Biglaw, Old People

Mentoring: Just Another Thing the Baby Boomers Don’t Do Well

As the Baby Boomers continue to age, we’ve been documenting their reluctance to gracefully leave the Biglaw stage. One would think that all these lingering old people would at least be a good mentoring resource for the younger generation. Kash suggested as much when we debated the topic earlier this year.

But an article up on American Lawyer this morning suggests that aging Americans don’t view “mentoring” the young as part of their job description. A former Kirkland & Ellis partner, Steven Harper, writes about the mentoring gap in Biglaw. His starting point is an interesting article from former Reagan speechwriter, Peggy Noonan:

Commemorating the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird,” Peggy Noonan, writing recently in The Wall Street Journal, hit on an important truth that law firm leaders should heed. In lamenting what she called the national need for “adult supervision,” Noonan wrote, “there’s kind of an emerging mentoring gap going on in America right now … a generalized absence of the wise old politician/lawyer/leader/editor who helps the young along, who teaches them the ropes and ways and traditions of a craft.”

Dear Baby Boomers, please look to your own house before you criticize Gen Y for its Twitter-aided navel gazing…

Not surprisingly, Harper doesn’t come out and directly criticize people in his age group for being professionally self-centered. Instead he blames the system:

In many large firms, the phenomenon flows directly from the dominant MBA-mentality that forces firm leaders and everyone else to focus on short-term metrics — individual billings, billable hours, associate-partner leverage ratios. The resulting behavior is predictable. Each individual’s drive to attain and preserve his or her position in accordance with such metrics leaves little room (or time) for the personalized mentoring that turns good young lawyers into better older ones. There’s no metric for measuring the contribution of mentoring to, say, average profits per partner.

Because there’s no “metric” for mentoring, people don’t do it? So really we’re saying that because Baby Boomers can’t figure out how to get paid for mentoring, they don’t want to do it. That sounds like classic Baby Boomer logic to me.

For firms adhering to the pervasive Big Law model, the absence of a mentoring metric makes all the difference. When I was a third-year associate, the partner who helped me craft the opening statement for my first jury trial (without charging the client for his time) wasn’t preoccupied with the impact it would have on his billable hours or billings. He and a relatively few others like him would still guide proteges today, but their institutions’ financial incentives point them in a different direction.

Isn’t the point of this story that years ago, partners weren’t so totally consumed by their own financial metrics that they could see the inherent value of training young people? But now apparently they won’t lift a finger unless they can figure out how it relates to their own bank account?

Mentoring is never going to be the most lucrative way for a senior partner to spend an hour. You can invent whatever metrics you want; at the end of the day, training the next generation can’t be reduced to dollars and hours. It’s more subtle than that. It requires having an appreciation for your firm (or at least your own legacy) that transcends short-term concerns about your bank account.

It’s a subtle insight that is supposed to come with age. But hey, 60 is the new 30, right? We’ve got the largest generation of old people in the history of the country, but perhaps the fewest number of people willing to embrace being old.

Where Have All the Big Law Mentors Gone? [American Lawyer]

Earlier: Old People Will Not Go Quietly
Mandatory Retirement Age for Partners: An ATL Debate

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