Successful Mentorship Programs in a Remote Environment

With the increase in employees working remotely, law firm leaders have become even more concerned about keeping employees engaged in their work.

Global Workplace Analytics predicts that approximately 30 million U.S. employees will regularly work from home within the next two years, which is six times more than before the COVID-19 pandemic. Remote work is now commonplace, and will remain so for quite some time.

With the increase in employees working remotely, law firm leaders have become even more concerned about keeping employees engaged in their work. While there is no one-size-fits all solution, mentorship programs can help.

Mentorship has long been a staple in most firms, and while it’s more logistically challenging these days, it’s never been more critical to employee engagement and professional development. The mentor/mentee dynamic will undoubtedly look a bit different with distributed teams, but there are steps that all leaders can take to ensure success:

Meet (yes, in person) and Set Goals

Emotionally intelligent leaders must learn to adjust how they mentor their junior peers. In the pre-pandemic environment, working closely with them was not an issue. Going forward, they will still need to meet with their mentees in person, though on a less frequent and more strategically determined basis, to explain in detail aspects of their job.

One thing a firm can do is to reward time spent for mentoring. Attorneys are accustomed to recording time, so they should begin recording time for mentoring (even though it is non-billable). Setting goals to monitor the mentoring progress, with goals for both the mentors and the mentees, is also a good idea. Firms need to stress how productive mentoring people can be. No, it cannot be billed to a client, but it helps to increase engagement and is an investment in the future of the firm.

Utilize Different Communications Devices

Pick up the phone for quick communications. Despite their convenience, texts and emails can be misinterpreted. Most effective communication is done when the other person can understand the body language and voice inflection of the other person. Emails and texts are best used to let a subordinate know that a conversation is needed, but not every conversation has to be a video discussion either. Introverts are more sensitive to distractions and the constant eye contact associated with video discussions. When there is no video, the focus is more on voice inflection. Mentors may find that some of their mentees are more receptive to the more effective communication of a simple phone call.

Establish Regular Virtual Meetings

Leaders with multiple mentees may want to establish weekly Zoom meetings that meet the same time and day of the week. These meetings do not necessarily need an agenda. Each member can talk about what is transpiring with him/her. Leaders should be prepared, however, to “fill in” some of the discussion if participants are exceptionally quiet. As the mentees get used to participating in these meetings, communication will become more relaxed. Mentors should regularly encourage feedback from everyone, whether in a group or privately. Getting the team’s take on how to improve employee engagement is also recommended. When establishing a weekly Zoom meeting for the team, choose a day of the week in which no Zoom calls are already scheduled. People will plan their days accordingly so they can work on projects as needed.

Emotionally intelligent leaders will use mentorship as a strategic way of engaging employees and promoting the future of the firm.

Be Openly Available

Mentors must make themselves available on an ad hoc basis. Prior to remote work, mentees could just pop their heads into a mentor’s office and ask informal questions. Today, those mentees must be made to feel comfortable enough to reach out to their mentors in the same manner – via the various available technologies. For mentees to feel comfortable, mentors must respond quickly to their needs.

Act With Self-Awareness

Effective leaders learn to act with self-awareness. They know that it is better to respond when not emotional. Screaming and yelling does not help anyone. To lead effectively, it is important to recognize what triggers our emotions. Leaders need to understand that humans are approximately 98% emotional and 2% rational. People in the legal industry are very educated and intelligent, and this emotional component is often ignored.

Make External Introductions

As part of an effective mentoring process, mentors need to introduce their subordinates to people outside of the firm. This may be accomplished through an occasional Zoom call with a colleague or by inviting a mentee to participate in a regular networking meeting. A good mentor will introduce their mentee to the participants in a regular networking meeting, so that the networking meeting becomes something the mentee attends regularly. The mentor should then purposely attend less frequently, so that the mentee learns to feel comfortable representing the firm in the meeting alone.

Don’t Neglect the Mental Health of Your Mentors

It is important to recognize that the legal community suffers at a higher rate than the American public from alcoholism, addiction and even suicide. The COVID-19 pandemic has raised these levels even higher across society. Leaders must secure their own psychological health before they can lead others who need their leadership and mentorship.

In summary, emotionally intelligent leaders will use mentorship as a strategic way of engaging employees and promoting the future of the firm. By rewarding mentoring, leaders can motivate employees to work together as a team. To reinforce the team concept, quick communications via simple phone calls are recommended, as are readily accessible weekly Zoom meetings. Mentors should make themselves available, at least through technology, and respond quickly to the needs of their mentees. They should also introduce their mentees to networking groups to help them meet people outside the firm.

Written by CARET Legal partner, Gail Ruopp. Gail Ruopp has acquired more than 25 years of professional experience in senior law firm management, initiating best practices in administrative operations, including: financials, accounting, lateral recruiting, personnel, day-to-day operations, systems management, and firm marketing.

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