Firms roll out formal mentoring programs to retain attorneys who might otherwise fall through the cracks.
What does it mean to a young attorney, or a minority attorney at a crossroads in her law firm career, to have an experienced advisor guiding her? It means enough that over the past few years, several major law firms have created formal mentoring programs involving attorneys at all levels of firm life, from first-years to partners. These programs help to keep talented attorneys on track as well as retain minority attorneys, who often fall through the cracks.
“Within the parameters we have to work with, ceed. Structured mentoring is integral to making sure [of that],” says Mike Fischer, partner at Quarles & Brady LLP and chair of the firm’s mentoring program. “Walking by someone’s office is not enough. You have to schedule time and sit down with associates, making sure you are talking to them about what their dreams are, what they want to do, and the specific steps necessary to get there.”
Quarles & Brady: A Fair Shake
Those discussions are just part of Quarles & Brady’s mentoring program, which started a decade ago, with the initial focus on social integration rather than professional development. "Mentors were taking associates out to dinner, going golfing, or going to the spa. That’s all fine and good, but it meant that the nuts and bolts of helping a young lawyer develop were not happening as often as they should. If such development was going to happen, mentoring needed to have a more structural component.”
“Within the parameters we have to work with, including the markets we’re in, we want to make sure that if someone does leave, it’s not because we didn’t give them every opportunity to succeed. Structured mentoring is integral to making sure [of that].”
— Mike Fischer
More than two years ago, Fischer and a steering committee—which included the firm’s director of diversity and community outreach, two recruiting managers and the head of the firm’s recruiting department—redesigned the firm’s formal mentoring program for its associates. As Fischer explains, all new Quarles associates—including all laterals—are paired for two years with a mentoring partner or senior associate, who receives a monthly task to complete with his or her associate. Tasks might include discussing the politics of sending holiday cards, how to become involved in a pro bono activity, or coordinating work with key partners in other Quarles offices. “This is not rocket science— all you’ve got to do is put these simple tasks in place,” Fischer says, “and mentors are glad to do them,” adding that each mentor is also given $750 a year to use for mentoring activities.
Each year, mentors also are required to work with their associates on a career development plan. The two meet formally to determine, for example, what three attorneys the associate wants to work for during the next six months or what three projects he or she is most interested in. “The mentor then has the responsibility to make sure people are getting the kinds of projects they want so you don’t have the classic problem of the same people always getting the plum assignments,” Fischer says, adding that thrice-yearly meetings of each mentor and each mentored associate with the mentoring steering committee also helps ensure that the associate is moving forward.
After two years, the mentor and mentored associate can choose to extend the formal arrangement or be matched again, and any associate can, at any point during his or her career, re-enter the program. According to Fischer, about 100 associates currently have mentors, and about 20 percent have renewed participation at some point after the initial two years.
About 40 associates are also part of a separate minority liaison program, launched in spring 2007. In addition to a formal mentor, every minority associate—GLBT and disabled associates as well as associates of color—has what Fischer calls a “supermentor.” Minority liaison mentors are given access to statistical data on what their associates are working on, so that if the associates are not getting access to plum assignments or clients, “it’s the minority liaison’s job to get in the face of the practice group chair or partner and say, ‘You should think about working with so-and-so,’” says Fischer.
“This is not some sort of ‘set aside’ or special treatment program,” Fischer emphasizes. “It is simply leveling the playing field, recognizing as it does that some groups of people have been historically marginalized in law firms,” he says. “This program is designed to make sure that all associates get the same fair shake.”
O’Melveny & Myers: Social Outlets
That “fair shake” extends to midlevel associates at O’Melveny & Myers, which started its Midlevel Associate Advisory Program in 2006 for associates in years three through five. For many years, the firm has had mentoring programs for all summer associates and new attorneys, says Jacqueline Cranford, O’Melveny’s director of diversity. But management realized that the formal relationships often did not continue, she adds. “The midlevel is where we tend to lose people,” Cranford says. “So we started to focus on what we could do to reinvigorate and capture that group in the middle.”
The midlevel program is voluntary, she says, but most offices have close to 100 percent participation. That high rate is due in part to the fact that associates get to pick their partner mentors, “so there was a lot more purpose in the pairing, and the mentors were thrilled to be selected and therefore more committed to the relationship,” Cranford explains. The pairings are evaluated on an annual basis and, assuming they are successful, the pairings will continue until the midlevel advisee becomes counsel.
