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?

Mentoring 101 for Lawyers: Ten Tips for a Great Start

Mentors can provide you with a compass and a map. They cannot tell you where you want to go.  


Each year I get to speak to hundreds of mentors and mentees participating in professional association mentoring programs. I keep a running list of my top 10 mentoring tips to get these programs off to a good start. I hope you find them helpful!

1.  Define Success. Mentors are there for a reason, a season or a lifetime.  Whether you create a mentoring relationship on your own or go through a formal program, understand where this relationship is likely headed.  Set initial expectations around the purpose and duration of the relationship.  As you start this mentoring relationship, keep in mind where you want to be at the end of the year and at the end of your career. Then ask youself this question:  When we are finished, if this has been a successful mentoring relationship, how will I know? What will have happened? What will I have learned? Experienced? The answers to these questions are the true North on the mentoring compass.

2.  Commit. When I speak to groups about mentoring, I repeat a story told to me by one of my mentors about a bacon and egg breakfast. There is a huge difference between the attitude of the chicken and that of the egg. Yes, the chicken is involved in the breakfast. But, the pig is truly committed. Committing to a mentoring relationship means agreeing on regular times to meet and then keeping them. My advice to would-be mentors: Your commitment to showing up and being active with your mentee sends a strong message. If the message is going to be, "you are not important enough to work into my schedule," then do the honorable thing....don't take it on. If your circumstances change, let your mentee know that. Find others who can fill in and keep your mentee updated as to when you will be back in the picture.

3.  Confidentiality. Talk about your expectations of confidentiality. For example, will your conversations be confidential? Is it ok to share the mentor's advice with others?  

4.  Connect Between Meetings.  How often is it ok to contact your mentor?  What are his or her preferences for contact between meetings? Does she prefer you to call her, email her or stop by her office?

5.  Treat Each Other Like You Would Your Best Client. Many mentors tell me that they aren't quite sure about what to say, how to be helpful or how to connect with someone younger or of a different culture. I suggest they treat their mentee as they would their best client. I tell mentees to do the same. Mentors are human. They need to know that their efforts are appreciated. And if you can help your mentor, that's even better. I mentor many law students and lawyers. When one writes a note, sends me an ariticle or refers me a client, I am grateful. I've interviewed some great law firm partner mentors and asked them, "Why do you choose to invest more time in a particular associate?" Invariably they answer that they invest in the associate who gives back, listens and uses advice, is considerate of the mentor's time, volunteers to help with work and with nonbillable projects, and generally looks for ways to make the relationship recipricol. A positive attitude and appreciation also go a long way.

6.  Set Goals. Mentees need to set goals. Mentors can advise in this regard, but ultimately, it's your life. No one else can set your course for you. Mentors can provide you with a compass and a map.  They cannot tell you where you want to go.

7.  Tell Stories.  Lawyers are natural storytellers. Mentors who share stories, especially stories that show how they made mistakes and lived to be successful, help mentees to see more clearly the path ahead and to feel more confident when they stumble.

8.  Show. Don't Always Just Tell. Look for opportunites for mentees to observe mentors in action... in the courtroom, in business development and in transactions.  

9.  Keep Showing Up.  Mentoring relationships develop over time. Not every encounter will result in a flash of insight. If you stick with it, you will look back over time and appreciate the richness of the experience.  

10.  Carry it Forward.  Everytime I mentor a young lawyer, business or nonprofit leader, I think about my own mentors and how I am passing on their legacy. It's never too early to mentor someone who is coming up behind you. They will appreciate it and it will help you understand your mentor's perspectives better.

If you are fortunate, you will always be a mentor and you will always have one.

What are your best mentoring tips? Please leave a comment!