A Cup of Coffee, a Chat in the Hall – Mentoring Gets Small and Personal

By Debra Bruno

August 23, 2017

micro-mentoring gets small and personal

There’s a lifetime of practical knowledge hidden in the ranks of law firm partners—how to deal with difficult clients, ways to get the most out of a meeting, how to create balance in your life, when to turn down a project.

The problem is that many partners are so focused on their own work that, even with the best intentions, they have limited time to offer sage advice to associates. Even associates in law firms with respected mentoring programs find that they often feel invisible.

One solution to the not-enough-time question is “micro-mentoring.” In other words, beyond the formal, bi-monthly lunch with your mentor in which you might talk vaguely about work, life, and the soup du jour, some partners seize the opportunity to have a five-minute chat in the hallway or grab a cup of coffee first thing in the day.

Virginia Seitz, a partner at Sidley Austin LLP, was one of the early adopters of the idea of micro-mentoring. Her goal, she says, is to show partners that mentoring doesn’t have to be a huge time commitment. “What it means to me is always having mentoring at the top of my mind, but not associating it with any particular individual,” she says. That comes out of a sense that she’s developed over her 30-year career that “mentoring has to grow out of a felt chemistry with someone, or a work relationship with someone. You can’t force it.”

Kathleen Mueller, also a partner at the firm, says that part of the draw of Sidley when she was rejoining the workforce after taking time off to raise her family was the example and steady voice of Seitz.

“She told me when I interviewed here that not every week is going to be perfect, and that you’ll have the week that is crazy and think, ‘Gosh, I can’t do this,’ but that will be followed by a bunch of weeks that you can,” says Mueller. The most important thing is to be flexible—“and the people you work with need to be flexible, too,” she adds.

One specific piece of advice that Seitz gave Mueller was to have backup arrangements for childcare and the carpool, Mueller says. Like Seitz, Mueller works a reduced schedule, although sometimes those work hours mean putting in time from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.

For Seitz, passing on that nugget is a good example of micro-mentoring. “It’s less scary than the idea that one person might be looking to you to guide you,” she says. Micro-mentoring could be less emotionally exhausting than taking personal responsibility for one associate, especially if something goes wrong, she says.

For Seitz, it can also mean advice on how to participate in meetings, what to say to a partner in a 30-second encounter in an elevator, or even a suggestion to take a writing pad in to a partner’s office to easily remember points.

“There are opportunities for mentoring that come along every day, and if you seize them, it doesn’t take that much time,” Seitz says.

Cate Stetson, a partner at Hogan Lovells, says that while every associate at the firm has a formally assigned mentor, the informal relationships in the firm also are important. “I think everyone in some respect is a good mentor for another person,” Stetson says. “But the ways in which mentoring is most effective are the informal, organic relationships” that develop because two lawyers share a practice area, a law school, or a hobby, she says.

Stetson adds that mentoring can work in all directions. “There’s an associate in my group who has a very deft touch in dealing with difficult colleagues or clients,” she says. “Even though she is an associate, I watch her dealing with colleagues or having a difficult interaction with opposing counsel, and there’s something I learn from that experience as well.”

Another thing Stetson does is organize a casual lunch with some junior associates every few months. “I’ll reach out to two of them and they will pull two other people in, and the five of us will go to lunch,” she says. Stetson, co-head of the firm’s appellate practice group, learns, among other things, areas where the firm might be able to improve.

One important piece of advice she offers to associates is to be visible. “You can’t just sit in an office and wait for people to notice that you’re awesome,” she says. Pick a partner, invite that person out for coffee, and ask questions, she says. She even suggests that associates put a note in their calendars to reach out to find another partner to take to coffee every once in a while. “It’s important for the associate to feel like he or she is owning that as well.”

Erin Johnston, a partner at Kirkland & Ellis LLP, says she has vivid memories of getting invaluable informal mentoring earlier in her career. She had just returned to work from maternity leave and was “feeling in over my head and overwhelmed,” she says. She reached out to a partner in her practice group who told her she could drop that case.

“That was a major moment for me,” Johnston says. “It’s huge for someone to say, ‘It’s okay; you don’t have to do it all.’”

Today Johnston is co-chair of the firm’s women’s leadership program, which pairs mothers at the firm with new parents. “Some of this happens informally, but we wanted to make sure that every new mom has access to ask questions” of more seasoned parents, she says.

Of course, firms that have entrenched formal mentorship programs also argue that these can be useful, as long as they work the way they’re supposed to. Cristina Carvalho, managing partner at Arent Fox LLP, says that the firm asks each new associate to pick two mentors, one from the person’s practice group, and one outside it. And it’s important that the associates pick the mentor, not the other way around.

A partner who understands a particular practice can tell an associate, “these are the conferences you should be attending, these are the courses you should be taking, and this is the knowledge you should get in this particular area,” Carvalho says.

Carvalho might be the best evidence that Arent takes mentoring seriously. “I have an open-door policy,” she says. “Even after becoming a managing partner, I tell everyone–staff, associates – just stop by.” And they do.

Debra Bruno is a freelance journalist who writes for The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Washingtonian Magazine. She lived in China for three years and has worked at Legal Times, Roll Call, and other publications.