How Remote Mentorship Can Help Firms Meet Big Goals

Since the delta variant struck and it became clear that a quick and uniform return to the office was not going to happen anytime soon, many legal industry leaders have expressed concern about what will happen to the summer associates and other early career-attorneys who are just getting started. How can firms possibly give them the kind of mentoring past generations of attorneys have experienced?

The answer to that question is, of course, that they can’t.

The better and more interesting question, though, is why would they want to?

Before we skip too far down the primrose path of picking on law firm leaders, we should note that some of the handwringing around remote mentorship is valid. It is definitely much harder, and more resource intensive, to plan and execute training and relationship building among people who are working in different places. Serendipity and spontaneity — happening to be in the right place when something big and important happens, and getting pulled in by a more senior colleague — are two crucial components of learning your trade. It’s less likely (though not impossible) that those things will happen in the remote environment. And law firms don’t have a great track record of investing in long-term aspects of the business that don’t show up on the balance sheet, even if they know they should.

But just because something important is more difficult, and you’re going to have to work harder to get buy-in from the people who hold the purse strings, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to make it happen. In fact, some people would say that’s the definition of leadership!

Law firm leaders focused on the limits of remote mentorship may have a point, but they are also overestimating how well traditional law firm mentorship programs, especially the informal kind, were working before the pandemic. The truth is, they were only working for some people. Remote mentorship represents an opportunity to broaden the circle of who mentorship serves, and how it helps the firm achieve its big goals:

Making mentorship more inclusive. The story of how the next generation of attorneys are trained up and introduced to legacy clients they will ultimately take on has always been a story of who has power and how they identify the people to whom they intend to pass it on. Because facilitating mentorship remotely requires firms to make intentional choices about how to structure mentor-mentee relationships and how to evaluate whether they are working, it can correct some of the ways these relationships have historically excluded women and people of color. Many best practices for inclusive mentorship programs translate well to the remote space, including well-executed internal communications around programs to build buy-in across the firm, transparency around work distribution and staffing opportunities, sponsoring affinity groups and hosting a variety of types of events.

Enticing recruits with a well-designed program. An excellent remote mentorship program will pay off in helping the firm develop its current talent, but recruits may also view it as a valuable benefit. Firms adopting hybrid work environments on a more permanent basis also can and should be developing robust remote training and mentorship initiatives that assure candidates they can still receive the guidance and sponsorship they need to build their careers, even if they are working remotely.

Embracing new technological tools. In the ongoing effort to drag law firms into the 21st century, remote mentorship can become a space to pilot newer applications and practices that help attorneys communicate, collaborate on and manage their client work. What works well here can spread to teams and committees across the firm and raise the technological literacy of all employees, from the Zoomers to the Boomers.

Remote mentorship programs are require a big investment of resources, but they may also pay dividends far beyond career development for individual lawyers.