Cranford also says that she and the director of attorney mentoring and training counsel minority attorneys that their mentor need not be someone of the same background. “We tell them, ‘Think about how you can maximize relationships with other partners in the firm, whether someone in your practice group or outside your practice group,’” Cranford says, adding that an informal part of the program is career development and advancement.
A large part of the midlevel program is social. Each mentor and mentee receives a refillable Starbucks card as well as $45 per person for one lunch per month. The pair is encouraged to attend one ticketed event per year including dinner and guests, and is budgeted $75 per person for dinner and $100 per person for tickets.
These outings help mentors truly get to know their protégés and steer them on their career path, Cranford says. Attorneys also have informal mentors through firm affinity groups. “A good mentor is willing to say, ‘Why don’t you think about trying to get this kind of work?’ and then try to help make that happen,” Cranford explains, adding that mentors recognize rising stars and bring them to the firm leadership’s attention. “Then it’s on us to try and find for them the tools they need to succeed.”
Weil, Gotshal & Manges: Finding Their Way
Information on Weil Gotshal’s formal mentoring program for first- through fourth-year associates in its New York office is available to firm leadership in all offices, explains Lisa Cuevas, director of attorney programs and resources in New York. “The program is a must for all the offices, and they can follow our format or do variations of it,” she says.
Unlike some other first-year associate programs, Weil Gotshal pairs a first-year with a midlevel associate. “What [first-year attorneys] really need is guidance on maneuvering within the firm and networking—they really don’t know the partners yet,” Cuevas says. At the end of the first year, however, all second-year associates submit the names of three partners, one of which will become their second-year mentor, she adds.
During the first year, mentors are encouraged via email to meet with their protégés for lunch and other social events. The mentor that year is more of a “buddy” than a superior, she explains. “It’s not as intense [a relationship]—you can ask this person questions you might not ask a partner, like how to take vacation or how to get help from a secretary.”
Mentors also attend training workshops on how to be effective. A partner in each department and office serves as first-year mentoring program monitor, and he or she is responsible for making sure the mentoring pairs get together, Cuevas explains.
For their second year, associates and their chosen partner mentors work on the associate’s career development plan, a document that outlines how the associate can climb the firm ladder. Partners are encouraged to attend professional and social functions with their mentees, take their associates to lunch, and create other avenues to further the relationship, she says. “This [mentor] you go to with questions on goals and where you fit in and the bigger picture,” Cuevas explains.
Without structured programs, minority associates— including attorneys of color and women—get shortchanged, Cuevas explains. “We know from the various studies [that] the percentages [of attorneys who leave firms] are higher for these two groups. If mentoring is critical, it’s particularly critical for these groups, so we need to make sure those relationships have been thoughtfully made, and someone is watching and taking care of them.”
Like many other firms, Weil Gotshal has five official firm-sponsored affinity groups whose mandates include providing additional mentoring. Members of those groups have begun participating in the firm’s new “reverse mentoring” program, which Meredith Moore, Weil Gotshal’s director of global diversity, calls “diversity education.”
The pilot program, which formally kicked off this spring and is modeled after a similar diversity program for global managers at Reuters, includes just 10 participants: mentors are five midlevel or senior-level associates, one from each affinity group, and their protégés are five senior partners. Moore says this program is “much more facilitated and structured” than traditional mentoring, and includes an extensive orientation and guidelines. The key is for the associate and partner to engage in deeper discussions of sensitive topics, such as how race or sexual orientation play a role in firm experiences, she adds.
“We’ve done a lot of training, but sometimes it’s difficult to understand the extent to which the perception or the reality of subtle bias can really impact a person’s career,” says Moore. “It’s hard to step into someone’s shoes and understand where what can be perceived as small issues can accumulate into powerful challenges and barriers.”
To facilitate that understanding, mentors have agendas for their monthly meetings with mentees, such as reading assignments or attending minority bar events together. The program is designed to raise awareness of experiences of diverse attorneys, Moore says. “You always hear stories of how someone like a woman or a minority will share an idea and it gets dismissed or glossed over—and five minutes later, a white guy says it and it’s the best idea ever. Those times are hard to see unless you’ve got them on your radar.”
Perkins Coie: For New Hires
When Dina Glassman joined Perkins Coie’s Portland, Ore., office as an associate in 2001, the firm had a “loose” mentoring program, she recalls. Associates were assigned mentors, and she had a good relationship with hers. After five years as an associate, Glassman became the Portland office’s professional development and recruitment manager, and decided to strengthen the mentoring program.
