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The Law Firm Mentor Goes Virtual – Deborah Glatter
Articles

The Law Firm Mentor Goes Virtual

By April 18, 2020 No Comments

When was the last time you reached out to your mentee? Over the last few days, I contacted law firm associates in Canada and the U.S. to understand how mentoring was faring in the face of the pandemic. Two things became apparent:   

1. mentoring has largely fallen off the table,  

  and   

2. your mentee needs you. 

In defence of mentors everywhere, this has been a topsy-turvy time. You’ve been trying to figure out how to work from home, perhaps for the first time. Many of you are working in a disruptive environment with family members in close quarters. You’re trying to use new technology to connect with clients and answering questions you’ve never been asked before. You’re worried about the economy, your investments, the firm and much more. It’s easy to forget about mentoring, and that there’s a mentee out there waiting to hear from you.  

Your mentee has the same worries as you, but without your years of experience. Your firm made you a mentor because they believed you could offer good guidance to one of their valuable assets. Now is the time to do so.   

Your Mentee Needs You  

In a study of loneliness rates by profession, legal practice was the loneliest kind of work, followed by engineering and science. This is not surprising given the prevalence of depression among lawyers.1  Now add remote work and the pandemic to this already unfortunate equation and it becomes clear that these are difficult times for lawyers’ mental health. Associates are no exception. Here are excerpts from conversations I’ve had in the last few days with associates.  

  • While we weren’t working during 2008, we’ve heard stories. 
  • …we do all have a background concern that deal flow won’t pick up in the near future and that layoffs could follow as a result…  
  • Quite a few associates, especially juniors who have not experienced a market downturn, are a little worried right now. 
  • We’ve been working from home for almost two weeks now. I have not had much communication with my mentor (maybe an email here or there with a question I have). 

Mentors are more important now than ever.  

Expect Associate Attrition  

Social isolation can cause any employee to feel less “belonging” to their firm, and can result in increased intention to leave.22 To offset thoughts about leaving, enhance your mentee’s sense of belonging through regular, meaningful contact.  

Perhaps you think associate attrition would be a good thing in a downturn. But what would be a bad thing is seeing your most valuable associates quit. They are the ones with the most options, in good and bad times alike. If that departing associate is your mentee, the firm may wonder if the departure could have been avoided had you forged a stronger mentoring relationship.   

Also consider that associates may not wait until work dries up before they leave. If dissatisfied, they may leave the firm at a time that is the least convenient for you or your partners. Now is not a good time to hire as the depleted associate pipeline that firms began to experience in 2019 continues today. In other words, don’t expect a line-up to replenish your lost associate inventory.   

Technology 

Email should not be your go-to form of mentoring. Your best bet for virtual mentoring is video as it will give your conversation the visual cues that enhance communication. Video helps reduce the sense of isolation. It is also useful for complex or sensitive conversations, as it feels more personal than the alternatives.33 

In a recent blog post Dr. Larry Richard (a lawyer and psychologist) noted why video is best: 

Video is the most emotionally connected medium, and in a time of crisis, you need to foster connection. If video is impractical, do your updates and check-ins via telephone conference call. Only as a last resort use email—it’s less personal, less connected, and invites one-way communication and less give-and-take.2 

Techno-dinosaurs 

One of the nice things about mentoring is that it’s a two-way street. Now is the time for reverse mentoring. Put your mentee in charge of bringing you up to speed on video technology. Most of it is low or no cost. Check with your IT Department first to make sure that the firm is comfortable with whichever software you choose.  

Tone  

Jim Lovell, in what may have been the understatement of all time, stated, “Houston, we have a problem,” in the calmest of tones. Astronauts are trained to communicate calmly during a crisis. It helps keep everyone’s head clear enough to figure out how to land a badly broken spacecraft.    

Research on emotional intelligence tells us that your mentee will look to you for how to react in a crisis. If you communicate stress and helplessness, this will have what Daniel Goleman (author of Emotional Intelligence) calls a “trickle-down” effect on your mentee.3   Your mentee is aware that we’re in dire straits. You don’t need to share your angst with him/her. I’m not suggesting that you downplay the seriousness of the pandemic, but don’t make matters worse.  Your mentee’s stress or concerns (rather than your own) should be the focus of your conversations.  

Schedule Weekly Meetings

Dr. Richard’s blog goes on to state:

In a crisis, people hunger for predictability. We need to know what to expect. When anxiety is elevated, our ability to problem-solve and think rationally declines, our capacity to connect with others is inhibited, and our immune response is weakened. One antidote is to focus our attention on the things that remain predictable in order to provide at least some stability… Create small pockets of predictability.4

Both you and your mentee could likely use a bit more predictability in this new world of work, so consider a weekly check-in at a pre-set time.  

