Old Idea with a New Twist: Reverse Mentoring

In a new world of tweets, blog posts, status updates, and instant access to the web anywhere in the world from your smartphone, companies are embracing the old idea of mentoring with a new twist – reverse mentoring. As outlined by Brendan McKenna in his December article for the Law Technology News, reverse mentoring is when “older employees seek training and assistance from younger colleagues better versed in technology.” McKenna notes a recent Wall Street Journal article which mentions the idea is taking flight in many different industries, yet he questions whether law firms use “to a rigid employment structure based on the partnership track” will break from tradition and implement it.

Part of the fun, but also the hesitance, for many is the idea of partners turning to associates for social and technological “counsel”. But as markets and clients gravitate towards new forms of communication and more advanced technology, firms and individual partners will be increasingly forced to break the mold.

As McKenna goes on to note, “the benefits work both ways.” With more face time from reverse training, young associates are given a real chance to shine while also gaining a better understanding of their management and top executives. Per McKenna, young associates can use “their expertise as a means to stand out, and it likely comes naturally, because they grew up with technology that older staff may find intimidating.” Moreover, this would allow partners with another great opportunity to see their associates in action, and evaluate their overall value for the firm as they approach partnership. One area, in particular, where this idea already seems to have caught on at various firms is in e-Discovery.  Nicole Buziak of Blank Rome has stated that “especially for e-Discovery, the younger associates are in the trenches and they can really make this issue their own and educate more senior people on it.”

However, McKenna believes that, in general, associates are more enthusiastic about the idea of reverse mentoring than partners. For one, mentoring time takes away from time that could be spent billing hours. According to a West LegalEd Center survey, “professional development personnel stated they anticipate mentoring and/or shadowing programs to be less a priority than other functions during the next 24 months”.

Thus, it remains to be seen whether firms will make technology and social media training more of a priority in years to come. Reverse mentoring in large measure seems to be a solid way to approach this internally, with benefits for both associates and partners alike as they strive to keep up with clients in today’s ever-changing markets.

General Counsel Succession Planning

According to a recent article by Lee Udelsman in the New York Law Journal , shareholders of public companies have recently introduced proposals requiring companies to adopt and disclose succession plans. In addition, they are asking companies to have assessment processes to identify and assess internal candidates as part of the succession planning process. Many companies are opposed to these proposals because it would allow competitors to know the identity of their top legal talent.

There is a growing trend for succession plans to be more openly discussed, pushed from both sides by shareholders and regulators. According to the article, the SEC has “updated the legal definitions of ‘risk’ and redefined succession planning as fair game for shareholders who want greater transparency”. Per the SEC (Legal Bulletin 14E, Oct. 27, 2009): “One of the Board’s key functions is to provide for succession planning so the company is not adversely affected due to a vacancy in leadership. Recent events have underscored the importance of this function to the governance of the corporation.”

Consequently, the succession discussion has been forced into the limelight, and not just for GCs but for lower level in-house attorneys as well. But where does this process start? According to Udelsman, it has to begin with the current GC, particularly if he/she is within 2 years of retirement. GCs know their legal departments better than anyone, and thus can identify early on if there are internal candidates that fit the bill, or if the search needs to pursue external options as well.

Udelsman notes that if there is an attractive internal candidate, the GC must ensure the candidate has had “meaningful interactions with the board, dealt with new corporate governance and securities requirements if it is a public company, contributed to the company’s future growth plans, and possessed the ability to think as a strategic business partner.”

Even though the search must start with the GC, it is also important to get feedback from the rest of the executive team. The CEO and company board both need to be comfortable and confident with the successor, as they will be the ones working with him/her.

However, Udelsman goes on to note that even if you have an internal succession candidate, companies should still consider conducting an external search. It is often helpful to have someone come into with new and innovative ideas developed elsewhere, or with previous experience as a GC.

Regardless of which route companies go in the search process, those involved must define the skill set, core competencies, qualities, and leadership abilities desired. Remember to focus on what your company will need in the years ahead, and not necessarily what it needs right now. This list of requirements should be updated regularly, which “will enable you to continually reassess the legal department’s needs and polish position descriptions so you can recruit candidates who will be able to guide it in the future”. For instance, international companies might benefit from having a candidate that is multicultural, who has either lived or worked in international settings in the past.

Above all, succession planning needs to be viewed as an ongoing process. The criteria list for the successor should be updated regularly.  Internal candidates should be assessed frequently to make sure their capabilities are in line with the company’s needs, and development plans should be reviewed regularly make sure that he/she is getting the exposure and experiences required.

Minority Associate Survey Shows Enduring Gaps

Based on The American Lawyer’s 2011 Midlevel Associates Survey, African American associates are averaging higher salaries today than they were 3 years ago, yet they remain at the bottom of the rung in terms of overall pay and hours billed. The recent increases have resulted in a narrowing pay gap among ethnic groups, but the reality is that gaps still exist and play a role in today’s legal landscape.

Of the more than 5,000 respondents from nearly 150 participating firms, nearly 90% chose to disclose their ethnicity. The results were as follows: 72.8% white, 10.4% Asian, 3.7% Hispanic, 2.6% black, and the remaining 10.5% chose not to disclose. Black associates billed an average of 1,934 hours and reported an annual salary of $180,727, up almost $3,200 from 2008. Hispanic associates billed slightly more than 2,000 hours and saw an average salary increase of $7,085 to $185,063. Asian associates also billed slightly more than 2,000 hours yet saw a $3,619 decline in average salary to $191,074, despite being most valuable to their firms at an average billing rate of $450 per hour. This drop may well account for why Asian associates reported lowest satisfaction with current compensation and benefits. White associates, like Hispanic and Asian associates, also billed slightly more than 2,000 hours and brought in an average salary of $184,368.

While salary differences may in part be a reflection of differences in hours billed, the drops in Asian salaries and satisfaction, as well as the continued lagging of African American salaries and hours billed remain areas of concern.

In a Dec. 5 article for Coporate Counsel, Brian Zabcik notes that many firms have mentoring programs in place to combat these odds and support associates, but this is evidently not enough. Black associates are most likely to have a mentor yet by the numbers still remain disadvantaged, as 86.5% of black associates, 83.1% of Hispanic associates and 73.8% of Asian associates, respectively, indicated they had mentors.

Says Zabcik, “All minorities thought they had a lower chance of making partner than whites. Only 60% of blacks, 63.7% of Asians, and 68.4% of Hispanics thought that they were headed toward promotion. A significantly higher percentage of white associates–76.3%–thought they were on the partnership track.”

Whether subtly or overtly, even psychologically, race and ethnicity still play a role in today’s legal landscape. Current legal demographics, salary statistics and associate attitudes toward promotion all reflect this, something which today’s firms need to be keenly aware of in an industry and generation seeking further diversity and equality.