February 2017

A New Approach to Mentorship in Today’s Legal Profession: 4 Reasons Why it Can Be Successful

There’s no such thing as a “self-made” lawyer. We all got to where we are today because of other people who helped us along the way. In that endeavor, mentorship is essential. However, mentorship has become less prominent today in the legal profession. As permanent jobs require more experience, there are fewer ways for new lawyers to gain experience which is bolstered with valuable mentorship. Today’s ever-changing, highly challenging, and ultra-competitive legal profession needs a solution to this problem, as doing so will benefit the profession overall.

What’s Hindering Mentorship?

The job market for new lawyers has few opportunities and there is strong competition for the opportunities that do exist. The traditional law firm hiring model where new lawyers are hired right out of school into law firms leaves many other highly-accomplished, new lawyers without work due to a lack of such jobs. As a result, many new lawyers are forced to look for alternative employment paths such as document reviews, temporary agency work, “JD Advantage” jobs (law degree is beneficial, but not required), and even non-law jobs. Many new lawyers have avoided these alternatives and have instead started their own law practices, which comes with its own challenges. This has occurred, in part, because of factors such as the easy ways to find new clients via the many new online client generation platforms which offer legal services to consumers, as well as the trend among millennials to build their own businesses in efforts to achieve greater rewards and better work/life balance.

For new lawyers starting their own practices and new lawyers just looking for work, there is a huge need for mentorship. In response, most bar associations and not-for-profit legal assistance organizations have created various types of formal mentorship programs, which provide either individual or group mentorship. Most of these programs focus the mentorship in the area of professional responsibility. However, most new lawyers (specifically those starting their own practices) rank their needs for mentorship as follows (in descending order of greatest need):

  1. general business development;
  2. law practice development;
  3. substantive legal issues;
  4. local procedural processes;
  5. civil procedure; and then lastly
  6. professional responsibility.

Overall, formal mentorship programs have not been very successful because new lawyers are looking for mentoring beyond professional responsibility and experienced lawyers don’t usually want to donate time for mentoring non-co-workers, since there does not seem to be much of an incentive to do so other than goodwill. This all points to the need for a new approach to mentorship.

A New Approach to Mentorship

The new approach to mentorship that is needed in the legal profession is through the utilization of a  project-based, freelance style, lawyer job market. This new approach is the solution to the lack of mentorship in today’s legal profession, as it meets the needs of both new lawyers and supervising lawyers: new lawyers need work and mentorship, and supervising lawyers need new lawyers to complete various projects on an as-needed basis and need such projects completed according to the supervising lawyers’ standards. Mentorship is naturally built into such an arrangement for the following four reasons:.

First, supervising lawyers can train new lawyers in their specific ways of doing business. Mentorship is naturally built-in because supervising lawyers will benefit by having new lawyers who are trained in their firms’ ways of doing business, which means less supervision and time spent going forward, and new lawyers gain experience by learning the business.

Second, supervising lawyers have a built-in incentive to mentor the new lawyers because the projects being completed are those of the supervising lawyers. Thus, providing advice and guidance is necessary in order to receive finished projects that meet the supervising lawyers’ needs and standards.

Third, mentorship relationships can develop naturally, not via an application to match people, since supervising lawyers can choose who they hire for their projects. There are no applications, required meetings, or minimum requirements — mentorship just happens when it happens. Mentorship doesn’t have to be a formal, time-consuming conversation. Instead, simply providing projects, working together on a project, and providing feedback are all forms of mentorship.

And fourth, new lawyers completing project-based work could end up becoming valuable, long-term co-workers of the supervising lawyers, whether as associates or partners, and could even help today’s senior solo or small practice lawyers as they try to wind-down their practices.

So, by utilizing a project-based, freelance style, lawyer job market, mentorship can develop naturally, occur informally, be at the convenience of both parties, and most importantly - be mutually beneficial. With this new approach to mentorship, the legal profession can transform the ways in which mentorship is provided in light of the current realities of the profession.


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