First, she addressed how mentors were assigned. Where previously the assignment system had been more arbitrary, all newly hired associates in Portland now meet with Glassman to gauge each associate’s needs and background. Then the associate is paired with a midlevel or senior associate rather than a partner, a formal relationship that can last up to two years, Glassman says. New hires who are more senior are paired with a partner or attorney who is of counsel.
“It’s critical to have a real understanding of who’s coming in and the kind of person they will connect with,” Glassman says, adding that every new person hired in Portland in the last two years—about 20 people—has a mentor. “You can have any program in the world, but unless those two people develop trust and a connection, it’s just talking about the weather.”
In April 2007, during the formal mentoring program’s second year, Perkins’ Portland office held a mentor recognition event. Glassman solicited nominations for excellent mentors who met several criteria, including showing interest in the associate’s development and serving as an advocate. A small committee of associates selected the winner, and during a reception, the winner was awarded $500 for the charity of his choice.
Mentors in the Portland office also are involved in the associate evaluation process, she adds. “We canvassed associates and asked them, ‘Do you want your mentors involved in debriefing meetings and evaluations?’ and overwhelmingly they said, ‘This will only make the [mentor] relationship stronger because they’ll know where I stand in the firm and will be able to advocate for me and offer me the feedback I need,’” Glassman says. She adds that mentors also help associates develop management goals and plans for the next year, which are shared only between the two.
How much does the Portland office spend on the mentoring program? Glassman says there is no set figure, but all monetary requests she has made have been granted. “I’m not shy about asking for resources, and [firm management] has been incredibly generous,” she explains. “It’s a program that the firm more broadly—and certainly this office—wants to see succeed because there’s the understanding that the relationships with the people you work with keep people here. Mentors, maybe better than anyone, can help retain excellent lawyers.”
Shearman & Sterling: Beyond First Year
Part of Shearman & Sterling’s global diversity initiative includes mentoring, says Anna Brown, the firm’s diversity director. But that doesn’t mean that all associates don’t benefit from having both formal and informal mentors, she says. “It’s beneficial for all associates, not just ‘diverse’ associates.”
The firm’s latest mentoring initiative was created by associates for associates, and was launched in October 2007 in the New York office. It involves mentoring of second-year associates and above by senior lawyers sixth-year and above. Although it is a voluntary program, those involved are expected to work on the relationship for at least a year, Brown says. More than 100 attorneys signed on for the initial roll-out, and Brown says enrollment will open again later this year.
Shearman & Sterling also has an entry-level mentoring program for first-year associates and lateral transfers. According to Brown, those associates are paired with both a partner mentor and an associate mentor in his or her practice group.
The new associate mentoring program “is not to replace that, but to enhance [mentoring] so you have even greater support after the end of your first year,” Brown says, adding that other Shearman & Sterling mentoring programs include a summer associate advisor program and informal mentoring within firm affinity groups.
For all mentors and mentees, the firm offers several events throughout the year that encourage pairs to get together, Brown explains. The firm also held a mentoring day, with workshops explaining the importance of mentoring, what it requires and how to get the most out of the relationship—from both sides. “Mentoring is a very broad term and expectations vary,” she adds. The mentoring day “was an opportunity to talk about what the role is, what the expectations are, how the roles change, and how every mentoring relationship could be different.”
Not only is every relationship different, but each associate—whether a minority or not—may need different mentors for different reasons, Brown explains. “Depending on where you are in your career, you may need a mentor who is an advocate for you, another one who is giving you career direction and development, and another who is developing your technical skills. They could all be different people but you may or may not need them at the same time.”
A benefit of formal mentoring programs is to help demystify the experience of working in a firm and encourage, support, promote, and advocate for you to make it an environment more compatible with your goals, Brown explains. Historically, mentoring is how lawyers learn, Brown says. So when a firm institutes formal programs, she adds, the firm benefits from sharing the experiences of its seniors and the protégés benefit by adding to the firm’s culture—and bottom line. “This is a people profession, and you often learn by watching the masters, those who come before you,” Brown says. “That’s how we develop professionally, by learning from those who are much more experienced.” DB
Melanie Lasoff Levs is a freelance writer based in Atlanta, Ga.
From the May/June 2008 issue of Diversity & The Bar®