Uncertain Times-
Law Firm Associates Need Mentors to Nurture Them

By: Peter M. Newton

Most law firms assign partners to be associates' mentors and supervisors. It is vital that these relationships are understood as having separate functions and purposes, or else the associates' careers or experience at the firm can be seriously damaged.

The primary task of a supervisorial relationship is evaluation and control. The supervisor uses his or her authority to monitor the quantity and quality of the supervisee's work. The task of a mentor relationship is different; it is to help the protégé realize his or her potential. This is done not through the direct exercise of authority but by inspiring the supervisee to do his or her best work.

Law firms that fail to provide associates with genuine mentors, separate and apart from their supervisors, leave associates overly vulnerable to partners' criticism, as the following example illustrates. When interviewing the partners of a midsize law firm as part of a review of their governance structure, we began the interview by saying, "Our interest is in organizational structure. We are not looking for villains of victims." One partner, however, replied, "There is a villain in this firm, and his name is Throckmorton. He is a despicable human being, a cancer on the firm, and I'm not leaving until he's dead!" She then burst into tears.

We stopped our note taking at "despicable" and asked her what had happened. She told us the following story. Ten years ago, when she was a fifth-year associate, Throckmorton had asked her to prepare a brief for him. She was flattered and nervous. Throckmorton was one of the firm's top rainmakers, a man widely admired for his important clients and legal accomplishments. She had never worked with him before, and he gave her the file in a rush, with little explanation. The subject matter was unfamiliar to her. She quickly found that she did not know what she was doing.

When she tried to consult with him, he was out of the office. Finally, in desperation, she patched something together and gave it to his secretary with firm instructions to explain to Throckmorton that it was merely a rough draft. This message, however, was not conveyed to Throckmorton. The following day he flung the document down on his desk and said, "This is not at an advanced associate level," and left.

Though 10 years had passed, the woman had never gotten over her anger and humiliation. So bitter was the residue that the firm had attempted on two occasions to mediate the difficulty without success. It was her view that, in the presence of others, Throckmorton simply lied about the event. Later, when we interviewed him, he seemed embarrassed and apologetic.

How are we to understand the extraordinary half-life of this encounter? Although one could think this associate is overreacting, a closer look makes her reaction understandable and predictable. Throckmorton had engaged in a poor piece of delegation; he had not explained to her what was needed nor bothered to make sure that she understood how to proceed. He had not made himself available for consultation as she worked on the piece, and, when she had not surprisingly botched it, he had reacted inappropriately. However, although Throckmorton had been insensitive, it was hardly an atrocity.

To understand the young partner's reaction, we need to understand the extraordinary vulnerability of law firm associates and their need for mentors. Law schools provide very little practical training in the day-to-day practice of law. When law students graduate from law school and enter a law firm, the young people are being dropped off a cliff. The young attorneys' incompetence is nearly complete; and their youth adds to the vulnerability. And because of the importance of the projects and the large size of beginning salaries, the stakes are high. A hypercritical supervisor doesn't protect the associates from being crushed in the fall; only a mentor can.

A good mentor notes the errors but sees that these are neither personal nor permanent failings. Rather, the mentor tries to determine the quality of work of which the associate is capable and helps him or her keep that inspiring vision alive within the inevitable welter of mortifying mistakes.

The best defense against supervisory errors of this kind is the greater empathy and understanding provided by a mentor. In the alternative, a supervisor should try to remember what it was like to be 25 or 30 and in need of help. Remembering one's own youth can be key to understanding young associates and what they need from partners in order to thrive at the firm.

Dr. Peter Newton can be reached at (510) 521-3848 or at pmnewton@mac.com

Copyright 2002 by San Francisco Daily Journal, January 4, 2002 issue. Reprinted with permission.