Should we pay lawyers to mentor their successors?

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.



When I was in law school there was money available for faculty to take law students to lunch.  Few people ever took advantage. However, I had two professors who made going to lunch with them a course requirement. Both lunches were completely fruitful connections for me: one ended up writing one of my clerkship application letters of recommendation, the other advised me on an independent study project. I now keep up with both.
Firms already allocate lots of money for summer associate lunches. So this isn't a foreign concept. But those lunches are meant to hook young associates on lifestyle, rather than connections.  My understanding is that it's generally other young associates, not seniors or partners, taking out summers.
Wouldn't it be better if partners took associates out to lunch instead - and not in huge groups. Maybe three associates and one or two partners. Boyrfriend's firm arranged something like this, but only once over the course of his summer. I can imagine it would be great if partners were required/encouraged to continue the practice during the year and throughout young associates' tenures.


Great topic!  I read about a related idea on the JDBlissblog recently.  That idea is that law firms should hold partners accountable for attorney retention by *shock* tying their compensation to it.  See the post here.  He points out that such a practice exists in similar industries such as accounting.The message is simple: bringing in work without being able to keep talented people on board does neither the client nor the firm any good. He also notes that at least one firm, Sidley Austin, has begun asking partners "what have you done for me lately" about their efforts to retain women and minorities.


Peg, thanks for the link to JD Bliss. I'll have to start checking it more often—so many blogs to follow! I was sure my stray thought this morning couldn't be entirely novel; glad to hear others are thinking the same way.
I've been thinking more about the idea today; it grows on me. The phrase "it takes a village" is overused, but it's true here, too: the more concretely you can intertwine the success of co-workers, the stronger your workplace can be. And Jessie is right—legal employers (mainly firms) already spend tons on recruiting law school grads. Shifting a little more of that to holding onto hires isn't unthinkable.
As a current law student, I've heard a zillion pitches from firms. Imagine if a law firm said: we invest as much to help you succeed in your career, after you're hired, as we do to get you in the first place… well, that's a pitch that would perk up my ears.


In this world, one thing counts, in the bank, large amounts…...
Every profession has a component of giving something back.  Please don't encourage the idea that a legal professional should be "paid" for being a decent human being.  Lawyers can improve their image..


As somebody who has always—probably will always—spend at least part of my day working in public interest, I agree with you that more counts than money. But much of the legal profession is driven by dollars. The tradeoff here, that I am arguing for, is for firms to allocate partners' hours to include more "nonbillable" hours. The targets set for billable hours in private practice are so high in the last few years, that as good-intentioned as a lawyer might be, s/he hardly has time in the day to mentor. Ideally we would get billable hours and work pressures under control for everybody in the profession. Then, with more free time, some people could make altruistic choices about doing more mentoring. Meanwhile, though, some of the women who might be able to reform this aspect of the profession will have a harder time getting into positions to make change… unless we find more ways to foster mentoring. Distasteful or not, one way to get mentoring is to buy it.

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