Mentorship: It Takes a Network

Mentorship is one of the most powerful means of training and developing young associates. But many mentoring programs fail because they’re premised on a misguided notion that what a lawyer needs is a mentor, when what she really needs are mentors.

The mentorship system in many modern law firms looks no different than it did 30 years ago when a junior associate was paired with a senior attorney who (at least this was the idea) takes the young associate under his wing and provides career guidance. In a typical situation, the mentor and mentee meet periodically – for example, every quarter for lunch – to discuss the mentee’s career development.

There are problems with this style of mentorship, particularly if it’s the exclusive mentoring that an associate receives.


In today’s law firm, many senior attorneys have little capacity to provide meaningful mentorship because they face much greater pressure to produce and bill than did senior attorneys in the “good old days.” They’re stretched thin, so something has to give. And, for many, that “something” is a meaningful focus on mentorship.

This issue was explored in an in-depth study of professional service firms by Harvard Business School professor Thomas DeLong and his colleagues. In a Harvard Business Review article summarizing their findings, DeLong and his team explained that, “Everyone we spoke with over age 40 could name a mentor in his or her professional life, but younger people often could not.” They noted that, “Junior professionals joining a firm 20 years ago could count on the partners treating them like protégés.” That “implicit agreement” has been fractured by, among other things, the economic pressures and realities of today’s legal industry. “It’s impossible for even the most people-oriented partners to develop a cadre of close associates while continuing to execute the business, manage projects, perform administrative functions, and sometimes run a special project for the managing partner.”

The bottom-line is that, while firms want their top-performing lawyers to mentor their more junior lawyers, there’s less space and time to foster these relationships due to economic and administrative demands faced by top-performers in today’s market.


Motivational speaker Jim Rohn famously said that a person is the average of the five people that he or she spends the most time with. This is as true in business as it is in life. And it’s a particularly poignant observation in the context of modern law firms.

Successful associates build informal networks, both inside and outside of their firms, that can help provide career guidance and support, and form the foundation for future business development. They recognize that the “one-on-one” model of mentorship is outdated and ineffective, and that they can realize greater benefits by curating a broader network. This is the “kitchen cabinet” approach to mentorship.

Personal branding expert Dorie Clark espoused this strategy in an article for the Harvard Business Review. She explained that, “The chief distinction between finding “a mentor” and creating ‘a mentor board of directors’ is that there is less pressure to find one person who represents your ideal future self. You can diversify your search criteria and learn from a variety of people. This also allows you to look beyond the classic notion of a mentor as someone who is older and wiser than you.”

Just as an individual’s kitchen cabinet is full of different food of varying flavors and textures, a mentoring network should be stocked with people with different skills sets and experiences that align with an individual’s interests and objectives. You can’t get this type of variety in an exclusively one-on-one mentoring relationship.

Unlike the traditional mentorship model in law firms where mentors are assigned, the kitchen cabinet approach requires an associate to be an active participant in identifying and curating his or her network. But here’s the thing: To get a mentor to invest in you, you first need to give of yourself. It’s a two-way street, but in most instances the associate must take the first step. Once an associate identifies a potential network of mentors, he or she must start by trying to add value to the network before drawing value from the network.


There’s much more to say about the issue of mentorship, but I’ll leave you with one final thought to consider: Why aren’t there formal programs to foster mentorship for partners in law firms, too? Every lawyer, no matter how experienced, can benefit from mentorship. In fact, the lawyer who believes he doesn’t need a mentor any longer, is probably the lawyer who needs one the most.