Of mutual advancement
By Nicola Laver
In the second of a two-part feature on mentoring, Nicola Laver examines the importance of formal mentoring
In Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus king of Ithaca fought in the Trojan War and entrusted his household to his loyal and trusted friend, adviser and counsellor, named Mentor.
Thus, straight out of ancient Greek mythology comes the word commonly used today to denote an experienced person who is paired with someone less experienced for the purposes of their learning and development.
To put it starkly, we each only have one set of eyes and ears, so why not tap into those of another? This is essentially what mentoring it, but it seems the legal profession in the UK has yet to grasp the full extent of just how beneficial mentoring can be to both parties. While any solicitor is a member of the profession, there is scope for further development and learning.
Dedicated mentoring programmes are increasingly a fixture in the larger firms (and have been for some years), but it has not filtered down to the small and mid-sized firms. 'Hang on a minute', you might be thinking, 'give us a break – we’re in the middle of a pandemic…'.
Even so, the realities of covid-19 should not be an excuse to pause the nurturing and development of any lawyer, whatever their level of experience, because formal mentoring is not just for the easier times or, indeed the ‘early years’ – it is for us all and now.
A remote world
But how can mentoring even begin to work effectively in a remote working world? For some firms, it was back to the drawing board as their employees were enabled to adapt to new ways of working, and many firms identified new ways to continue the effective mentoring, supervision and training of staff. Interaction may no longer be in person but it didn’t stop.
South west firm The Family Law Company introduced a mentoring scheme some years ago. It has, says Donna Hart, a director at the firm, “gone from strength to strength” and has been operating remotely via Teams since March 2020.
But she concedes that 2020 was a tough year for a lot of firms. “Many law firms hadn’t embraced the flexible working, new technology and perhaps working paperless. This has meant that many had to react to 2020 and this may have been a huge culture shock to some.”
She says team work has been key, with Teams a great way to communicate. And the firm’s mentoring programme has taken a new direction. “One new thing that we are rolling out is reverse mentoring”, she adds. “This enables perhaps more junior colleagues who are tech savvy to mentor some of our more senior less tech savvy colleagues. This is proving to be a great way of switching those traditional roles which shows that all of us are capable of learning - even the managing director.”
Helen Fanning is head of compliance at Cartwright & Lewis and chairs Nottingham Law Society’s education and training committee. Last year, the Society launched a mentoring programme for junior lawyers and trainees. I asked Fanning just how important mentoring is for lawyers across the board during this crisis.
“When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the need [for a mentoring scheme for junior lawyers] was amplified, as people were generally feeling more isolated and unsure where to turn when they had specific career or personal development goals they wished to pursue,” she explains.
Fanning had seen that it was clear from running the scheme that people were struggling to gain experience in specific areas of development within the workplace, such as networking skills. “This was something our mentors were able to gladly assist with”, she says. “So, to answer your question, we felt it was extremely important to give our junior lawyers the support from this scheme and the positive feedback we have had to date has been overwhelming.”
She refers to the great reception the scheme has received, from both mentors and mentees. So, what does this reflect in practice? Fanning observes: “Predominately the need to talk, but also guidance about where to go, who to contact and how to progress the specific goals that a mentee may wish to develop.
“Those who had signed up to be mentors advised that they were excited by the opportunity and wanted ‘to give something back’ and ‘to be able to give Nottingham’s young lawyers the benefit of guidance such as they had received when starting off in their career’. In fact, many of our mentors had at one time been a mentee themselves and knowing first-hand the benefit of such a scheme, had only driven their desire to become a mentor when this opportunity was presented.”
Plans for the scheme were drafted before the pandemic and, naturally, its delivery – including mentor training – was to take place on a face-to-face basis. Fanning explains how those behind the scenes had to “work extremely hard to be able to get the scheme up and running on a virtual basis – this included the delivery of the training for the mentors and the ‘pairing event’ (when mentors are matched to mentees) via Zoom”.
This, she adds, was extremely successful. It was “also a lot of fun with activities such as ‘mentor at the movies’ so anyone wishing to get a similar scheme up and running, it is very possible, even with the current challenges being posed by the virus”, she adds.
