reverse mentorship for law firms

Reverse Mentorship Is the Key to Success for Millennials and Their Law Firms

For years, attorneys have used traditional approaches to mentorship. The familiar, apprentice-type relationships where experienced, tenured lawyers provide advice to the new lawyers in their firm.

Reverse Mentorship Is the Key to Success for Millennials and Their Law FirmsWhile mentorship programs are common in most firms, technology, an evolution of social norms, and the economy have changed the world and millennials comprise a new generation of lawyers that want something more, and they are willing to work for it. Millennials want to be heard and should be heard to enhance succession planning and firm sustainability.

Firms have good reason to listen to what millennials want. Millennials are the largest cohort of the workforce. In today’s world, millennials’ perspective, approach, and relevance are sorely needed for future law firm growth. However, millennials are also leaving the professional industries faster than ever before. Many firms already know they need to change how they conduct management and mentorship to help attract and retain millennial talent. They just don’t know how to ensure the next generation of law firms and law firm leaders can successfully emerge.

Enter reverse mentorship! Reverse mentorship is a concept that provides millennials and more experienced lawyers the platform to teach one another about the business and practice, and also to share new ideas openly. Through reverse mentoring, millennials can thrive and contribute in ways that will launch their careers like never before while still learning valuable lessons from the more experienced members of an organization. Intrigued? Not sure where to start? No worries—we got ya covered!

Understand the Millennial Myth

Young lawyers who want to bring reverse mentorship to their firms should first understand how senior lawyers may perceive them, and they should learn to articulate their value to the organization.

The nature of employment, motivation, and service are completely different from when senior lawyers came up through the ranks. That difference, however, has unfortunately painted the whole millennial generation with negative stereotypes, such as being whiny, lazy, entitled, and unprofessional. The truth about millennials is that they are misunderstood.

Their whining? That comes from a desire for their work to be meaningful. Lazy? Only if you can be lazy and also be one of the most entrepreneurial generations in history. Entitled? More like burdened with college loans, super smart, questioning, and committed to authenticity. Unprofessional? Again, is being different unprofessional? It’s thanks to millennials that many companies now promote work-life balance, require an innovative and transparent approach to problem-solving, and are integrating new technologies.

Opportunities to learn and share ideas across generations quickly bust generational stereotypes. Through open communication, what was once misinterpreted as just a “whiny millennial” can be understood as the voice of someone who wants to contribute in a significant way to the success of the company. What was once seen as “unprofessional” is quickly understood as a new way to achieve better work-life balance.

Millennials want to contribute, help, learn, and grow in an organization. As a profession, we need to ensure that senior lawyers are aware of how much millennials can contribute to the future of the legal profession. Reverse mentorship can achieve this goal.

Discover How Reverse Mentoring Will Bridge the Generational Gap

As the world continues to rapidly change, law firms need to ensure that they remain relevant and have a solid succession plan. Business leaders who are out of touch with younger generations can wreak havoc on a company. Being in touch with the next generation’s likes, dislikes, thoughts, needs, and values is part of a winning strategy to retain millennial attorney talent, and also to attract them as clients.

The truth is, to stay ahead of the game, law firms need millennials’ help in planning for the future.

There’s no better teacher than experience. Just in the same way that a senior partner can pass down lessons learned over the years, young lawyers know social media inside and out as we practically grew up with a screen in our hands. If the goal of mentoring is to pass on your experience to others, no one has more experience with social media than us. In many respects, we can help our firms achieve our goals more quickly, efficiently, and intuitively. You just have to trust us.

—Ethan Wall, President / The Social Media Law Firm

Reverse mentoring programs can also benefit bar associations. The Marin County Bar Association was recently awarded an American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division Affiliate Star of the Quarter for its mentorship program that featured a reverse mentoring component. When asked about the inception of the program, then President Dorothy Chou Proudfoot, who initiated the project with the Barristers and Diversity Committee chairs, said:

I was looking for a way to tweak our own somewhat lapsed mentorship program to attract good mentors to participate. In 2017, at the first Barrister’s Happy Hour of the year, we had a great discussion with the Barristers in attendance about how organizations and individuals could promote and enhance the budding careers of Barristers and encourage involvement through opportunities such as featuring them as speakers, and the idea basically took off from there.

As is often in life, the simplest solution to cracking the scary millennial code is the most effective strategy: communication. Senior lawyers can use reverse mentorship to sit down and have real, honest conversations with their young talent to learn how their business, both internal and external, can better appeal to and serve millennials. Reverse mentoring provides the best opportunity for everyone in a firm to feel valued and respected.

Get Tools to Create a Reverse Mentorship Environment

So, you’ve decided you want to try to implement reverse mentoring in your organization. How do you get it done? You need a thoughtful plan that involves building key relationships with people who can make reverse mentoring a reality in your organization. Here are a few steps to help you get started.

Create Mindset. To create a positive mindset that will be open to reverse mentoring, you must start with an honest self-assessment. The best way to become confident in connecting and building relationships is to truly understand who you are and how you add value. Not sure where to start? See if your organization offers any self-assessment tools or trainings, or check out the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) or the Clifton Strengths assessment.

Communicate Authentically. Once you understand yourself and have a mindset of helping others, you’re ready to start connecting and building relationships with decision-makers. Identify a senior lawyer in your firm to be your mentor and schedule time with that person by suggesting coffee, drinks, or lunch. This is a great way to start an informal discussion on the work you’re doing, how you’re accomplishing it, what difficulties you’re facing, and how those challenges can be overcome to better serve the organization.

Keep Building the Relationship. Make sure you are always focused on building relationships. One effective strategy for strengthening relationships and building trust is to ask questions such as:

  • How can I help you finish this project?
  • Was the work I did on X helpful in finishing the assignment?
  • Was there anything I could have done to make this project easier for you?
  • Do I have your permission to share an idea I have for improving X?

Be direct, but thoughtful. As you begin to have these newly framed conversations with your mentor, you’ll begin to see common themes or challenges come up and either learn how your mentor overcame a similar obstacle, or use it as an opportunity to brainstorm new ways to tackle it. It’s a great opportunity to build positive and productive interactions between generations.

Now that you have done your prep work, you’re ready to pitch a reverse mentorship program. When you’re approaching the idea of a reverse mentorship to your mentor, remember the Platinum Rule: Treat others how they want to be treated. Make the conversation about them and the organization and not about you. Share your vision of how reverse mentorship will be an effective tool for sharing ideas, identifying more efficiencies, and opening up communication to help everyone in the firm. Come prepared with a thoughtful proposal that will help get your mentor onboard with the idea. Remember that everyone at the firm is busy and free time is a luxury, so make sure to provide the best value in the shortest amount of time.

When making a pitch, we suggest coming up with both formal and informal methods for developing a reverse mentorship program. You could consider enlisting the help of an experienced organization or come up with your own less formal ideas for starting a reverse mentorship. No matter what approach you decide to implement, reverse mentorship benefits everyone and can provide a treasure trove of unique insights that might otherwise go unheard.

Who could argue with that?


by Dan Negroni and Joann Grages Burnett
Originally appeared: American Bar Association