Many firms are proud of their open-door policy. Any junior associate can walk into the office of any senior member and discuss anything under the sun. So what? Junior associates simply do not walk into the offices of their seniors to discuss matters unrelated to specific files. Sure, a junior lawyer will ask a senior lawyer about a case. They may ask for help about strategy, research, or a referral. None of this has any bearing on mentoring.
For mentoring to be effective, there must be a two-way commitment. The senior and the junior form a team. This does not occur with some random walk through the firm’s offices. To allow this teamwork to develop, the senior should pull the junior into the senior’s office or into some neutral ground that might be off-site. This should be planned, not spontaneous. The senior should not be distracted by telephone, email, and other interruptions. This applies equally to the junior.
Setting Goals, Overcoming Obstacles
The mentoring session should be treated as an important, dedicated appointment. There might even be an agenda, although different teams require different levels of formality. At the very top of the list of items should be whatever concerns the junior. Both immediately and prospectively. After the team has formed, there should be regular meetings, both in and out of the office. Again, these should be free of interruptions.
Who takes charge?
We are talking about lawyers. Lawyers should not be shy, but the senior should never presume that the junior will volunteer matters of substantial concern.The senior should therefore take charge, at least at the beginning of the relationship. What makes the junior tick? What are the fears, risks, and obstacles that face the junior - in and out of the office? These are sensitive matters that should not be overheard by other professionals or staff.
Mentoring should not be a matter of anyone’s open-door policy. Sensitive issues should be raised and discussed behind closed doors. Mentoring sessions should be planned and private. That is a mentoring policy that firms can be proud of.
A trial lawyer since 1978, I have extensive experience in the art of asking questions, both in and out of the courtroom. I use my expertise to teach lawyers how to ask questions effectively to build rapport in interview situations. I also help politicians develop the skills necessary to adeptly handle questions from debate opponents, from the press and from the public. I am the author of a series of handbooks on the subject of interview skills for professionals.