Not just work
Formal mentoring need not – should not –be confined to the professional legal stuff, indeed the pandemic has shone a light on its wider importance, particularly lawyer wellbeing. As Hart acknowledges, no one can argue that 2020 has been a difficult year. “The human impact from working in law is currently under the spotlight. Recent research has shown that lawyers have had additional stress, sleep problems, have been working extra hours and have had difficulty in switching off from work.”
So for Hart, it has been more important than ever to remain in touch with the team: “Mentoring has become a key part of that.” She adds: “It has become more than being just work and supervision-related, it has provided an opportunity for colleagues to open up about how they are feeling in general. With so many varying home lives, helping our staff stay motivated, safe and happy has been a top priority.
“We wanted to make sure junior members of the firm were supported and continued having the best learning experience. We gave them the opportunity to come in to our covid-compliant office, while more senior staff worked from home and ensured that there was always a director in to support them.”
With hindsight, Hart observes that until last year we may have taken our mentoring relationships for granted; and those not doing mentoring have hopefully seen the true value of it and will continue to do it.
“The legal industry definitely has a bad reputation for being all about blood sweat and chargeable hours, but colleagues’ wellbeing should be top of everyone’s agenda”, she adds. “We have a large and established wellbeing team who championed different initiatives throughout lockdown including counselling and vicarious trauma training. They encouraged us to openly talk about our mental health through their regular newsletter.”
Across the pond
Formal mentoring programmes in UK firms has lingered somewhat under the radar for years (save, perhaps, for programmes specifically aimed at increasing diversity, equality and inclusion (EDI) and aspiring solicitors). Conversely, mentoring in the US has a much higher profile.
John R Sparks Jr is of counsel with Philadelphia-based law firm Fowler Hirtzel, McNulty & Spaulding and says we all have a responsibility to mentor. This, he believes, is part of the privilege of working in the profession, though he acknowledges the pandemic has made mentoring more difficult.
He refers to “wonderful programs at larger firms” in the US, but points to both distinctions and similarities between mentoring and training. “Firms have come to appreciate the value of retention”, he comments. “It’s important from both cultural and economic perspectives. Large firms have developed formal programs that include scheduled classes and step-by-step practice training. They often pair that with specific mentoring arrangements with firm lawyers.
He recounts how “one innovative firm asked a lateral hire to read one of David Maister’s books on professional service firms before joining the firm” (Maister writes on a range of issues for firms including the concept of mentoring).
So how should firm leaders approach the task of thinking about mentoring their lawyers – whatever their seniority and experience? The first task of a mentoring program, says Sparks, is to identify goals and the available “tools in the toolbox” in your organisation.
He points out that all year-end performance and compensation reviews will include discussions and evaluations of mentoring. “There are many ways to teach”, he adds. “Find ways that work for you. That can be review and explanation of project corrections, taking young lawyers to court, or spending time with someone from another practice group or office.”
Sparks adds that firm management should be alert if valued associates tend to leave the firm after working for a particular practice group or lawyer. “That doesn’t mean there is a problem”, he says, “but it’s an issue that shouldn’t be ignored.”
Jane Jarman, solicitor and professor of law at Nottingham Law School, appears somewhat sceptical of formal mentoring schemes but concedes that a mentoring programme as part of learning and development is critical. But she stresses they “must be managed and audited using metrics of some sort to measure outputs (for learning and development, compliance, equality, and diversity, etc)”.
It’s just as important, she adds, to be clear on the programme’s definition and aims. “It is important, for instance, to have a mentoring handbook available for all of those involved to ensure consistency between all the participants,” she adds.
They should also be clear that there are a variety of different mentors. “Perhaps”, she suggests, “a mentor should be appointed in the formal scheme (for consistency) but that it is recognised that some of the most effective mentor/mentee relationships are informal and the result of self-selection.”
Communication is key. According to Pete Riddleston, learning and quality director of independent network LawNet, “getting communication systems established early, not only for supervision purposes, but to check in with staff more widely and on a more general level, has helped firms and their staff deal with the challenges”.
He comments: “We’ve seen our firms reviewing their approach to training and looking at how they can better support their staff. Buddy systems and mentoring have been a feature of our discussions with LawNet firms.”
