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Forget Mentorship. To Attract and Retain Top (Diverse) Talent, Change Your Law Firm's Culture

We all know that historically underrepresented associates are at a disadvantage in our profession. The compounding effects of implicit bias, opportunity barriers, and the perception of limited opportunity mean that the associates your law firm most wants and needs are the least likely to join, stay, and flourish at your firm. As an industry, the legal world has responded by placing a significant emphasis on addressing these most obvious obstacles.

We’ve engaged in round after round of implicit bias training, making sure we are both aware of our instinctive tendencies and (even better) equipped in some way to begin addressing or defusing them. Firms of every stripe are highlighting the contributions of their diverse workforces and, wherever possible, opening partnership opportunities to the wide variety of associates who make up their firms. And more than ever, we are focusing on mentoring and sponsoring our minority and underrepresented associates, to eliminate some of the opportunity barriers they might otherwise face. Mentorship programs, in particular, have exploded, and you’d be hard pressed to find a firm of any size that doesn’t have, and tout, a version of one. Mentorship programs, though – as valuable as they can be – suffer a few problems.

The first is resistance. There are two types of friction built into most mentorship programs. On one hand, the senior mentors whose participation is so critical can often see mentorship as a burden. The programmed meetings, discussion topics, timelines, and feedback sessions feel antithetical to the organic development of the mentor relationships they are familiar with. Yes, part of the implicit mission of many of these mentorship programs is to systematize development of the mentor-mentee relationship because they are otherwise too often subject to in-/out-group bias and chance encounters. But resistance to the mechanics of even a well-intentioned project will doom it to mediocre results. The second friction inherent to many mentorship programs is felt by both mentor and mentee: the call of the billable hour. For both participants in the relationship, mentorship meetings can take away from vital work aimed at client service or client relationship development. Both these frictions can be overcome, but the burden of being a mentor typically falls only on the few senior leaders who are already predisposed toward being a mentor. They are the people who would naturally be filling those roles anyway. Although we might be creating more opportunities for some associates to meet, engage with, and learn from senior attorneys they might not otherwise meet, by and large we are only increasing mentoring work for a small percentage of senior lawyers who were already doing some form of this work.

The bigger problem, though, is scope. Or, rather, the lack of broad impact. Mentorship relationships have a direct impact on the mentee. That single attorney is the recipient of a mentor’s time, attention, and wisdom. Even where a program creates new mentors from those who might not otherwise take on that role, the impact will always be based on a 1:1 relationship. Not only does it keep the impact of mentorship programs small, it perpetuates an in-/out-group dynamic, only changing the composition of the in-group slightly. Mentorship should continue to be a part of a full complement of development services for your associates, but in an ideal world, it comes after the firm has implemented a broader initiative to create a culture of collaboration and support.

Cultural change relies on firm leaders at all levels to embrace and embody the firm’s values. Most firms have a set of values that include a variation on this theme: clients come first; our people matter; quality work is our hallmark. It is often easy to see the two of these in action. The focus on billable hours and client-facing work speaks to our focus on client service. And, as lawyers, we have been raised (professionally) to seek precision in our research, writing, and arguments. But many firms’ espoused commitment to their people rings hollow. We try to paper over our cultural shortcomings by throwing money at incentives – mindfulness rooms; food and beverage services; flexible work arrangements everyone is afraid to actually exercise. But these miss the point.

When our firms suggest they value associates, it implies an interest in their well-being, respect for their contributions, and attention to their professional development. Programmatically we may be hitting our goals for professional development, but we’re often coming up short on actually demonstrating our concern for them as people and their contributions. Too many firms have a reputation (or secret inherent pride) in grinding new associates, wringing as much work out of them as possible, and expecting them to leave, knowing they can just throw money at the next crop of law mill fodder. Making an effort to adjust firm culture to match the language the firm uses to talk about itself can result in happier, healthier, more engaged associates, who are still producing (billing) for the firm, but who are simultaneously developing necessary skills, growing a greater sense of loyalty and commitment to the firm, and will be more prepared and more capable to steward the firm as they advance.

Making this sort of cultural shift cannot be done without the involvement of firm leadership. But the key is real commitment rather than an overwhelming investment in time or money. What is invested, however, pays returns in associate and professional staff engagement; reduced turnover; team and group efficiency; increase collaboration, inclusivity, and belonging; and better client service. By aligning the firm’s values with its policies, practices, performance expectations, and rewards, you can shift your firm’s culture. This can have positive effects on key hires you are hoping to engage and retain, as well as on everyone else in the firm. And by creating a culture that expects and rewards an “our people matter” approach, you will likely have even more available mentors who are more actively engaged in mentoring. With commitment in place, the process of making cultural change becomes a matter of educating your leaders at all levels and equipping them with the skills to put the firm’s values into action.

Ultimately, you shouldn’t cross mentorship programs off the list of tools available to support your growing associates and new partners. But if your firm is committed to its values, you should look for ways to make sure those values are translated into everyday practice. Getting culture right will enhance the value of your mentorship programs.

You don't have to make these changes on your own. If you're ready to talk about new ways your law firm can incorporate leadership development into its culture development efforts (or create some culture development efforts!), or if you want to amplify the difference you can make as an individual in your law firm, connect with me. We can talk about where you are now, and I'll give you some tools to make an immediate difference.



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