Mon | Mar 30, 2020

Lorna Phillips | The case for structured mentoring in the legal profession

Published:Sunday | March 15, 2020 | 12:11 AMLorna Phillips - Guest Columnist

Setting up junior lawyers to succeed! The Jamaican Bar Association has been trying for a while now to encourage established and senior lawyers to volunteer in the mentoring of newly called attorneys. A good and worthwhile effort.

However, is volunteerism really the way to go? In this article, I briefly outline the merits of propagating a more structured and professional approach that should be rolled out nationwide in the profession. Whether we call it mentoring, pupillage, articleship, or internship, the terminology is less important than the introduction of a guided intervention where seniors in the profession, trained by professionals in the art and science of mentoring or coaching not only impart knowledge, professionalism, and ethical competence to freshly minted attorneys or law school leavers, but they also support their dreams and aspirations by helping them to navigate the inevitable emotional and psychological challenges of personal and professional growth, all the while guiding them on their journey to professional self-actualisation. They are able to do this because they are trained by a professional in how to do it.

The typical law degree, whether offered by local or overseas universities, excludes the many practical skills required for lawyering. This is the case in law schools in most countries. For example, the intricacies of client care and ethics, guarding against being a foil for or unwittingly participating in money laundering and even the essential skills of business development and professional networking are just a few of the areas typically excluded. Yet these are required for a well-rounded legal professional to practise according to the high standards espoused by the Bar. Any transgressions or falling below standards would inevitably lead to disciplinary action by the General Legal Council.

There is very little practical knowledge obtained before being called to the Bar since law graduates are not required to do any further formal training beyond just 10 weeks in a law firm (and there the quality of exposure varies dramatically) as well as a stipulated number and type of courtroom observations.

To compound matters, the number of firms that do actually have good training schemes (by which is meant formal classroom sessions and on-the-job training in both technical knowledge and skill-building) is few and far between. The sheer oversupply of law graduates in the profession means that way too many enter the profession without any hand-holding whatsoever. Of course, commercially available mentoring can be made available to the many who miss out, but the cost element may be prohibitive for many new entrants.

In an era where consumers of legal services are becoming more demanding and expecting services performed to the highest of standards, surely, there is a case for the profession to look at filling the inevitable gaps in training to improve the overall quality of the cohorts that start dealing with consumers. The reputation of the entire profession is judged by the standards it adheres to, and there is nothing more damaging than a few ‘rogue’ attorneys to cast negative aspersions on the rest, especially when in the writer’s view, such persons are likely to have been spotted by an expert eye and potentially diverted into more constructive behaviour early on.

Underestimated: The art and science of mentoring

This brings me to my next point. Not all senior lawyers necessarily make good trainers or mentors. Gone are the days when good, solid advice imparted by a well-meaning older person counts as professional mentoring. Mentoring is actually a robust skill set learned and honed over time with the intention of building a dynamic and meaningful mentor-mentee relationship.

The best mentors are a combination of coach, counsellor, adviser, teacher, and therapist. Their greatest gift is the ability to transition from one role to another according to the needs of the mentee on a given day. The emphasis here is on the needs of the mentee. And where a smart not-so junior attorney has aspirations for reaching the upper echelons of success, benevolent advice-giving just will not cut it.

So what else does it take to become a good, effective mentor? There are several other factors, though three are highlighted here.

First, and perhaps this is a given, a mentor needs the knowledge that the mentee is expecting to benefit from. Knowledge here is not restricted to the subject and content of the law, but is also about the wisdom of life and business life, about dealings with people and clients, and about tackling downsides and problem-solving.

Typically, an untrained mentor will pour out his life experiences in the hope that the mentee will catch on and learn the same lessons he learned. This is largely a waste of time. It may capture the junior’s interest, depending upon how good a storyteller the senior is, but it does nothing to build the mentee’s own capabilities for resilience, empathy, courage, or the host of qualities and characteristics that must be mastered to be successful in a complex professional endeavour such as modern-day legal practice.

Second, mentors need to be engaged and genuinely interested in the all roundedness of a mentee. It is important that mentors care about the mentee’s dreams, ambitions, and health in the wider sense. Trained mentors are trained to detect when something is unsettling the mentee and are armed with tools and resources to help the mentee transition through to the other side of a problem, where hopefully, success awaits. These tools and resources usually have to be learned.

Third, one must be available, and here I mean emotionally and psychologically available. I mean honest, authentic, and present. This may be the biggest challenge of all since most senior lawyers didn’t have the benefit of such open and authentic tutelage themselves and were either left to navigate the vagaries of professional life alone or experienced a benevolent but emotionally absent principal, and can, therefore, scarcely offer such high levels of availability to anyone else.

Then, of course, there’s the business of time availability. Let’s face it: successful seniors are busy people. Without training, they will not have the skill of effective mentoring, which when done well, need not run into hours and can be easily achieved by a commitment of no more than 30 minutes a week.

What professional mentoring can bring to the legal profession

There is a wealth of literature on the benefits of mentoring in the legal field, especially from America, Canada, and the UK, where there is a long tradition of its practice in the profession. The American Bar Association espouses it and monitors the success of formal programmes. 2Civility is just one example of an Illinois-based, organised, and structured mentoring programme.

Mentors play a part in showing how to develop leadership skills, and if one has aspirations of being a general counsel, a department head, or a managing partner, watching them interact with others and the responses they engender through those interactions are valuable learning tools when used as discussion points one-on-one or in cross-dimensional mentoring sessions.

Mentors also keep their mentees motivated in a profession that is highly stressful and sometimes unforgiving. According to a study published in the late 1990s by the US-based National Association of Law Placement, associates were leaving firms mainly because they did not receive the mentoring that they needed and wanted. Bear in mind that junior lawyers may not even be able to consciously identify a need for mentoring, but they know they are experiencing dissatisfaction, discomfort, and feel that their only option is to leave. A good mentoring programme provides a safe space to share concerns in a supportive relationship that potentially opens a world of possibilities.

Advice to the Bar Association

The development of a strong and structured mentoring programme requires more than goodwill and desire. It necessitates the skills of a professional in its design and the training of suitable candidates as mentors. In addition, mentees require orientation, even training, so that they are able to access the likely benefits of such a relationship and do not misread it as an opportunity to relieve themselves of the responsibilities that they must bring. Finally, thought needs to be brought to bear on how this approach to up-skilling is to be paid for. It is the writer’s contention that leaving the process entirely to volunteerism is unlikely to yield the results we all want.

- Lorna Phillips is managing partner at Nicholson Phillips, Attorneys-at-Law, accredited master coach. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and lorna@nicholsonphillips.com