In-House Counsel

Moonlighting: Improving Mentoring Programs By Assuming the Worst of the Participants

Mentoring has its benefits. It’s been shown to increase productivity, retention, and job satisfaction. According to one article, individuals who have had mentors earned between $5,610 and $22,450 more annually than those who haven’t had mentors. Multiply that by 30 years, and based on my lightning-speed calculations, that’s… ummm… a LOT of extra income. Those numbers are from several years ago, so my guess is that the riches we could be rolling in are even greater now, assuming that mentoring programs have become more sophisticated over the years.

Despite the purported benefits of mentoring, many people who’ve participated in mentoring programs just aren’t fans. I’ve been forced to volunteered to participate in a few different mentoring programs through work and various bar associations, and have had varying degrees of success. Generally, for the mentoring relationships that have been less successful, it’s been difficult to connect with the other person — we didn’t meet very often or when we did meet, the conversations were kind of strained (picture awkward pauses, sitting in silence, and blinking at each other for ten hours, that sort of thing).

How about the ones that were more successful…?

As with many programs, the success of a mentoring program depends a lot on having a good foundation. Some programs cover the basics — they solicit law students and guilt lawyers to join the program as mentors or mentees, obtain some information about the participants, and pair them up accordingly. They may also provide some handy-dandy reading to help guide the participants through the mentoring relationship.

The problem is that these basics assume you’re dealing with responsible, mature people. A responsible person who has volunteered for the program would take a look at the materials provided so that they can get the most out of a fulfilling mentor relationship. What are the chances that I’ll read one of those articles? About 0.5%. And that’s on a good day. If they’re more than a page long, then it’s more like 0.00005%. It’s not that I don’t intend to read them. Of course I do — they go in my “very important/must read when I have free time” pile which I haven’t touched since I started practicing law.

My recommendation would be to instead have in-person meetings with mentor program participants to define expectations and rules of the road. Whether these are done individually or in groups, with pairings together or separately, is at the discretion of the organizers. Hold on, doesn’t attending a meeting involve a lot more time than just reading an article? Yes, but some of us are really dumb like that. As a practical matter, I’m more likely to attend a mandatory two-hour meeting that sums up the points in an article than figure out a convenient time to spend twenty minutes reading the piece of paper. Because at least I’d get some drinks, have an excuse to eat some food that’s bad for me, and network with some interesting people. And I suppose I could chat with some law students, too. Perhaps a bunch of us would even go for karaoke afterwards. The upsides are limitless!

At some point during these meetings, it would also be ideal if the mentees were advised that they’re responsible for the practical aspects of the relationship, such as scheduling meetings and coming up with topics for discussion (they could get ideas from handouts and program organizers). Although mentees may be intimidated about taking the initiative with senior lawyers, it would instill them with sense of ownership (and make them less likely to flake out — this is a sore point for some people, namely me) and will also relieve senior lawyers of these burdens.

The more successful mentor programs also have follow-up and reminder mechanisms in place. Organizers clearly communicate the minimum number of meetings that are expected to take place, and also remind and check up on the participants to see that the meetings occur. They also use these follow-ups as opportunities to see whether there are any issues. Again, the issue with some of the unsuccessful programs is that they assume they can just send us mentor/mentee pairs off on our merry way and that we’ll do everything they expect us to. We won’t. There’s a 99.5% chance that we’ll forget, and by the time we remember, it’ll be decades later, and our mentees will be signing up to be delinquent mentors themselves.

If you’re organizing a mentoring program, whether for a company, a law firm, a bar association, or a law school, note that there’s a fine line between providing a good program structure for mentors to follow, and micro-managing adults who should know better. Actually, feel free to ignore that line and just go straight to doing the latter — that’s what I ment. I mean meant.

Susan Moon is an in-house attorney at a travel and hospitality company. Her opinions are her own and not those of her company. Also, the experiences Susan shares may include others’ experiences (many in-house friends insist on offering ideas for the blog). You can reach her at and follow her on Twitter at @SusanMoon.

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