By Anna Nelson • February 07, 2008•Mentoring and Networking
Woke up this morning to an article claiming that "Senior Partners Press Firms to Pay Them to Train Their Successors." Details in the article suggest that this is mainly an issue of client retention (about the time it takes to smoothly hand over ongoing work). If it is an issue at all, that is--the report cites not a single specific firm or partner as evidence of the trend. Setting that aside, the headline got me thinking: should we pay lawyers to mentor their successors? Do any employers do this already? To what could such compensation be pegged?
[More after the jump]
In a world where billable hours are king, paying lawyers to spend their time elsewhere might make sense. The business case for bankrolling mentoring is the outcome: (1) increasing rates of attorney retention saves firms money. One conservative estimate is that each 2nd year associate lost costs a firm $200-$500K. (2) If you can hold on to more women and minorities, help them climb further up the ranks, that is a success you can sell to clients. More and more clients are demanding diverse counsel--to answer to the client's shareholders, and to better serve the client's needs.
So how do you pay for mentoring? By the hour? What exactly are you paying for? This gets to the sticky question, "What is mentoring?" As a practice, it feels nebulous. Mentoring is necessarily individualized, specific to personalities and circumstances. Randomly assigned mentors and mentees won't necessarily click--young lawyers need to seek out their own mentors to find good fits. As crude as our abilities to match mentors and mentees, however, there is something to say for sheer face time. As Business Week summarizes, "You can't replace face time... effective networking requires personal interaction."
If the measure of quality mentoring is as much the product (the mentee's success) as the process (sheer face time spent mentoring), then it could also make sense to tie compensation to production. The article (linked above) suggests that firms could correlate compensation with client retention. Pay for success. Measures of a mentee's success might be longevity/retention with the employer, hours billed, partnership or promotion achieved within a target time frame.
If the success of a mentee seems too uncertain to sufficiently incentivize senior partners who want to be paid, perhaps some combination of an hourly rate plus bonuses for a mentee's success make sense. The model has precedent: firms already reward lawyers for building client relationships with hourly plus bonuses for standout successes. Why not also offer hourly plus bonuses for building the future of the firm--in the form of successfully retained, professionally developing new lawyers? Client development and lawyer development are different, but both are ways for senior partners to do work valuable to firms.