception of discussions about new case assignments, information about the firm, its policies and operations were usually passed on to the associates informally by individual partners with whom the associates worked in an ad hoc manner. Consequently, the quality and quantity of information about the firm communicated to different associates was varied and idiosyncratic. Newer associates sought advice from senior associates about issues about the firm, work assignments and their personal concerns.

It has been the author's experience that many law firms that have attempted to pair associates with partners in a mentor-protege relationship have reported only marginal success. Partners who were designated responsibility for developing and implementing their firm's mentoring programs have reported difficulty when attempting to institutionalize mentor programs on a firm-wide basis. The principle reasons for less than successful results are that most partners are unaware of what their roles should be as mentors, and as proteges, most associates do not know what to expect from their mentors and the kinds of questions to ask without feeling embarrassed, because a partner may think the issue being questioned has not been sufficiently "thought through" and few, if any of the partners are willing to devote their time to fulfill their obligation as a mentor. As a result, associates are frequently apprehensive to approach partners with their questions and concerns, and seek advice from other associates.

Generally, at the beginning of their careers at a law firm, the needs of newer associates are fairly straightforward. They need direction about the firm's culture, work assignments, the firm's policies and procedure. From a team-building perspective, newer associates should be included in the chain of information about the firm, their practice area(s), the firm's plans and initiatives, particularly those that affect their work. From an educational perspective, they need to receive feedback about their performance on work assignments.

As associates obtain more experience at the firm, for purposes of reinforcing their relationships with other attorneys and staff and for building their morale, they want to know how they rate and if they fit in with the firm's future plans.

Partners' Roles as Mentors and Supervisors

Partners can facilitate the mentoring process by creating within their firms a culture by which all lawyers are expected to teach and to learn from one another. In those firms that have implemented effective mentor-protege programs, the mentor serves as a facilitator and source of information rather than as the protege's supervising attorney. The supervising attorney should be responsible for delegating and managing work to assigned attorneys. Inherent in these roles are the training, critiquing and evaluating the overall performance of young attorneys.

The role of the mentor is to offer guidance and counsel to the associate, as requested and as the mentor believes may be needed. Based upon the mentor's experience as a partner and an experienced attorney, he or she should offer information to the associate about the legal profession, along with firm policies and practices and how to build professional and personal relationships with other members of the firm. He or she should advise the associate how to successfully develop personally and professionally within the firm and within the legal community in which the firm is based.

Every mentoring relationship is different because of the unique personalities of the mentor and the protege, the firm's culture, the work environment and nature of legal assignments assigned to proteges. Inconsistent or conflicting expectations of the relationship between the mentor and/or the protege may cause the mentoring relationship to crater.

In many firms, newer associates are assigned to mentors. During their first meeting, the mentor should explain to the protege how their relationship will work, including such information as the nature, scope and parameters of discussion topics. Also, they should discuss any concerns either may have about the time commitment for communicating with each other.

For the mentor-protege relationship to work effectively, the more influential members of the firm must be supportive of the mentor program. Mentors must take their roles seriously, take the time to meet with their proteges and do their best to maintain the confidentiality of their communications

Oftentimes, younger attorneys may be intimidated to intrude upon their mentor's time to ask a question. However, the willingness of the partner to take the time to respond to an associate's question without making the former feel as though he or she is intruding for asking the question, will go a long way for building and reinforcing the mentor-protege relationship.

Associates' Role as Protege

As a result of personal interest, practice areas, mutual interests, personality differences and other factors, proteges may identify another partner whose advice they respect and who is supportive and willing to take the time to serve as the former's mentor. To the extent such a personal and professional relationship evolves, the "initially assigned" mentor should not take personally the younger attorney's decision to seek another mentor and seek retribution. If a mentor-protege relationship does not work for any reason, the associate should be encouraged to identify another mentor.

When selecting a mentor, a young lawyer will be well advised to find a partner whose advice they respect and who will be supportive, willing to take the time to communicate and meet regularly. To the extent the mentor practices law in the same area as the protege, a closer working relationship may be fostered, as the protege may ask the mentor questions about substantive issues.

Generally, it is not usual for a younger attorney to voluntarily select their supervising attorney as his or her mentor. If their mentor is also their supervising attorney, knowing that they will be evaluated by the same person, proteges may be apprehensive to speak candidly to their supervising attorney about issues affecting their working relationship, their desire to obtain work assignments in different practice areas, etc.

Managing and Mentoring Associates

One proven method of managing and mentoring younger lawyers that has worked well in many midsize law firms is to set up a system whereby the associates work closely with several partners and, at the same time, are under the control of a single supervising partner. The associate's mentor may be a partner within the same of different practice area.

In this system, the supervising partner should meet with the associate one or two days a week to review workload, problems and potential conflicts. Each client assignment should have a recommended due date, and the supervising partner should make sure the associate has a thorough understanding of the issues involved. The system involves setting up a uniform method for controlling the work assigned to each associate. This requires the associate to submit a report of their general workload and availability on a weekly basis. The associate should account for the next 14 workdays by estimating availability, and the number of billable hours to be recorded, for the following two-week intervals.

The information should be compiled and reviewed to determine how well the associates are doing in producing their targeted number of billable hours. All write-offs and write-downs of associate time should also be analyzed by the supervising attorney on at least a monthly basis to determine the reasons for such action. If any associate falls short of the estimated hours, the supervising attorney should discuss the matter with the individual on an informal basis.

A copy of the report should be sent to the supervising attorney and to the associate's mentor. This will enable the supervising partner and the mentor to review a summary of their associate's current and projected workloads, assess the availability and productivity of the assigned associate and determine the extent to which the associate is being trained in the types of work he or she wishes to do.

Even though it is recommended that the mentor not supervise the work of the assigned protege, the sharing of the above information by the supervising attorney with the mentor may be beneficial to the associate as the mentor may observe certain activities that would be obvious to him or her, but not to the younger attorney, that may become issues that affect the associate's progress within the firm.

The information provided in these reports and the supervising partner's experience in working closely with the associates, will enable the former to make recommendations about the associate's salary progression. The supervising partner and the mentor should review the associate's monthly billable hours and conduct whatever discussions are necessary to encourage additional effort. However, these meetings should not take the place of formal evaluations. A formal associate evaluation should be conducted by the supervising partner at six-month intervals for the first 18-months an associate is employed by the firm, and annually thereafter until the associate becomes a member of the firm. The overall evaluation process should be coordinated by the firm's Associate Committee along with the associate's supervising partner. The supervising partner should plan to conduct a formal, one-on-one evaluation with all associates, utilizing a written evaluation form as the basis for these meetings.

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