Does he believe the profession is getting to grips with the need for mentoring? Riddleston says LawNet has seen good examples of firms changing their appraisal systems to move to a process involving a series of development conversations on different topics at different times during the year. “This focus on development can foster a mentoring approach,” he says, adding that many firms had already adopted this before lockdown as a way of moving away from the traditional annual appraisal.
With mentoring in mind, LawNet recently launched a new development course for junior lawyers, looking at a range of skills and behaviours to help them develop their knowledge and understanding of the firm as a business; and how they can contribute to their firm’s success. Line managers have been asked to take an active involvement in working with delegates to help them apply and contextualise their learning. Riddleston comments: “This is designed to encourage a mentoring approach.”
But it is not only about junior lawyers. He adds: “The benefits can help people at all levels and maybe this is an area where firms could develop their support. Senior roles in law firms can often be very lonely and more so with remote working becoming a feature of most people’s working lives. Having a mentor to assist with reflecting on day-to-day issues and challenges as well as future planning, can bring real benefits.”
Learning from the top
Baker & McKenzie is one of the big firms that have had formal mentoring schemes in place for a long time. Firms with a smaller headcount can apply some lessons from the experiences from the larger firms (note the parallell with the mentor/mentee relationship).
Senior associate Phyllis Townsend recently won Citywealth gold award for Mentor of the Year. “Everyone needs someone with whom to have honest discussions about work”, she says, “to help them clarify their professional objectives and better understand their organisation's culture and unspoken rules.”
A common thread that comes through from those on the ground is that mentoring benefits all those in the process. As Townsend states: “Mentoring also benefits mentors, who are able to grow their confidence and leadership skills through knowledge-sharing, as well as gain a better understanding of the challenges of those from different backgrounds to their own.”
One of her firm’s mentoring programmes is focused on ethnicity and Townsend recites a particular anecdote: “One of the mentors for each of our BakerEthnicity mentoring circles is white and they have reported that they have learned a huge amount from listening to the experiences of the mentees in the circle and hearing first-hand the value that different perspectives can bring to a business.”
She also makes the crucial point that trainees and juniors are unable to learn ‘by osmosis’ in the same way they would in an office environment. “They may feel unsure that they are on the right track. Assigning everyone a mentor helps ensure that everyone feels part of the team and remains visible, which is a particular challenge in the remote world and also important from a well-being perspective,” she says.
Has the pandemic changed the firm’s mentoring programmes? Townsend explains: “[We have] introduced new mentoring schemes and made a concerted effort to let lawyers at every level of the firm know about the support that is already available.
“We have also seen a renewed focus on mentoring from department managers, for example by having partners and senior associates on standby to answer ad hoc questions and replicate informal office working practices with virtual ‘walk ins’ and make sure nobody fades into the background while working from home.”
She feels the profession in the UK is starting to get to grips with the need for mentoring both during the pandemic and in general. “Coaching and mentoring is especially vital for minority groups, who often cannot access this kind of support through informal channels”, she adds. “This has been made even more difficult in the current circumstances, so it is up to firms to put structures in place and go the extra mile.”
As inferred above, many (if not most) mentoring programmes are still focused on issues of EDI. Trisha Siddique is a senior associate at Wedlake Bell and recently won the Citywealth silver award for Mentor of the Year.
Against the inevitable drop of the pandemic, she says “our spirit and resolve are greater than a single year, so are our bonds”. And she stresses that from a diversity and inclusion perspective, the value of mentoring in the profession cannot be overstated.
She comments: “Law firms who care about equitable training and development need to call on the expertise of diversity and inclusion experts for support in designing an approach to remote mentoring.”
On a more general note, she says the need for a mentor since the lockdown is perhaps greater than ever, though it is not of course limited to direct interaction during business hours only. “Mentoring in person may now be replaced with video conferencing, which opens literal windows into diverse lawyers’ personal lives”, she says.
“Time management and work life balance are matters which transcend the legal profession and life has been tough this year with balancing the personal and professional. Lawyers will be contending with remote learning, lack of childcare and care for other family members. And under a mentoring rubric that views traditional work schedules and practices as essential, many lawyers, junior and senior are at risk of being placed at a significant disadvantage.
