Mentorship in Law: How Collaboration Benefits Professional Women

“If you light a lamp for someone, it will also brighten your own path.”
– Buddhist Proverb

Mentorships are mutually advantageous for both the mentee and mentor, particularly in a field as complex and demanding as law. Professional women have been told that they should seek out mentorships, but they may not have been told how to structure them so that both parties benefit. This conversation between mentor Amelia G. Crotwell (AGC) and her mentee, Bailey M Schiermeyer (BMS), highlights the many benefits of a mentorship relationship for both parties and for their firm.

Q: Why do you think mentorships have become such a hot topic of late, especially among professional women?

BMS: It wasn’t that long ago that women were an anomaly in the legal profession. While there remains room for advancement, young women practitioners are especially aware of the path that has been forged in the last four decades by our female predecessors. We see examples like Hillary Clinton, who was one of only 27 women in her graduating class at Yale, and the fact that women now make up half of law school classes is not lost on us. We are aware. We are hungry. So the conversation turns from, “How did we get here?” to “How do we help swing the pendulum even further?” Mentorship is one answer to this question.

AGC: As we crest the wave of change for the practice of law, women lawyers must see the advantages of collaboration rather than competition, and the benefits of reliance on a team as well as on oneself. When I first entered the practice of law, I had my cases and my paralegal. I worked with a group of fine male lawyers who had a practice model that was tried and true—each man for himself.  My very first day, I alone had a consultation with a client to answer legal questions about an area of the law that I knew nothing about. I had no training, no teaching, no guidelines and no experience. Now that I have my own firm, when I bring on a new associate attorney, I see that a mentoring program can offer not only a shortcut for gaining valuable experience and essential judgment skills, but also a more well-developed attorney who will be truly invested in her clients, her cases, and the practice. She will “make it her own,” and enhance the reputation of the firm while deftly and compassionately addressing the clients’ needs. Mentorship is an avenue toward obtaining this goal. It begins where the formal legal teachings of law school leave off. It offers experienced lawyers the opportunity to lead and younger lawyers the opportunity to learn, grow, and flourish.

Q: What is it about mentorships that attracts young practitioners?

BMS: In law school I heard “first day” anecdotes much like Amelia’s. Many attorneys find themselves in sink-or-swim situations, but I knew that was not what I wanted for myself. Mentorships are career-changing. I have been fortunate to find what many young practitioners are seeking: a place to develop the advanced skills needed to compete in an evolving legal marketplace. Young practitioners see the writing on the wall. Just as service providers like Legal Zoom infiltrate the market, the legal profession is poised to see some of its most-experienced and wisest attorneys retire from practice. Young practitioners understand it isn’t enough to learn from one’s own experiences and that the success stories will belong to those who seek the wise counsel of others. Mentorship presents the opportunity to learn the finer points of practicing law: procedure, wisdom and finesse.

AGC: Not every young attorney wants a mentor, but particular ones have a vision for their future and know what it takes to attain that success. Book learning goes only so far. Learning by observing, by doing, by making mistakes, by teaching, and by osmosis, if you will, offers a tract that is more definite and refined, and that perhaps moves faster toward achievement. In a new position, having a supervising attorney who is accomplished in the field and temperamentally well-suited for teaching and encouragement offers the ultimate added benefit. Relegating the new associate to the windowless office with a stack of paper to read and summarize doesn’t promote long-term loyalty, job satisfaction, retention or development of professional skills. Mentoring does all of this. And it facilitates rewarding professional relationships. When couched within an associate’s benefit package, mentoring is hard to compete with. It’s a win-win for the associate attorney, the mentoring attorney, and ultimately, the practice itself.

Q: The benefits of mentorship for the mentee are obvious. What benefits are enjoyed by the mentor?

AGC: Challenge. Relationships. Opportunity. Retention. Reward. Future visioning.

