HR Feature Human Resources Management

Modern Mentoring

How to create effective mentoring programs for today’s law firm.

Lunch, small talk, repeat: This recipe for formal mentoring has been the mainstay at many law firms. But with Millennials now claiming the majority of associate positions, it is time for law firms to up the mentoring ante.

Mary Kate Sheridan, JD

As Thomson Reuters’ Legal Department 2025 survey indicates: “Mentors, as well as work/life balance, are strongly valued by Millennials. The importance they ascribe to both mentorship and work/life balance reflects the emphasis Millennials place on relationships.” In fact, The 2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey found that Millennials would like to receive more than three hours of coaching and mentoring in an ideal work week.

Given the current focus on mentoring, firms should assess the effectiveness of their programs or consider creating a mentoring strategy if one is not in place. Simply making mentoring matches is not enough — administrators must carefully plan, customize and engage to create successful mentoring programs.

“I think people underestimate what it takes to make mentoring happen,” says Rik Nemanick, PhD, Co-Founder and Principal of the consulting firm The Leadership Effect. “Recognize that it looks easy on the surface but it’s one of those things that you really have to put time and thought into to get it right.”

This article will offer advice on developing an effective mentoring program, including establishing clear objectives, providing guidance and structure, and shaping the program in innovative ways to meet your attorneys’ needs.


As with any initiative, mentoring programs require concrete goals. But establishing objectives is twofold, as both the firmwide program and the individual mentoring relationship require specific aims. Failing to have well-planned objectives is the biggest downfall to a mentoring program, according to Ida Abbott, Founder and Principal of Ida Abbott Consulting.

“Even with the best of intentions people are busy and distracted in so many ways that without clear instructions and some method of accountability, it is difficult to follow through,” says Abbott.

When determining the goals on the program level, Abbott suggests that administrators consider the following three questions:
  • What do we want to achieve?
  • Can mentoring help the firm achieve this objective?
  • How can we implement the mentoring process to achieve that objective?

Ultimately the program goals will depend on what the firm is hoping to accomplish through its mentoring program, which may include retaining associates, promoting career development, boosting associate confidence, leadership grooming, coaching on business development, etc. Whatever the objectives, firms should take time to clearly specify them and use them to shape the program.

Similarly, each mentoring pair should create its own plan and goals. “It needs to be written down somewhere, and then a year later you can go back and see if you’ve achieved it,” says Abbott “If you don’t have any desired outcome, how are you going to know if you succeeded?”

The key question that Abbott suggests each team ask is: What will be different for the mentee and mentor at the conclusion of the program?


Once a firm has established clear goals for its mentoring program, administrators should provide training and resources to help attorneys optimize the relationship. Below are some ways in which the firm can support mentoring relationships.

1. Teach attorneys how to be mentors and mentees: Through training, attorneys can learn how to harvest the mentoring relationship to its full potential. Nemanick recommends preparing mentors in four key areas: 1) How to initiate a mentorship; 2) How to approach the role; 3) How set goals; and 4) How to launch the mentoring partnership.

But it is not just the mentors who need training; Nemanick also suggests preparing mentees to develop their career goals and to focus on this larger picture within the mentoring relationship rather than concentrating on how to be a lawyer.

Also useful is to share best practices in mentoring with both the mentor and mentee, says Kristy Weathers, Professional Development Partner at Eversheds Sutherland (US) LLP. From big-picture items — like successfully forging the relationship — to small behaviors — like being thankful and mindful of each other’s time — these best practices can help attorneys shape their relationship from the start. At Eversheds Sutherland (US), attorneys use these best practices to create an agreement on how the mentoring relationship will operate and move forward.

2. Provide structure: Another valuable tool in fostering successful mentoring relationships is offering guidance to the mentoring teams.

“Administrative oversight is helpful,” says Weathers. “We give [mentors] a cheat sheet for different [approaches] to check in [with the mentees] and a list of activities they can do with that mentee.”

Similarly, at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC, the professional development department prepares plans with suggested discussion topics and activities for mentoring pairs to use. “Once a month, I send out an email to mentors and mentees with a topic of the month,” says Susan S. Wagner, Director of Professional Development and of Counsel at Baker Donelson.