“Law firms have proved themselves to be extremely adept at solving all kinds of complex problems. Law leaders can create new systems to sustain mentoring in these unprecedented times… At one stage or another, somebody gives you a leg up and it is important to never forget the climb.” The firm has found virtual mentoring can be just as meaningful as in person mentoring. “Mentors can use videoconferencing to get to know their mentees by creating a space for fun and learning. We have shared a virtual tour of our respective workspaces and our children have often made an appearance during our meetings making it all more ‘real and human’.
“We have also increased the frequency of contact to help facilitate conversations. The impact has been to cultivate meaningful one-on-one relationships, which foster support and professional growth. Many lawyers have reported that virtual meetings are more engaging than in person meetings because it’s easier to make time to meet, thereby allowing more opportunities to discuss issues in depth.”
Jodie Hill is managing director at Thrive Law which was recently selected by the SRA as a principal provider of EDI mentoring support to small and medium-sized law firms. She offers both firms and mentees important practical advice: “You have to be committed to the relationship, from both sides.
“Don’t forget the mentor gets a lot out of the relationship too, but be mindful they are giving their time up to help you so cancelling meetings last minute or not preparing is a waste of everyone’s time. Make sure you come prepared to your meetings, you know what you want to achieve and that your actions are completed prior.”
Hill herself has benefited directly: “I have a few mentors who provide me with counsel and guidance but also connect me with people who will help me grow personally or Thrive grow”
With her mentor hat on, Hill sends the mentee firm a list of questions for them to consider first and then they use this as the basis for the first meeting. She comments: “This helps me to get a feel for where the firm are, what they are trying to achieve and how I can add value to that process. For the mentee it's helpful if they take some time to consider this prior and come with an aim in mind.”
What advice does she offer firms who may be considering a formal mentoring scheme? “Firstly, do you have the time to commit to this, and if so, how much time?” she says. “And make it clear from the outset how often you will meet your mentee so the relationship is clearly defined.
“If you are thinking of establishing this internally for junior staff, the communication around this is important. Clearly defining the role of the mentor and mentee from the outset and matching people depending on the reason for seeking a mentor/ mentee is important so each party gets the most out of the relationship.”
It’s also crucial, she points out, to have something in common outside of the law. “This will help to strengthen the relationship and really get the mentee to open up to the mentor,” she adds. “Encourage meetings out of the office environment and calls and emails in between to keep the relationship flowing.”
And if the relationship doesn’t seem to work, be flexible and look for someone else rather than forcing it.
Siddique urges firms to consider establishing formal mentoring programs to ensure that no one slips through the crack during the pandemic. Senior and junior lawyers ought to be encouraged to see each other to build and maintain those professional relationships.
Is mentoring for you? Sparks believes all lawyers can mentor. “’I’m no good at mentoring’, is an unacceptable response”, he says – but Hill takes a different view. “Don’t force anyone to be part of a mentoring scheme, it just won’t work and will be counterproductive. Especially partners, as not everyone is cut out to be a mentor.”
She suggested firms seek out volunteers and match people appropriately. And firms and lawyers not yet familiar with the concept of mentoring may be recognising what they may be missing out on – and what they can do about it.
John Sparks Jr’s top tips for successful mentoring
Listen, listen, listen – Often, an inexperienced lawyer is seeking affirmation for their process. It’s important to walk through how they got to their conclusion. Your value may be in helping them appropriately weigh factors or add nuance to their process.
For example, a lawyer has been asked the settlement value of a case. They have diligently reviewed the strength of the liability case and the likely medical/damage testimony. You may be able to help them consider jurisdictional differences, sympathy issues, potential damage accelerants or the settlement patterns of the opposing lawyer.
Create a culture that encourages questions – Emphasise that you are here to assist with their professional growth. People will make mistakes. They will lose sleep over their perceived errors. Deal with the problem. Ask for help. Just about everything can be fixed.
Explain the big picture – Younger lawyers are often assigned tasks. Explain how the task advances the case and fits into overall strategy. Attorneys with less experience need to understand why an experienced peer chose one approach over a variety of other options.
Be clear about expectations – This should be a final draft given to me by X date. I need it then so we have time to review and revise.
Let younger lawyers attend ‘real’ events – If your associate did some digging for a medical expert’s deposition, let her attend.
Nicola Laver is the editor of Solicitors Journal. She is a non-practising solicitor