A step-by-step guide to legal mentorship

With time and patience, we can steer junior associates in the right direction
Illustration of a lawyer surrounded by plants and three pots each containing a small lawyer

When a law firm decides that an associate will not make partner, the next step is often to tell that person to quietly find another job. Ideally, this should be a move of last resort, only put into practice after an honest effort to help the junior lawyer improve. More than once in my career, however, I’ve heard about a law firm doing the exact opposite: dismissing an associate with a long track record of positive feedback and favourable performance evaluations. At no point had a senior lawyer raised any concerns. In a profession that takes pride in its tradition of mentorship, how can this story be so common? 

The main problem, in my view, is that many senior lawyers don’t know how (and when) to provide useful feedback. As a result, underperforming associates often move through law-firm life without proper guidance. To all the senior lawyers in the profession, it’s high time that we had a talk about what good mentorship looks like. 

As a starting point, it’s vital to provide clear instructions at the outset of every assignment. Remember: junior lawyers are new. You can’t expect them to understand the intricacies of legal practice without your help. I’ll admit that this is something I’ve been guilty of too. Don’t make the same mistake: be patient and explain things clearly when you assign work. 

Once a task is underway, make sure the associate feels comfortable asking questions. Welcome the opportunity to discuss the work and respond to inquiries along the way. This can be time-consuming, to be sure, but it’s essential to the learning process, and it will show in the work product. 

Next, as junior lawyers become more skilled, challenge them with varied and difficult projects. Push their limits. Encourage them to think in different ways. Lawyers tend to develop better if they learn how to operate outside of their comfort zones. 

I know that some people might disagree with this next piece of advice, but I think senior lawyers should be cautious about getting too friendly with juniors, especially in the early phase of the relationship. In my experience, juniors may not take their work as seriously when they get too comfortable with their superiors. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that you should be mean or cold, and friendships can develop in the long term. But when juniors are still learning the trade, it’s important to set some boundaries. If things get too friendly too fast, the work product may suffer. And it will be awkward when you need to give critical feedback. 

You also shouldn’t make snap decisions about which junior associates show promise. When someone is struggling, that’s no reason to stop trying. In my experience, the vast majority of new lawyers have potential: with time and patience, you can steer them in the right direction. Believe in second, and even third, chances. 

If you receive work that comes up short, address the issue frankly and without delay. The purpose of criticism should be to help the person improve. Juniors will be more receptive to advice if you approach it as a collaborative discussion rather than chastising. 

Most importantly, remember that it’s an act of respect to let juniors know how they’re doing on a regular basis and at scheduled performance evaluations. If they end up in a meeting with upper management, shocked to learn that their work is second-rate, that may not be their fault. It might be on you. 

Daniel Waldman is a commercial litigator at Dickinson Wright LLP. He writes about career satisfaction and business development for Precedent.

This story is from our Summer 2022 Issue.