Mentoring and the Legal Profession

by David Clutterbuck, Copyright Clutterbuck Associates 2003

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'When I first joined this firm as a young graduate, I was told who my mentor was. Two years later, I’ve met him once – in the corridor and he didn’t know who I was'.

'The HR department says our mentoring scheme is about supporting talent. But most of us believe it’s really a way of sorting out poor performers'.

The comments above are typical of many that I and my colleagues have heard in the legal profession, in six or seven countries. Although most senior lawyers now give at least intellectual recognition to mentoring as a useful aid to development and retention, the practical experience of mentors and mentees is often negative.

The reality is that mentoring in the legal profession has generally been delivered in an inexpert manner. Very few of the schemes we have observed come anywhere near achieving the good practice guidelines of the International Standards for Mentoring in Employment.

Clarity of purpose

One of the key missing ingredients is clarity amongst participants and potential participants, about what they should expect from the relationship and what the organisation itself is looking for. Confirmation that this is about developing talent, rather than remedying the problems of the less able, is essential.

The organisation can achieve greater credibility for its own goals from mentoring by both publishing them and measuring fulfilment. Amongst the most common objectives, for which hard data can be obtained are:

  • Retention (improvement of 50% and more is a reasonable target)
  • Transition to partner – often seen by partners and potential partners alike as a mysterious and inexplicable process
  • Equal opportunities/ diversity – arguably the most powerful way to increase the proportion of women and people from ethnic minorities in senior roles

Softer data can be gathered around objectives such as stress reduction, creativity and employee motivation.

Knowing what to expect and why – both in terms of outcomes and behaviours – gives relationships strength and endurance. Mentor and mentee can achieve a high sense of focus, while still allowing space to discuss specific current concerns as they arise.

Sponsor or developer?

Many of the problems mentoring schemes in the professions experience arise from confusion about the mentor’s role. Is he or she a sponsor – overseeing the mentee’s career, creating opportunities for them, making the case for their eventual promotion? Or is he or she someone, who helps them manage their own learning and career, asking stimulating questions and providing encouragement where needed?

Although early US experience of structured mentoring suggested that these roles could be combined, in practice they are incompatible. Really open dialogue is very difficult to achieve in a sponsoring relationship – not least because the mentee will be reluctant to expose his or her weaknesses. Discussions therefore tend to be much shallower and to avoid difficult issues. The transaction between mentor and mentee is based on an exchange of influence for loyalty.

By contrast, a successful development focused relationship explores issues together and almost invariably results in significant learning for both mentor and mentee. In general, this is the model that seems to work best in Europe. Some organisations have broken out the two roles, so that staff have two resources to approach, for different purposes.

Although the evidence is that formal sponsoring mentoring is less successful than either informal or developmental mentoring, the key to effectiveness appears to lie in a high degree of explicitness about which role mentor and mentee are expected to pursue. Sponsorship can still work, if both parties share the same expectations about behaviour and outcomes.

Diatribe or dialogue?

In theory, lawyers should be pretty good at the basic skill of mentoring – asking BDQs or Bloody Difficult Questions. (I recall introducing a scheme in one practice, only to find that I was in the witness box for 90 minutes, while the partners tested whether I knew what I was talking about. Once they had satisfied their professional curiosity, we were able to get on with the programme!) The stark reality, however, is that senior lawyers frequently regress to a telling style when they engage in a learning discussion with someone more junior, and therefore do not engage in effective mentoring dialogue.

Assessing how we are doing

Like many other professions, the law has many people with high IQ but relatively low EQ (emotional intelligence). Or, to put it another way, they enjoy and are comfortable with analysis and exploring issues as long as they can maintain a sense of detachment and objectivity. (Indeed, this is to some extent an element of professional training.) They are however relatively prone to avoid exploring feelings or the softer aspects and causes of behaviour in situations where they are directly involved.

In one professional services firm a few years ago, I surveyed all the mentors and mentees – over 100 of them – after six months, asking among other questions what do you think the other person is gaining from this relationship? Almost all of them said they didn’t know. They were too embarrassed to ask the question and/or too scared they wouldn’t like the answer. When they did ask each other, they were pleasantly surprised. Had they continued to avoid the discussion, however, many of those relationships would have faded, because the participants felt they were either imposing on the other person, or that they weren’t being much help.

Used properly, mentoring is one of the most effective ways of raising the emotional intelligence of a professional organisation. The confidence in addressing feelings and personal concerns in an unthreatening dialogue gradually transfers to other situations, with positive effects on relationships between colleagues and between teams and their supervising partners.

The future of mentoring in the legal profession

Of course, some informal mentoring has happened among solicitors, barristers and even judges since the professions began. Its impact has been muted, however, because not everyone receives it and it is usually seen as a passing on of knowledge rather than of wisdom.

The signs are that we will see much more mentoring in the next decade, focused around clear goals for both the individuals and their employer, and organised with something more like the professionalism the organisations would apply to their core work. Mentors will be trained to use their communication skills for developmental dialogue. Mentees will be trained to be more accountable for and drive their own development through a network of learning relationships.

Some of the greatest benefits may come, however, from mentoring aimed at those, who have been many years in senior roles. It is often said that judges, in particular, become remote from the real world and that there are quite a few senior partners who don’t seem to inhabit the same planet as the rest of us!

Some client companies, such as BP, have experimented successfully with reverse or mutual mentoring, in which senior managers are mentored in the ways of the world by people much more junior. This approach is particularly useful in tackling issues of diversity – radical changes in understanding at the top have occurred when the more senior person in such a relationship takes seriously their need to continue learning. In BP’s case, the experience was so positive that the programme is being rolled out around the world.

The results of an increased and more effective use of mentoring, in a variety of forms, will be a profession that is more self-aware, more conscious of energysapping and quality-damaging elements of the culture, such as excessive working hours, and – as has been found in other professions – far better at communicating. How quickly will it happen? There I have to reserve judgement!

David Clutterbuck is a an acclaimed author on mentoring and organisational learning, a member of the European Mentoring & Coaching Council and head of Clutterbuck Associates. He can be contacted on 01628 661667 or via