Associates in the Trenches

Coming of Age

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Leslie D. Davis, a Chicago litigator, sees herself as a go-to person of sorts. It started, she says, when other associates would come to her for advice.

“There wasn’t a point where I decided that I had advice to give. Really it came about because people would ask me questions, and I would know the answer,” says Davis, a senior associate who handles business regulation work. “When someone asks you a question, you give an answer, and they come back and ask another question. You find yourself building a repertoire.”

She now sees herself as a mentor to other associates at her firm. Besides being the answer lady, Davis often takes younger lawyers with her to court appearances, and she gives them advice on motions and witness preparation.

Because of recent experience, associates are sometimes better equipped than partners to advise new lawyers, says Paul G. Bonneson, who chairs the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Mentor Council Committee.

“Older attorneys would have a greater knowledge of judges, but maybe they don’t remember what it’s like to be all of a sudden trying to find a courthouse,” he says. Still, some associates don’t realize they have something to offer, says Ida O. Abbott, an Oakland, Calif., lawyer who wrote The Lawyer’s Guide to Mentoring.

Becoming a mentor, she says, is not a formal transition but an ongoing process. “There’s a myth that a mentor is somebody who is a lot older than you,” she says. “If you have knowledge or experience that can help someone else, you can be a mentor.”

No Dumb Questions

Those who decide to become mentors often find they reap professional as well as personal benefits. Those in law firm management, Abbott says, take notice of associates who advise colleagues.

“If they see that a particular associate has a loyal group of supporters, that can be seen as a mark of partnership,” she continues. “It also means [the associate] will have a better understanding of dynamics among peers.”

Some law firms actively encourage associate-to-associate mentoring. Atlanta-based King & Spaulding has what is known as the Link Program–each new lawyer is paired up with a more senior associate and a partner. The more seasoned associate, “the link host,” often answers basic questions, like what is appropriate clothing for casual Fridays.

“The feedback we get, anecdotally and in formal surveys, is that the most valuable portion of this program is the ability to have someone to go to and ask dumb questions,” says David Tetrick Jr., a seventh-year associate. He chairs King & Spaulding’s attorney development subcommittee, which oversees the program, and he’s also a link host. Tetrick, who does employment work, sometimes advises younger lawyers about what to do with conflicting partner instructions. If two partners give an assignment, he says, and each instructs the younger lawyer to use a different form, the younger lawyer might panic.

Since Tetrick is the “link,” it would be his job to sort things out with both partners.

“They could ask the partners themselves,” he says of younger lawyers, “but they don’t realize it yet. You’re usually dealing with first-year associates who typically come directly from school, and they have no idea they can go and ask those sorts of questions to partners because they don’t want to look dumb.”

Indeed, not making people feel dumb is a core mentoring component. But you have to be approachable. (Davis, who usually keeps her office door closed, tells other associates that she does this to concentrate, not because she doesn’t want to be bothered.) Political astuteness is also important. If a less-senior associate asks about law firm politics, Davis says, you may not want to give an opinion.

“I limit criticisms or complaints to things that are grounded in fact,” she says.

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