Attending to the “Mentoring Gap” for New Lawyers: Some Things New Lawyers Can Do To Close It

Steven Harper, formerly of Kirkland & Ellis LLP and now teaching at Northwestern University Law, has a very good post on his blog discussing the growing “mentoring gap” at what’s affectionately (or not) known as “Biglaw.”  He notes structural factors that have decreased the attention to mentoring and training at major law firms since he began his practice some thirty years ago.

It’s not obvious that this is just an issue at larger law firms or is restricted to the private sector.  And you could probably say the same things about law schools.  Anyone in or thinking about law school should be aware of increasing difficulties in ensuring productive mentoring and other changing dynamics of the field.

Mentoring matters.  If you want to be a lawyer—a good lawyer—finding a few people to advise you through the process and who take a personal stake in your growth and success is vital.  I was lucky in my practice to have that.

To be honest, my having some terrific mentors was mostly luck.  If I wanted to give myself a little credit, I could say I had very good intuition about the people at firms with which I interviewed as a 2L, and about the firms themselves.  But I’m not sure about that, so I’ll stick with calling it primarily luck.

What I do know is that if I had the summer associate and job interview process to do over again, with the hindsight benefit of longer experience and a career in law, I’d do both differently than I did.  In my case, I don’t think the result would have changed much, but now we’re back to luck.

Almost every legal employer will tell candidates similar things about the humanity of their workplace, their training programs, the attention that new lawyers receive, the responsibility they are given, and so on.  And yet surveys consistently indicate much different levels of job satisfaction, not only between law firms, but also within them.  The latter is crucial.  It means that some new lawyers are finding they’re a good fit at the same environment in which others are unhappy.  I doubt the situation is much different outside of law firms; they’re just an example.

Obviously, there’s no guarantee that you’ll find a position that is ideal for you no matter how careful and diligent you are.  However, there are things you can do to improve your chances.

The first is to have a clear idea of why you want to be a lawyer and do a lot of background work to find out what lawyers do and, if you have a particular kind of legal practice in mind, what lawyers in that practice do on a day-to-day basis.  I’ve talked about this before.

There are also a lot of resources publicly available that are worth looking at as you’re considering a new workplace.  Some are more helpful than others.  Some material available on the internet is of questionable reliability, the product of disgruntled flamers.  Consider what, if any, weight you want to give to such information.

Another valuable resource is people who have worked as lawyers at the places and in the fields you’re considering, at similar places and/or who have recent familiarity with specific features and the general reputation of those organizations and practices.

The most important thing you can do is to frame specific approaches and questions for any interview that will uncover what you want to find out.  Your inquiries should sometimes be subtle and indirect (that is, you should find a question or line of inquiry that acts as a proxy for what you really want to know in cases where asking directly might be perceived as too aggressive).  With other inquiries, you can be direct.

Whatever you want to know ought to be specific to you—what kind of workplace and work you want.  Employers are generally grateful for these kinds of inquiries and usually will discuss these matters relatively frankly.  After all, they would generally rather have happy than unhappy employees (though if you pick up on equivocation or can see your counterpart’s mental wheels turning too much, don’t ignore that).

I did some of this before I accepted admission at Yale Law School (most of what I’ve talked about here applies to considering law schools as well) and before I started my practice at Debevoise & Plimpton (so maybe my general satisfaction wasn’t all luck).  My Advise-In clients and I do all of it and more.

Harper is probably right that mentoring relationships are less frequent now than they were when he began his practice, and he’s also probably right about the reasons for the decline.  But lack of mentoring is not a fact that any new lawyer or law school applicant should accept as a fait accompli.  There’s a lot that you can do to improve the chances that you’ll be mentored effectively, both before and after you accept a position—it’s just that you have to rely on your own initiative and creativity more than you once did.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on August 2, 2010.

One Response to “Attending to the “Mentoring Gap” for New Lawyers: Some Things New Lawyers Can Do To Close It”

  1. Do you think it is harder to become a lawyer today than in the past?

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