Mentoring Young Lawyers to Aspire for More: Creating a Culture Where Talented Lawyers Thrive

John Duffy, the CEO of 3C Interactive thinks leaders need to spend less time inspiring and more time creating aspirations in the employees they lead.  Duffy has a great point. Inspiration is fleeting, aspirations stick. 

Lately I’ve been hearing a lot from my law firm clients about newer lawyers’ lowered aspirations to succeed at the firm. Firm leaders worry about retaining the talented associates they have worked so hard to recruit. They perceive less long-term commitment. 

Newer lawyers tell me they are less hopeful about their chances for happiness and success at their firm. Many have little desire for partnership, which they view as unattractive, unattainable, or both.  

That’s why John Duffy’s New York Times interview caught my attention.  In the interview, Duffy lays out how he created a culture of respect and growth at 3C. He nails it and his advice is universal. 

As a law firm leader or mentor, here’s how you can apply Duffy’s advice to mentoring and developing the young lawyers you lead: 

  1. Help them understand they have an impact on the firm and it's people (and make sure your culture affords them the opportunity to have an impact).
  2. Show them how they can develop personally and professionally by seeking exposure to new experiences, asking questions and building skills in planning, problem solving and decision-making. 
  3. Mentor and lead with consistency, being the same person each day. No one should have to worry about which version of you they are approaching at any given moment.
  4. Emphasize the importance of being “coachable.” Duffy attributes his success to early experiences in sports where he sought “to be the dumbest, poorest, least successful guy in the room so I can learn what I have to do.” There is a lot to be said for being surrounded by people who know more than you. Yet for many young lawyers, your firm may be the first place where they have not been one of the smartest and most successful for any extended period of time.  Remember how that felt for you and help them appreciate the learning they will get. 
  5. Foster a culture of respect and safety where gossip and disrespect of others at any level is not tolerated. Does your firm tolerate disrespect and misbehavior by lawyers in power? 
  6. Let them know how they are doing when they are “awesome” and when “they mess it up.” Without yelling or screaming, let the young lawyer who "screws up" know what your expectation was and what they missed. Then ask this question: “What do you think you need to do to get better so this doesn’t happen again?”
  7. Tie progression and success at the firm to each attorney’s personal long-term objectives. Hint:  you cannot do this if you do not know what your mentee’s personal long-term objectives are. Take the time to really listen and understand and you may end up retaining them.

What would you add to Duffy’s advice?  How does your firm's culture measure up?