Another message that the increase in associate departures may be sending is that our attempts at mentoring are failing. Mentoring has become a favored buzzword recently that many law firms at least pay lip service to.  Most of these programs tend to fairly arbitrarily assign new associates to mentors, dictate a certain number of meetings annually, and require reams of paperwork. They are, in short, more a product of lawyers’ natural tendency to be “thinkers” (78% of lawyers) instead of “feelers” (22%), using the Myers-Briggs personality trait descriptions. Mentoring is business shorthand for “someone to watch over me,” a skill that does not come naturally to attorneys. 

Sullivan & Cromwell has recently announced a revamping of its mentoring program for its general practice group in New York and Washington. There are separate programs for junior associates—paired with mid-level associates who focus on acclimation and socializing—and more senior associates, who are paired with two partners to help develop skills. 

Why are law firms and law departments providing this “soft” support for young attorneys? There is, of course, always the “herd mentality” argument, that if other firms are doing it in this competitive talent market, so must we. But that begs the bigger issue. Why, after generations of no such official “coddling,” have associates begun to need this sort of assistance, and, more astonishingly, firms have been providing it? 

Why firms provide mentoring is partly in response to what firms view as ill-prepared and poorly motivated young associates, coupled with the exodus of those associates when they are throw in to sink or swim.  Add to this the growing bigness of law firms, with more extensive policies, rules and procedures, and mentoring becomes a formalized, lengthy orientation process. 

But I would wager that an even bigger reason behind the need for mentoring originates in the personal lives of the Gen Xers, Yers and Zers themselves. These young people are more likely to have been supported financially and academically up to and through college and law school, so they expect continued support. They have also grown up in a more generally “therapized” culture, where identifying needs and asking for them to be met is a sign of mental health. Finally, the continued breakdown of the nuclear American family and its broad geographical dispersion may mean that, as their careers progress, these young adults need to replace or supplement lagging or distant family support with relationships at work.   If they’re not getting that support from your firm or department, they will go elsewhere.