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How a mentor program can improve your associate retention rates

It is the money that gets the first-year associates in the door. But it is the work that keeps them there. Many associates are gone by the third year, and most of them go because the work assignments don’t live up to their expectations.

To retain the associates it has spent so much money recruiting, the firm needs a mentoring program that stays with each attorney on every project from start to finish.

Most new associates don’t have work experience. They just have seven years of higher education. They need mentors to show what is expected of them.

While the mentor should be a partner in the firm, set up of the mentoring program is likely to fall to the law office administrator.

Satisfaction starts with variety

The mentor’s first concern should be the type of work assigned. It needs to cover as many different topics as possible, and it needs to require different tasks. It can’t, for example, be a daily routine of checking titles.

New attorneys want to diversify their skills. They don`t want to be slotted into one department. When the work is repetitive, they see themselves as channeled or kept from meaningful growth and they start looking elsewhere.

The job, the length, the deadline

Equally important is how the assignments are explained to the associates. Give detailed instructions. Explain the length of the assignment, give a clear deadline on when it has to be completed, and tell what resources and people are available for information and guidance on the work.

It is a case of “Your assignment is X. Cover Y and Z. Make it 10 to 15 pages long, not 50. Don`t rely on online search but look in our files for similar documents and talk to Attorney A, who did this a year ago.”

In addition, the mentor has to realize that new attorneys don`t always understand the instructions but are afraid to admit they don`t understand.

So you should ask the associate to repeat the instructions. Emphasize that the question is not a test of the associate`s ability to get the instructions right but to make sure he or she understands the assignment.

Then make it clear that the associate is free to come back with questions during the assignments.

Also, the associates have to feel comfortable asking other attorneys in the office to help. Thus, the firm needs a policy that all attorneys are required to assist the new associates. There needs to be a protocol that before sending an associate to another attorney, the referring attorney must call and let that person know the associate is being sent over.

Deal them into the card game

Good mentoring also requires showing the new attorneys how their work is part of the big picture or how the documents they are producing fit into the overall project.

One of the most effective ways to do that is to set up teams that include everyone working on a project, from the partner to the interns, and meet regularly to discuss the matter as a whole and the work being done on it. That gives the associates a connection with the final work product. Plus, it shows them what the people ahead of them on the project are doing and a gives them taste of what they can expect down the road.

It is essential for the partners to participate in the meetings. At the very least they should attend the last few minutes of each meeting and tell how the work is progressing and talk about the work each attorney is doing.

Emphasize the contribution the new attorneys are making to the work. Like the partners, the associates want to be a part of the play. They want to know they`re in the card game.

Take the dread out of evaluations

With work evaluations the mentor needs to focus on making them positive experiences, not dreadful events.

Set up each evaluation in person, not by memo. Approach the subject with a positive tone, perhaps going to the associate`s office and saying, “Thanks. You did a good job. Call me so we can set up an appointment to talk about it. “

By contrast, saying, “Call me to set up an appointment to go over this,” makes anyone view evaluations as negative events — events the new attorneys dreads so much they wish they had taken other jobs.

At the evaluation, start with the strong points, end with the areas needing improvement and balance the criticism with praise.

Criticize the work but not the individual. A comment such as “What were you thinking” only demeans an attorney and thwarts the purpose of the evaluation, which is to improve performance.

If it is a stretch to find the good things, be candid about it, but also be compassionate. If possible, add some humor. If the work isn`t up to par, at least thank the associate for turning it in on time.

It`s a partner`s job

It also matters who the mentor is. Every mentor should be a partner, not a senior associate. New attorneys look up to the partners and respond to partner input.

A senior associate, on the other hand, does not have enough authority or even enough time to serve as a mentor and is often caught between a demanding partner who wants work done right and right away and a new associate who needs guidance.

In addition, the partners make better judgements about the associate’s performance if they see the work first-hand.

However, the firm has to make it worthwhile for the partners to serve as mentors. It has to pay them for their lost billable time. Don`t expect them to do the training and not get paid for it.

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