This kind of structure is useful for time-strapped attorneys who may not have an extra hour to plan a worthwhile meeting but can add a lot of value to a mentoring relationship. Such guidance also enables the mentees’ voices to be heard when they may otherwise be hesitant to suggest points of interest.

For example, Eversheds Sutherland’s (US) professional development committee seeks out topics of interest from associates and then frames the mentoring meetings with those topics. The committee seeks to make the topics engaging and relevant. “It really doesn’t take that much effort and it makes a huge difference,” says Weathers.

3. Check in with each pair: Finally, when it comes to managing an effective mentoring program, legal management professionals should check in with both the mentor and the mentee separately to gauge how the relationship is working.

“We do [a] check in after each quarterly meeting to make sure everything is going okay,” says Weathers. By following up with the associates, Weathers can determine if there are any gaps in the mentoring relationship, and if need be, assist the associate in making additional mentoring connections within the firm.


Once a firm has determined its goals and how it will manage a mentoring program, it then must decide what kind of mentoring program will best advance its associates. Firms may consider the following innovative approaches when developing or revamping their program.

Offer mentoring by application only: A fresh way to think about a formal mentoring program is only to offer it to those associates who are truly ready for it.

“One of the things I try to teach people is to think of a mentor’s time as a precious resource. How do you want to spend it?” says Nemanick.

Rather than pushing some associates into mentoring relationships that they won’t value or maximize, firms can offer mentoring through a formal application process, says Nemanick. Through a program like this, associates who want a mentor would submit an application, and a committee would determine which of the applicants are best suited for the mentoring program at that time.

“If you’re not willing to fill out an application, you’re probably not going to make good use of a mentor’s time,” says Nemanick. “The return on mentoring is going to go up a lot.”

According to Nemanick, an application process may encourage associates to ruminate on their goals and take ownership over their careers. Potential topics for the application may include career goals, general career trajectory, and how a mentor could help an associate reach his or her goals.

Focus on career development: Firms use mentoring for a variety of reasons — including skill building, networking, providing an open door for questions and more. But one way to approach mentoring is to tailor it specifically to career development.

A mentor is a valuable resource for “sitting down with someone and helping them really understand what they want out of a career and what is going to make them feel fulfilled,” says Nemanick.

At Eversheds Sutherland (US), associates engage in the Career Planning Program after their first year at the firm. Each associate is assigned a partner mentor with whom they develop a career plan and meet quarterly, says Weathers. The firm provides career planning guidelines, which are tailored to each practice group, as well as firmwide guidelines, which delineate areas that associates should strive to develop. “It’s not intended to be a checklist, but it gives you a framework,” says Weathers. She further indicates that topics like business development, committee development and pro bono are among the areas included.

Mentor associates in groups: Group mentoring offers an interesting dynamic through which mentors work with several or more associates. Through this type of mentoring, a group may meet to discuss a particular topic, engage in a dialogue together on a variety of issues, or work on the same type of assignment, says Abbott.

Another way to implement group mentoring is to assign the same mentor or adviser to a group of associates. Baker Donelson operates a unique type of group mentoring through its “Adviser” program. In addition to individual mentors, associates in their first three and a half years of practice are assigned to an adviser to provide a second level of mentoring. Advisers are shareholders who are responsible for up to about eight associates in their offices. They are open to answering associates’ questions, provide an informal midyear evaluation and solicit feedback on how the associates are doing. Additionally, some advisers gather their group of associates to meet together.

“The Adviser program has worked so well,” says Wagner. “It [has] been a huge success on so many levels.” Not only does the Adviser program provide an extra form of mentoring to associates, but it has served as a useful “incubator” for future leaders within the firm, says Wagner.

According to Wagner, the key to ensuring that this type of program works is to “look for someone who is very firm-minded — [someone] who is keenly interested in helping the firm and helping the associates to be successful.”


An effective mentoring program requires clear objectives, meticulous planning and consistent support. Also important is that the firm chooses an approach that is tailored to its needs, which may require thinking outside of the box.

Ultimately, the formal mentoring program should provide associates with the foundation and connections to forge additional mentoring opportunities as they continue in their career.

“Ideally you want the mentoring support they get in the program and the experience they get in the firm [to] allow them to build a team of mentors who can help them in different ways,” says Abbott.