Approaches to Mentoring in the Legal Profession

Mentoring in the Legal ProfessionAll lawyers, and most law students, are familiar with the practice of mentoring, in which a law student or young attorney is paired with a more senior attorney who provides advice and helps his or her mentee/protégé avoid the potholes. It’s a tried and true practice supported by the Commission through our Lawyer-to-Lawyer Mentoring Program, which has been adopted by more than 75 sponsoring organizations throughout the state.

The ABA website lists numerous other states with similar mentoring programs, and still others have practice- or diversity-specific mentoring programs. More than 87% of law firms surveyed for a 2013 NALP study, “The State of Mentoring in the Legal Profession,” reported having some form of mentoring program. The benefits for both mentors and protégés of mentoring programs in corporate legal departments have also been noted.

Mentoring programs are widespread because they work, helping further careers while building networks and professional knowledge. Most programs are based on what the NALP study calls “Traditional 1:1” program structure, also known as matched mentoring, in which a single experienced attorney works with a single less experienced one, generally for a year or more. While the traditional model is tried and true, it provides busy attorneys with some challenges, not the least of which is the significant commitment of time required, which can deter both new and experienced lawyers from participating.

Amy Timmer, Associate Dean of Students & Professionalism and Professor at Thomas M. Cooley Law School, has for some time advocated an alternative approach to mentoring practice. As described in her 2012 book, Innovative Mentoring for Lawyers and Law Students: Maximizing Relationships to Become a Successful Lawyer, (with Matthew Cristiano), “episodic mentoring,” or “60-minute mentoring,” involves students meeting with a variety of lawyers for short informational sessions of approximately an hour each.

An earlier paper written by Timmer (with Eileen S. Johnson, Dawn E. Chandler, and Charles R. Toy), cites research showing that young lawyers and law students now prefer to have a “developmental network,” or advisory board, as a career support system, rather than individual mentors. Episodic mentoring supports that preference by allowing protégés to seek out multiple mentors on a one-time basis to learn from their knowledge of a particular practice area or skill.

By means of a study of 59 law students, the paper showed that episodic mentoring can lead to students meeting with more mentors who “demonstrated content expertise in [the protégés’] area[s] of interest.” In its early stages, the study also revealed that weekly group meetings among the students in the program were intrinsic to the success of an episodic mentoring program. These meetings encouraged the more reserved protégés, who were able to see the successes of their peers, and gave them ideas as to how to identify and approach one-time mentors, which varied from meeting at in-person networking events to corresponding solely via Twitter.

Though Timmer believes that episodic mentoring could actually replace some traditional mentoring programs because it offers more chances to meet more advisors, it does require more initiative on the part of the protégé, and potentially more administrative support to make sure each protégé is making connections. Students in the survey reported meeting, on average, only three to four one-time mentoring partners. However, the survey did note that some students had trouble defining a mentoring “episode” and may have underreported.

That said, there is probably no single “right” way to mentor. Traditional mentoring relationships may tend to deepen and become more valuable over time. Episodic mentoring is a great way for law students and junior attorneys to have access to a broader group of experienced attorneys with a range of skills, and to identify exactly what kind of input they need at a given time. Perhaps the best approach is a combination–a prospective or junior attorney who takes the time to pursue both of these approaches can benefit from the strengths of each.

The strengths of a matched mentoring program include:

  • greater personal investment from a mentor who may be able to help his or her protégé expand his or her network or find career opportunities,
  • the ability to devote more time to mentor on a particular subject or project in depth
  • the potential for a strong relationship that can evolve into sponsorship, and
  • a greater sense of comfort and investment between mentor and protégé.

The strengths of an episodic mentoring program include:

  • meeting a variety of contacts in a variety of areas of practice and expertise,
  • the opportunity to identify a mentor who has the particular skills or knowledge a new lawyer needs at a particular time,
  • encouraging students to willingly reach out for help, thus forcing them out of their comfort zone, and
  • putting the future of each mentor-protégé relationship on a separate track, allowing each to develop or end.

What do you think? Do you prefer traditional mentoring, episodic mentoring, or a combination of the two, and why? Let us know in the comments section below, or on one of our other social media pages.


John Edwards, our intern from Loyola Law School, contributed to this post.


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