younger women talking to older

Is reverse mentoring, typically thought of as having younger workers help and mentor those who are older, something that can work with lawyers and law firms?

The benefits for both sides could be enormous, especially considering the disruption in the legal profession, the onslaught of changes that will affect the manner of how we work, and the enhanced need for communication and understanding between generations. But how do we make it work?

What is Reverse Mentoring?

Reverse mentoring was first popularized by former General Electric Chairman Jack Welch, who directed GE to start using reverse mentoring to teach the use of the internet to its older workers by using younger workers as mentors. More recently, it has been put in place at Target and UnitedHealth Care.

Reverse mentoring recognizes the fact that by the time many workers reach their forties and fifties, they are just not as in touch with the future as younger people who approach things with fresher eyes, more open minds, and a more perceptive view of technology. Younger people who are new to the world of work also often have different social behaviors and backgrounds and can coach senior leaders on what the workplace should look like, what drives younger talent, and how to move forward.

It seems to work best where the mentoring is more mutual: where, for example, the older person gets coaching on new digital communication tools while the younger one might get coaching on leadership and larger management-related skills.

But can it work for lawyers in a profession that so values and venerates experience? A profession composed of highly-trained skeptics who sometimes have arrogant views of younger lawyers, non-lawyers and the world around them?

The Benefits of Reverse Mentoring

Many recognized benefits of reverse mentoring apply to law firms. Reverse or mutual mentoring can lead both mentor and mentee to a better understanding of generational differences in such areas as culture, values, motivation, skills, and processes. It can provide older lawyers with useful feedback and guidance on leadership skills that will affect younger professionals. It also helps them see how organizational policies and practices would be perceived by younger lawyers. It could provide older lawyers with a better understanding of how to better attract and recruit top talent.

Reverse mentoring might also help address discrimination issues and unconscious bias that plague law firms and the profession. Since younger lawyers have different (and perhaps more sensitive) perspectives on diversity, mentoring offers a way to allow younger voices to be heard. Diversity discussions can build a more inclusive culture, improving the hiring and retention of young talent.

If the relationship is viewed more broadly and there is not an expectation that younger lawyer’s role is only to explain the technology tools the firm already has, other useful technology information can flow as well. Technology knowledge and benefits go further than understanding firm and case management tools. Understanding, for example, social media tools could help older lawyers in their practice.

For younger lawyers, this relationship also offers some unique advantages. First, it teaches them leadership skills early on and how to manage professional relationships that will be useful to them in dealing with clients, many of whom may be older than they are. It allows them to have a bigger impact and see firsthand the strategic thinking of older lawyers. It teaches listening skills and gives them greater ownership and stake in their professional prelateships and choices.

For both younger and older lawyers, reverse mentoring provides benefits not only in firm and project management but also in marketing and client development as younger lawyers take positions of responsibility within in-house departments. With disruption occurring throughout the profession, the greater the dialogue and understanding by all, the better the lawyers and firms will be to manage the changes and thrive.

The Challenges of Reverse Mentoring for Lawyers

Most law firms are tremendously hierarchical, even more so than most companies. Many senior lawyers often think younger lawyers don’t have that much to offer. And trying to get either younger or older lawyers to give up time and energy on a non-billable project in many law firms is difficult.

To be successful, any reverse mentoring plan must be broad-based. Technology may be a component, but reverse mentoring is really about developing a better and mutual understanding of differences in culture, values, motivation, skills, and processes. To be productive, the process should be one of mutual mentoring, where information and advice are shared. (Even naming the program “mutual mentoring ” may be important.)

Second, to succeed, the lawyers, the firm and its leadership must, to the extent possible, require participation. The program should be highly structured so the goals and objectives aren’t lost. Most lawyers don’t like brainstorming sessions, particularly if they are non-billable.  Regular meetings between the mentor and mentee should be set up and frequency should be established. To focus those sessions, the mentor/mentees should have set topics to consider when they meet, focusing on a specified one for each meeting. Such topics could include:

  • Gender barriers you’ve experienced or noticed and implicit or explicit instances of discrimination
  • What does “having an impact” mean in the legal profession?
  • Views on work/life balance.
  • Expectations about career progression.
  • Diversity and why it’s important.
  • How to build mutual trust.
  • How to be empathetic as a lawyer.
  • What the practice of law and the world of work will look like in the future.
  • Technology and ethics.
  • Social responsibility, access to justice,  and pro bono efforts.

Before even instituting a mutual mentoring program, legal professionals need to consider the impact of power differences between the older and younger lawyer. Steps must be taken to ensure this reversal does not preclude free and frank discussion. Younger lawyers must get over the urge to say what they think their older peers want to hear. Older lawyers must work on listening and not rushing to judgment.

For reverse mentoring to work with lawyers and law firms, the same features of any mentoring program must be in place: defined expectations and objectives, agreed-upon rules, willingness to learn, trust, and transparency. Most importantly, there needs to be commitment: commitment of all to create a valuable two-way mentoring relationship.

Conclusion

Given the pace of change in the legal profession, savvy older lawyers should want to hear from younger lawyers and legal professionals—the very people who will someday inherit the profession. Younger lawyers should welcome the opportunity for older lawyers to share time and experience with them to help them plan for the future. Both should have a goal to communicate better and understand the other to make the practice more efficient, better serve clients, and create a culture for the future.

Reverse mentoring is a two-way street, and done well, it can add unexpected—and often invaluable—perspective for both sides of the mentor-mentee relationship, helping today’s leaders drive stronger legal and business impact and giving tomorrow’s leaders an early peek at the view from the top. A true win-win.

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