Mentoring a new lawyer is a fantastic challenge. It is work, but it is also fun and engaging. Envision yourself stretching beyond the mold of “lawyer representing clients” to serving as an example for others, a teacher, a career counselor of sorts, and a leader. You can form relationships with the mentees and see them grow and develop. Find an opportunity to see issues and client relations with fresh perspectives. Reboot and reconnect with the days when you yourself were learning.

Remember when you had no idea how to respond to opposing counsel? When you knew nothing about managing difficult clients? All that experience you’ve worked years to accumulate is locked away in your memory, waiting for the opportunity to assuage the angsts of an up-and-coming associate. Mentorship offers the opportunity to impart that knowledge to the sponge of eager ambition. The new associate is thirsty for that knowledge. She is riddled with anxieties about all the mistakes and missteps she might make. Your mentorship offers reassurance so that she can begin cultivating skill sooner rather than later. Your efforts pay off when your new associate displays excellent client relations skills, handles a crisis on her own, or, in turn, mentors her support staff.

Mentorship can also become a lucrative component of your business and succession plan. Use mentorship to attract and retain quality talent. Understand that the future of your firm rests on your shoulders, and with proper cultivation, your associates will be your ticket to retirement. Could you as the firm or division leader take months off work if you were to have a medical or family emergency? Could the practice essentially run itself without you? Through mentorship you instill loyalty, and loyalty lends itself to more productive and invested employees.

Q: How have you structured the mentorship program at your firm?

AGC: The only two rules for establishing a good structure are: (1) it must be workable for both individuals, and (2) you must prioritize scheduled meetings or you will find yourselves never meeting because something else is always more urgent. Both parties have a clear understanding of the expectations, processes, and goals. Both are contributing resources, mainly time, so it is best to earmark the amount of time you are willing to invest at the onset to avoid misunderstandings down the road. First, identify the scope of the mentorship. What skill sets are to be developed and when? What is overall plan? This may consist of substantive legal knowledge, client relations skills, advocacy skills, writing practice, and practice development. Second, refine the plan and commit it to writing. Third, implement a schedule and always be ready to evaluate, revise, and amend.

BMS: I receive written performance feedback twice a year. On the anniversary of my employment, I receive written feedback on multiple criteria important at our firm including communication, client satisfaction, writing, teamwork, community involvement, substantive knowledge, and experience. I am rated in each category and given suggestions for improvement. We also create a plan for professional development (PPD), which is the list of skills and areas of law that I commit to mastering. The PPD is my touchstone, and we refer to it throughout the year. Six months later we have a check-up: where am I on my PPD, and do any objectives need to be revised to reflect the firm’s changing needs? This structure gives me opportunities throughout the year to celebrate progress as well as address areas where I have room to grow.

In addition to the semi-annual performance reviews, we meet biweekly for 30 minutes, when Amelia answers big-picture questions about the practice of law or the business of practicing law. She asks questions about my work to prompt me to think about how to work more efficiently or skillfully. We share articles, books and cases related to our areas of practice, law practice management, etc., which has become an important and enjoyable aspect of the mentorship.

Q: How do you envision the interplay of mentorship and succession planning in your firm?

AGC: I envision leaving the active practice of law in the next 10 to 12 years. To make that viable, I must have an exit plan. When I have identified a mentee as part of my succession plan, I’m offering her the opportunity to carry on the legacy I’ve created. It’s a big responsibility, and the future of my law firm, which I have worked hard to create and cultivate, is on the line. I don’t want to entrust that baby to just anyone. I want the people who take over to love the practice and our clients as much as I do, and to completely invest themselves professionally and personally in the firm mission. Only then will I feel comfortable stepping away. When I have rising attorneys who are that invested, that personally involved, I have reassurance that the firm will succeed, it will prosper, it will fly, and they will reap the rewards—and so will I.

 

This article was originally published on LawPracticeToday.org, on February 14, 2017

About the Authors:

Amelia G. Crotwell is the owner and founder of Elder Law of East Tennessee. She is a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation. Bailey M. Schiermeyer (right) is an associate attorney at Elder Law of East Tennessee, which she joined shortly after graduating from the Regent University School of Law in 2014.

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