Legal Mentor Programs: How Formal Should They Be?

Legal mentor programs

Everyone can use a little guidance in the legal workplace—especially new associates.

From receiving firsthand lessons on the ins and outs of the law office, to having someone to turn to if something goes wrong, up-and-coming lawyers can reap countless benefits from a mentorship. But it isn’t always easy for a new attorney to find a suitable mentor: Senior attorneys are already busy, which can make them difficult to approach. That aside, it’s challenging for anyone new to an organization to assess someone’s temperament and suitability as a mentor (“Is this the right person for me?”).    

Some legal organizations make sure their associates are paired with “the right person,” and get the guidance they want, through a formal mentorship program and signed agreement between the parties. But there are pros and cons to every business arrangement, and this one is no different. If your firm is considering a formal mentorship program, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Pros of a Formal Mentor Agreement

1. A mentoring agreement can help the mentee organize his or her goals by way of a formal contract. This gives structure to the relationship, sets an end date and provides motivation to hit all the benchmarks within that time.

2. Confidentiality is a crucial aspect of law, but sometimes in the course of a mentorship, sensitive information may be divulged in the spirit of imparting a lesson. A mentoring agreement will help reinforce attorney-client privilege guidelines and establish a framework for what other information can and cannot be shared.

3. Trust is an important aspect of any relationship, and the mentor-mentee relationship is no different. An agreement will help establish that trust by making the relationship explicit. By entering into the agreement, both parties are pledging to achieve future success together; this encourages genuine camaraderie while also setting distinct goals and parameters.

Cons of Formalizing a Mentor Relationship

1. A formalized mentoring agreement can make the relationship seem rigid and distracting. Setting a schedule for the mentor and mentee to meet on a regular basis and discuss progress can come across as a major time commitment, making it something both parties grudgingly “schedule around” rather than eagerly anticipate.

2. Formalizing an agreement means that the mentee is locked into a relationship with that particular mentor, usually a senior member of the firm’s staff. This can make it awkward for legal professionals who might prefer to be mentored by someone they already have a relationship with, like a former law school professor.

3. If the mentorship isn't working out, a formalized agreement can make it difficult for one party to step back. This could result in a waste of time and mutual disappointment. In a worst-case scenario, it could create an uncomfortable future working relationship.

No one walks into any workplace, legal or otherwise, knowing exactly what steps to take to ensure success. But when you connect a junior legal professional with a mentor from the senior staff, you're giving your employees a leg up on workplace education while also ensuring that your staff is being trained to the specifications of your firm.

Regardless of how formal you choose to make your mentorship program, providing your new attorneys a way to support their career growth and professional development will pay enormous dividends for the entire firm.

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Tags: Mentoring