BYOC (“Brew Your Own Coffee”) 

Before working remotely, did you take your mentee out for an occasional coffee? No reason not to do a modified version of that now. Ask your mentee if s/he has time at X o’clock to grab a quick coffee. Then brew a cup and sit down in front of your screen at the appointed time and have a casual catch up with your mentee.  

Did you take your mentee out to lunch when you worked in the same office building? How about a virtual lunch – order pizzas for the two of you and have a video mentoring session over lunch.  

Teachable moments 

Productivity guru, Ann Gomez, posted a free online program: Working 

Productively from Home, with strategies to maximize productivity and overcome the challenges associated with working from home. You might want to share this with your mentee, or better yet, watch it together and then de-brief.  

https://clearconceptinc.mykajabi.com/offers/f3y6tBcp/checkout 

There’s A LOT to talk about  

Discuss how new legislation springing from the pandemic creates new opportunities. A junior lawyer can become indispensable to their firm and clients by becoming a subject-matter expert on new laws. Talk about areas where you expect to see a bump in business.  A recent article in The ABA Journal, The High Demand for Lawyers Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic5, touches upon legal work that will extend beyond the end of the pandemic, like the cancellation and postponement of major conferences, trade shows and other large events. 

Ask for feedback about how you’re doing as a mentor. Distance sometimes makes it easier to give candid feedback as your mentee doesn’t have to worry about that awkward post-chat moment when you bump into each other at the water cooler. This is an opportunity for you to model appropriate behaviour when receiving feedback: don’t be defensive, don’t make excuses, say “thank you” and then show your mentee that you’ve listened by acting on that advice in future mentoring interactions.    

Try to keep the conversation positive –  

  • What are the upsides of working from home? Be ready to discuss what you like about it: saving time on the commute; working with Fido at your feet  
  • Share anything positive happening at the firm: new clients; a spike in revenue from a particular sector 
  • Your faith in firm’s management to weather the storm (only if you mean it)
  • How the firm survived the 2007/2008 recession  
  • What are you doing for exercise? 

There’s no magic to being a great mentor, it’s a simple ratio: listen 80% of the time; talk 20%.  You don’t have to have the answers, just ask good questions.  

Firm management 

The two associate comments below contrast two different types of firm leadership. Both associates are at large, top tier firms. The top comment demonstrates the positive impact of proactive firm leadership. The bottom comment demonstrates that nature abhors a vacuum.  

  • I haven’t heard any murmurs yet about anxiety surrounding job security. Management at our firm has done a good job at allaying fear about work availability by demonstrating that there are going to be new opportunities to help clients navigate the aftermath of all of this. I suspect that this has had at least some impact.  
  • This (job security) has been a hot topic among both juniors and seniors…This is also all speculation; there has been no indication from management one way or the other.  

If firm management has not been communicating to associates (and everyone else, for that matter) you might want to give your managing partner a gentle nudge. While no firm should give false hope or assurances, they can take steps to calm the waters.  

Last 

This pandemic is an event that will be seared in our memories forever. We will all remember the foolishness of revellers on the beach in Florida and the acts of thoughtfulness of our neighbours and co-workers. Your mentee will remember your commitment to your role as a mentor in the decades ahead. How do you want to be remembered? 

 

  1. America’s Loneliest Workers, According to Research, Shawn Achor, Gabriella Rosen Kellerman , Andrew Reece and Alexi Robichaux, Harvard Business Review, March 19, 2018 
  2. The Impact of Professional Isolation on Teleworker Job Performance and Turnover Intentions: Does 
    Time Spent Teleworking, Interacting Face-to-Face, or Having Access to Communication Enhancing Technology Matter? Timothy D. Golden , John F. Veiga, Richard N. Dino, Journal of Applied Psychology, 2008 Volume 93, Issue 6 (Nov); https://psycnet.apa.org/fulltext/2008-16251-016.html 
  3. A Guide to Managing Your (Newly) Remote Workers, Barbara Z. Larson, Susan R. Vroman and Erin E. Makarius , Harvard Business Review, March 18, 2020 
  4.  The Psychology of Crisis Leadership, Dr. Larry Richard, March 25, 2020 https://www.lawyerbrainblog.com/2020/03/the-psychology-of-crisis-leadership/ 
  5.  The High Demand for Lawyers amid the Coronavirus Pandemic, Lyle Moran, The ABA Journal, March 17, 2020 https://www.abajournal.com/web/article/lawyers-and-law-firms-say-they-are-inundated-withcoronavirus-related-queries 

Copyright © 2020 Deborah Glatter. All rights reserved. Do not copy without attribution to the author.