November 2010

By Kevin Harris, Senior Project Manager, Orion Law Management, Inc.

Law firms are so busy that it may seem impossible for its employees to find time to be a mentor, or to be mentored by someone else.  However, squeezing mentorship duties into a packed calendar can be rewarding and helpful in many ways.  Winston Churchill was one of the greatest leaders and busiest people of his time, but even he said, “We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.”

Mentorship Leads the Firm to SuccessThe best way to embed mentorship in the DNA of the law firm is to get buy-in from the firm’s leadership so participation is heavily encouraged, even required.  Once the firm’s leaders take mentorship seriously, their support paves the way for lawyers and staff to follow.  Because of their central management role at the firm, legal administrators are in an ideal position to gain executive support, advocate for, and foster mentorships.

Mentorship creates opportunity for greater employee retention, skill-building and company engagement.  Brian P. Gilman, CLM is Chief Operating Officer at Smith Debnam and is also on the Association of Legal Administrators (ALA) Board of Directors.  Gilman says, “The growth and development of those around you strengthens their individual capabilities, which strengthens the entire organization.  The positive impact [that mentorship has] on retention is also widely understood, further benefiting the organization.”

The stereotypical mentor/mentee arrangement is between an older boss and younger direct-report employee.  Presumably, this model is the cultural “norm” because the more experienced executive is guiding the less experienced junior person.  However, in today’s world, the picture of a successful mentor/mentee relationship must be reframed.  There is no right or wrong way to mentor, and promoting flexibility is crucial to success of mentorships at the firm.  Millennials may not have years of tenure as lawyers or paralegals, but they have grown up in the age of technology and social media and therefore have some skills that older employees do not.  Now, it’s possible that the mentor may be younger than the mentee.  Or perhaps the mentor and mentee are periodically switching roles for dynamic reciprocal learning.  The mentor relationship only needs to make sense and be beneficial to the two people participating in it.  Rigidity can extinguish the spark of mentorship, so creating an atmosphere of inclusion, not exclusion, is key to help mentorships thrive.

If you are the mentor, one of the greatest challenges you’ll face is to remember that the mentee is not you, and is not supposed to be just like you.  Individuals have integrity and dignity just as they are, even if they have some rough edges that need polishing.  Legendary producer/director Steven Spielberg said, “The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.” The mentor must identify and check in with the mentee to understand where help is needed, while also avoiding the temptation to create a clone in their own image.

As mentors should observe their mentees, they can carefully assess which strengths and energies can be harnessed, and periodically communicate their observations to the mentee.  This keen level of attention will help mentees creatively realize their full potential.  At the same time, it’s important for mentors to note challenge points such as naiveté, impulsivity, impatience, ambition or lack thereof, which may lead mentees down the wrong path.  When communicating with mentee about their flaws or weaknesses, mentors must do so constructively, not destructively, to maintain trust.

Mentors generously provide their time and expertise, and they will expect proactivity and appreciation in exchange.  The mentee must play an active, not passive, role in the mentorship relationship.  Mentees should be receptive and humble.  At the same time, the mentee should be willing to take initiative and calculated risks to show that they are committed to developing themselves, taking responsibility, and stretching to meet their potential.  The mentee should also be candid with the mentor to discuss or even push back when a suggestion is not helpful.

Gilman notes, “A mentor must possess credibility in the eyes of the mentee and be able to establish a context of trust and openness.  Mentors should avoid a sense of superiority and avoid using condescending or judgmental language.  Instead, they need the ability to break down and communicate ideas simply.  In turn, a mentee must bring openness, humility and self-awareness that allows a sense of their need to learn and grow, and a desire to do so.  Neither [the mentor or mentee] should fall into the trap of thinking that their relationship and exchange of ideas is absolute.  We all learn best when we consider multiple perspectives and sources.”

Open communication is important to building a strong mentorship.  The mentor must feel free to share recommendations to guide the mentee toward improvement.  However, if the mentor is too intimidating or overly judgmental, the mentee will feel diminished rather than motivated.  The mentee must work hard to avoid taking constructive suggestions or criticism personally which may shut down receptivity and progress.  Good mentorships bolster the mentee’s confidence; the mentee must feel empowered to ask questions and take chances to promote personal growth.

Legal administrators are big thinkers and they are concerned with the overall success of a law firm.  They understand the concept of investing time and money in for future gain, and they understand how to promote quality relationships among people.  Building mentorships is the ultimate investment in the future of the firm, creating a voluntary network of people helping others to attain their personal best.  As busy as people are, they all have had the experience of someone teaching them, showing them the ropes, taking a stand for them, and caring about their success – in other words, a mentor.  Think big when it comes to nurturing mentorship at your firm.  The benefits of mentorship will far outweigh the investment.


About the Author
Kevin Harris is Project Management at Orion Law Management, Inc. (, a provider of financial and practice management software for law firms founded in 1985. Harris has been at Orion for over 20 years, actively working to bring efficiency and automation to lawyers and legal staff. Contact Kevin at