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The power of paying it forward

 If you are an established lawyer, you probably give back to your community by your involvement in civic, charitable and pro bono activities. How many times this year, however, did you “pay it forward” at the office by giving the gift of mentoring to a newer lawyer?

If you recall back to when you were more junior, you may remember that at least one lawyer took that time to lead the way for you.

S/he probably didn’t let you know how disappointed or frustrated s/he was with your inexperience. S/he may have told you s/he thought you should be further along than you were at a given time. But s/he stayed with you because s/he believed that you would benefit from this consistent gift of constructive criticism. Other than perfecting your work product, that mentor expected nothing of you in return, perhaps with the hope that you would exhibit the same generosity at work when it was your turn.

That is called paying it forward. Now a global movement, the last Thursday in April has become International Pay It Forward Day. In law practice, paying it forward includes mentoring. Firms understand that mentoring is critical to the success of their organizations. Many firms have both formal and informal mentoring programs.

In fact, there is a National Legal Mentoring Consortium designed to encourage and exchange ideas about mentoring best practices in the legal profession. Mentoring programs of member firms, law schools and other organizations are posted on the website.

The most important mentoring activity is at the granular level. Every new lawyer, whether an entry level or a lateral hire, needs constant constructive criticism. It is done project-by-project helping lawyers understand how to do it right.

It means taking time out of your billable day to first bleed all over the writings of a less experienced colleague, and second to discuss the reasons for those refinements. It means exercising patience. It means refraining from doing it yourself because you know it will be done right and will take less time to complete. And it means exercising this practice with every less-experienced lawyer with whom you work.

Yes, it takes up time

The most common complaint among junior partners and senior associates, however, is that they have increased pressure to provide excellent and timely work product to their clients, they have family obligations, they have their own performance obligations, and they just don’t have the time or energy to teach a less-experienced lawyer “how to” and “why not.” The work-life balance becomes even more challenging when a lawyer climbing the ladder needs to teach a newer lawyer.

The rewards of paying it forward greatly outweigh the burdens. If you take the time now to show someone the way, over time, your refinements and discussions will diminish. Over time, you will create a top-notch team to serve your clients. Someone junior to you whom you trust will be able to stand in for you when you are out of the office.

You will be shaping your team of lawyers one-by-one, just like others did for you. You will develop a bond, a loyalty and a reputation among your colleagues and clients that will reflect well on you.

During this holiday season, take a few minutes to reflect on how much patience others showed to you in your career. Perhaps your New Year’s resolution will be to pay it forward.

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