How to Build Strong Mentor Relationships in A Flexible Work Environment

Published: Nov 17, 2021

Topics: Law  

With many attorneys working remotely for the past year and a half, mentoring programs at law firms have become more important than ever. Associates can no longer count on impromptu run-ins at the proverbial water-cooler or on walking down the hall to problem-solve in a senior attorney’s office. As a further complication, but a positive nod to the new normal, many law firms across the country are entering into a new phase of a flexible hybrid work model. The 1,600-attorney law firm of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher LLP recently implemented a flexible work policy that allows its attorneys to work remotely whenever it is appropriate, considering the needs of their clients and teams. Under such a flexible policy, the location of where attorneys work will be hybrid—there will be times when attorneys will be in the office, and times when they will be working from home.

As law students go through the journey of finding exactly which firm is right for them, they should make sure to look at the strength of firms’ formal mentoring programs. Gibson Dunn—in addition to the informal mentoring that associates get from colleagues on a daily basis—has always had a robust formal mentoring program. When associates first join Gibson Dunn, they are either placed in a “mentor circle”—a small group of attorneys from the office, usually within the same department, that typically includes one or two partners and multiple other associates of varying seniority—or, they are assigned “buddy” pairings, i.e., senior associate or partner mentors. Some offices assign associates to both mentor circles and buddy pairings. Many Gibson Dunn offices also have additional mentoring programs, such as the “Take A Partner to Lunch” program. These programs serve to ensure that associates are able to build key mentoring relationships, even in an era of decreased in-person visibility.

In today’s world, discerning law students should examine not only a firm’s formal mentoring programs, but also whether and to what extent that firm is adapting, or thinking about adapting, its formal mentoring programs to the flexible work environment. We asked a few Gibson Dunn partner mentoring chairs for their thoughts on how they and other mentors are adjusting their approach in this new hybrid work environment:

 

Jessica Brown, a partner and mentoring chair in Gibson Dunn’s Denver office, is more intentional about mentoring in a flexible work environment:

Mentoring in a hybrid world requires greater intentionality. Some ways to be intentional about mentoring that I have adopted include:

  • Give associates opportunities to stretch their skills, e.g., with witness interviews, client trainings and briefings, or anything out of their comfort zones;
  • Be there (virtually if not in person) to support them, chime in if appropriate, and provide feedback;
  • Include associates working with you in Zoom invitations for your client meetings—let them observe your interactions and learn from them whenever possible;
  • Involve them in marketing efforts such as articles, client alerts, and pitch meetings;
  • Plan occasional, safe, in-person get togethers—group dinners on a patio, individual “walk ‘n’ talks,” and the like;
  • Have a standing virtual meeting monthly or so to provide an opportunity to discuss topics of interest or ask questions;
  • Ensure formal training in skills they need to develop, e.g., through litigation lunch meeting programming; and
  • Give them opportunities to practice their developing skills with pro bono clients, who tend to be very grateful.

If hybrid work forces us to become more intentional about mentoring, we could actually see an increase rather than a decrease in mentoring as a result.

 

Kahn Scolnick, a partner and mentoring chair in Gibson Dunn’s Los Angeles office, sets time aside for in-person and one-on-one engagements:

The newest associates—especially those who started in the pandemic—are starved for in-person connections. So, I’ve been making it a point to come in to the office frequently for the sole purpose of having coffees or lunches with mentees, and I would encourage other mentors to do the same.

With larger formal mentoring groups, such as Gibson Dunn’s mentoring circles, in addition to group outings, mentors should also try to do one-on-one check-ins with associates apart from group events. Try to do them in person if both parties are comfortable; online events, in particular, are a difficult way to have candid discussions and form genuine connections with your mentees.

 

Finally, Anita Girdhari, a partner and one of the mentoring chairs in Gibson Dunn’s New York office, embraces new methods of communication, communicates more holistically and personally, and commits to a mentoring schedule:

My first tip is that mentors should embrace and use to their advantage all of the new ways and places that we have to communicate, especially when people have different comfort levels and preferences in terms of how they prefer to communicate. Changes like the use of Zoom and working from home, where you may be in or near the same neighborhood as your mentees, have opened up even more ways and places to connect. Keep all of them in your toolbox, including in-office meetings and meetings near the office, and you double or triple your options (and likely frequency) for meetings. If you are meeting up in your neighborhood, for example, think outside the box—instead of a lunch, maybe a coffee and walk together, or an exercise class followed by a quick grab-and-go lunch in a park. Focus on building connections.

Second, communicate and be holistic in terms of your approach to mentoring. More than ever, after the last two years, I think that it is important to recognize the personal side of any mentor/mentee relationship. Check in on how your mentees are doing personally; share personal anecdotes (if you feel comfortable with it); and recognize that your kids, pets, friends, etc. are part of your life (and if you are on Zoom, may be sometimes in the background). Also, while it is good to come in with your own ideas for the relationship, ask your mentee what they are thinking about, worrying about, and focused on, and recognize that those concerns may sometimes blur between personal and professional. One takeaway from the last couple of years is that for many people, professional happiness and satisfaction are very intertwined with personal concerns and matters.

Finally, commit to a schedule. It can be easier to let time get away from you in a hybrid work environment where maybe you don’t run into your mentees as frequently as when you are grabbing a coffee, etc. Commit up front to some periodicity for check-ins, meetings, etc. Be flexible knowing that scheduling conflicts will come up, but at least get something on your calendar so that it is a matter of rearranging the timing for the meeting rather than never getting it on your calendar to begin with.

As we enter into this hybrid phase of work during the next year, Gibson Dunn is committed to thinking creatively and collaboratively about how best to mentor junior associates. Rather than viewing mentorship as a challenge during these new and uncertain times, we view it as an opportunity to be more intentional in connecting and developing our attorneys. We think law students would be well-served to make sure that any law firms for which they are considering are similarly approaching this new flexible work environment as an opportunity to enhance their mentoring of associates.

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About the Authors:

Ryan DuBose is a Professional Development Manager at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, LLP.  After receiving his J.D. magna cum laude from the University of San Diego, Ryan joined Gibson Dunn as an associate attorney in our Irvine office.  He practiced as a litigator for almost a decade before joining the Professional Development department, where he helps manage firm-wide initiatives including new associate integration and mentoring programs.

Sarah Villarante is a Professional Development Coordinator at Gibson Dunn.  She worked in the non-profit world before joining the firm and brings an expertise in curating events that engender genuine connections.

This is a sponsored post by Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP. To view the firm's full profile, click here.

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