The Talent

July 23, 2010 11:36 AM

Where Have All the Mentors Gone?

Posted by Ed Shanahan

By Steven Harper


Commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, Peggy Noonan, writing recently in The Wall Street Journal, hit on an important truth that law firm leaders should heed. In lamenting what she called the national need for "adult supervision," Noonan wrote, "there's kind of an emerging mentoring gap going on in America right now...a generalized absence of the wise old politician/lawyer/leader/editor who helps the young along, who teaches them the ropes and ways and traditions of a craft."

Noonan, a former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, identified the book's protagonist, small town lawyer Atticus Finch, as a model of stable, wise counsel that would benefit many of today's young leaders. (There's a slight flaw in one part of Noonan's analysis--Atticus Finch was about the same age as many modern "young" leaders she points to--people like President Barack Obama, British prime minister David Cameron, and Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper (no relation). What Noonan doesn’t get is that wisdom is neither the province of the old nor the assured destination of advancing age.)

The column's central thesis about an emerging mentoring gap applies throughout big law. In fact, in the legal profession, the gap is growing. Why?

In many large firms, the phenomenon flows directly from the dominant MBA-mentality that forces firm leaders and everyone else to focus on short-term metrics--individual billings, billable hours, associate-partner leverage ratios. The resulting behavior is predictable. Each individual's drive to attain and preserve his or her position in accordance with such metrics leaves little room (or time) for the personalized mentoring that turns good young lawyers into better older ones. There's no metric for measuring the contribution of mentoring to, say, average profits per partner.

Northwestern University Law School Dean David Van Zandt recently revamped his law school's curriculum, in part, he has said, because "increased leverage pressures within firms necessitate that their newer associates do, in fact, work with clients and lead teams from the beginning of their tenures... As a result, the traditional training method of associate-partner mentoring gets sacrificed." (David E. Van Zandt, "Client-Ready Law Graduates," Litigation, Fall 2009, ABA) To address the problem, Van Zandt is redefining the law school's mission in a way that will fill the void.

I have spoken with enough senior partners throughout the country to know that not all lawyers (or all firms) have succumbed to the trend, but those that haven't are exceptions. For firms adhering to the pervasive big-law model, the absence of a mentoring metric makes all the difference. When I was a third-year associate, the partner who helped me craft the opening statement for my first jury trial (without charging the client for his time) wasn't preoccupied with the impact it would have on his billable hours or billings. He and a relatively few others like him would still guide protégés today, but their institutions' financial incentives point them in a different direction.

In Hildebrandt Baker Robbins's 2010 Client Advisory to the legal profession, one of the pioneering consultants responsible for the proliferation of law firms' short-term, profit-maximizing misguided metrics concludes, "There is a management adage that 'what gets measured gets done.'"

I would add this corollary: Throughout large law firms in particular and the world in general, what can't be measured gets ignored.

Unfortunately, some of those things are important.

Steven J. Harper is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University. He recently retired as a partner at Kirkland & Ellis, after 30 years in private practice. His blog about the legal profession, The Belly of the Beast, can be found at A version of the column above was first published on The Belly of the Beast.

Photo: George Douglas-Hulton Archive, Getty Images

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Thank you for this post. You and I appear to be contemporaries, equally disturbed by the deteroriation of the traditions and standards that made ours an eminent and collegial profession. We now find ourselves with all too much to blog about.

Needless to say, the absence of mentoring has been a problem for years, underreported in the mainstream legal press and unacknowledged by those who should know better---the very lawyers who benefited from old school mentoring as they developed their craft and (not at all one and the same anymore) built their practices.

Many of these partners were also the beneficiaries of succession planning-- a quaint custom of little interest to lawyers whose primary career development strategy is lateral movement. (But worthy, I suspect, of my next blog post. )

In April, ten months after retiring from large firm practice, I launched my blog with a post on the lack of practical skills training in law school and law firms, noting Northwestern among a tiny band of pioneers. I'm following your Dean's efforts closely and look forward to reading your blog.

Thanks again for an excellent article.

There may be few and far in between nowadays, I don't know, but there are some great mentors out there.


Well done. I wonder who are the models for today's young lawyers? We were inspired by those like Atticus, the "county-seat" lawyer described by Justice Jackson -leaders of their communities
(see recent essay by Dean David Levi in the Louisiana Law Journal). I am afraid the inspirational figure of today looks more like Gordon Gekko with a law degree. I am particularly intrigued by your reference to the role modern legal consulting firms have played in the demise of law as a profession. This is worthy of a blog post in and of itself, and I look forward to it.

Dan Bowling
Duke Law School

This is an excellent article that raises important and troubling points. As someone who advises firms on mentoring, I can say that it is a constant struggle, not because lawyers resist being mentors (there are still many conscientious mentors and firms out there), but because the institutional and economic pressures all pull in the other direction, as Mr. Harper notes. Another factor is that while firms emphasize partners' responsibility for business development and maximizing revenues, they have ignored the equal responsibility of partners to develop and retain talent.

The increasing client pressure for efficiency may have a favorable side-effect in this regard. When firms have fixed fees, move toward competencies rather than lockstep advancement for associates, and are required to employ more collaborative work systems, it will be in partners' interests to supervise their associates more closely - and that is how mentoring relationships most frequently arise. It may not be the old-fashioned form of mentoring many of us knew, but it can nonetheless foster professional development, professionalism, and career satisfaction. We can hope, anyway.

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