The Mentoring Dilemma at Busy Law Firms

Sheila Markin Nielsen, M.S.W., J.D.

This article appeared in the Alliance for Women Newsletter.

“I‘m supposed to talk with you about why I‘m not performing well.“

I could tell by her voice over the phone that she was not happy about this. Kelly‘s firm asked her to contact me, an executive coach, to learn how to improve her game. She was a fifth year doing transactional work at a large New York firm.

“What do you think is the problem?“ I asked her.

“It‘s not what they think,“ she said irritably. “They think I am not performing at the level of a fifth year, that I need to be more organized and use better judgment, and stop procrastinating.“

“And what do you think is going on here?“ I asked.

“I think they are not mentoring me enough. They are not giving me the support I need to do the job well.“

We discussed her situation in more detail.

Kelly had begun her career at this firm as a litigation associate, but after a year she had requested a move to the transactional group where she felt more comfortable with the role and more interested in the work. She made that transition without losing any seniority, but she felt under pressure to perform at the level of a second year even though she was more appropriately a first year associate. Nonetheless, she worked hard and was gaining confidence at the point in her career, she told me.

However, the transactional group lost business as the recession developed. Kelly was asked to return to the litigation group to help out doing discovery on a big case or risk being let go. She went back to the litigation group with reluctance, hoping to return to the transactional group as soon as possible.

After the litigation matter settled, Kelly requested and obtained a return to the transactional group. When she returned to that group, however, there were fewer attorneys in the group. A year had gone by. All of the junior partners had been let go or had left of their own accord. Partners were doing the work that had been relegated to junior partners in the past. Consequently, the partners were extremely busy.

“And a lot more crabby,“ Kelly assured me.

Kelly returned to the group as a fourth year associate. She was also the most senior associate remaining in the group.

She struggled to get up to speed. Faced with a difficult question or an instrument she did not recognize or the need to make a crucial judgment call, she would ask one of her two female partners for guidance. Very often they reacted to her requests with annoyance, telling her to use her own best judgment. But when she made a mistake after using her best judgment, the partners expressed their frustration with her.

Her reviews suffered because she was seen as inappropriately unsure of herself.

Understandably, after receiving this feedback, Kelly hesitated to ask for help from these two partners for whom she did most of her work. She tried to get assistance from another partner, a man, in the same practice group, but he too was very busy.

Her reviews continued to be negative. Her partners now faulted her for procrastination and a slow turn-around time.

“What do they expect?“ she said. “When I get stuck I have no one to turn to for help. So I just sit here unable to figure out what to do. I feel sort of frozen. When I try to make a decision I just don‘t have enough information to come up with a solution.“

Kelly‘s dilemma is not an isolated occurrence. These days I am seeing many lawyers with similar problems. Some law firms have scrambled to keep associates, moving them into busier practice areas, while reducing the ranks of junior partners. Firms have made these strategic shifts to ramp up productivity and preserve senior partners. Kelly and others like her get into a Catch-22 situation. In her case, she could ask for help and risk being labeled as lacking judgment or she could avoid asking for help but risk being labeled as a procrastinator. The underlying problem is that she needs more training and education to function well as an associate at her designated level.

These days more than ever before, busy partners want associates who will do their jobs without needing what partners think of as “hand holding“ and what associates think of as “mentoring“.

What are Kelly‘s options?

  1. She could try to find a partner, junior partner, more senior associate or even a paralegal who would be willing to teach her.
  2. She could try to formulate one or two approaches based on what she does know and request assistance for the partners who assigned the work when she is able to present more well-developed ideas and/or strategies. This would show the partners that she is capable of advanced legal thinking.
  3. She could try to find a mentor/teacher outside of the firm.
  4. She could ask to be removed from the ranks of the fourth years and “demoted“ to a third year status. (This approach would have been better at the time she moved back to the transactional group to keep the pressure down, but she did not anticipate this problem.)

Kelly‘s dilemma will probably require that she try to find a tutor/mentor/teacher on her own. She can try her law school professors. At least she could start there. Perhaps a recently retired attorney who practiced the same kind of law would be able to help her. She needs a sounding board for her questions and help to develop better judgment. This approach has worked for some of my clients with similar problems.

Large law firms would do well to consider an internship system similar to the medical profession where new graduates could learn the basics, ask “dumb“ questions of their mentors and teachers, and gain experience without the threat of a negative review.

Nielsen Career Consulting
65 East Monroe, Suite 4301
Chicago, Illinois 60603
sheila@nielsencareerconsulting.com

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