Mentoring Associates

Kathy Fortin

February 15, 2017


These two words are well known in large law firms, yet frequently unheard of in small firms. Large firms have a practice of mentoring incoming associates, often through formal in-house programs.  The firms recognize it is important to have a plan in place to develop new lawyers towards becoming a future partner.

There are exceptions, when lawyers practice baptism by fire, where a new associate is left to sink or swim, all on his or her own. Their will, skill and ability to groom themselves will determine the outcome. The success rates of this practice is questionable. Most law firms put more reasonable practices in place. They sometimes include assignments where one new associate is teamed with a partner. Regular get togethers and meetings are encouraged. The idea is that the partner is someone to whom the associate can go with questions and concerns. In essence, that person is a mentor. This effort is not always successful if the two are not well matched. Sometimes, the idea of mentoring is more informal and the associate and partner find each other organically, through working together on client matters and developing a rapport. The partner will put the associate under her wing and help him develop on a successful path to partnership.

In small firms, the idea of mentoring associates is often met with, “They do that in big firms.” Small firms, too, have the practice of baptism by fire, but the risks faced are greater.  In a large firm, one associate may not be a big loss. Many a small firm founder can recall the associate who worked with them for a couple years and left. The partner is then faced with a crisis and the decision to work long hours or hire someone else, very fast.

Many associates have war stories to tell about receiving no guidance or instruction; the assigned partner too busy to pay any attention. Sometimes, a partner will readily admit to his failure in dropping the ball. The result is a disappointing one for both sides.

The solution, while obvious, is challenging, in its implementation. Several suggestions follow:

  1. Develop an open door policy and make it known you are available, even if it may not often appear that way.
  2. Schedule getting together for coffee, lunch, breaks or sit down meetings to review how things are going.
  3. Partners, be mindful of the associate’s needs. Try to remember what you needed most, when their age—someone to guide you and tell you what you need to know.
  4. If either partner or associate senses something is wrong, address it. Do not wait until it is too late.

If it is your plan for the younger lawyer to become your successor, grooming that person requires commitment and communication.  Make your plan clear and communicate it to your designated successor.  The associate is not a mind reader and needs to know what you are thinking.  It is necessary to have the plans in place. What does partnership mean?  What is the timeline?  How does the transition work?  Read more, next time, about grooming your successor.