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Mentoring to Avoid Malpractice

By Debra Squires-Lee on August 15, 2013

mentoringOne would have to be living under a rock not to have heard about Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In.  While Lean In, and Sandberg herself, have engendered a great deal of discussion and debate, one of Sandberg’s messages is well known, and relatively ho-hum.  The need for and benefits of mentors for all young professionals, but especially women.

Law firms long ago recognized the desirability of formal mentoring programs for junior lawyers.  Many lawyers tend to think of a successful mentor relationship as one that focuses on the broad picture and long term career goals of young lawyers.  Mentors can significantly impact a lawyer’s career – guiding the lawyer to avoid landmines, meet the right people, and get significant and substantive experience in their area of expertise. Indeed, law firms that have comprehensive mentoring programs are more likely to develop successful lawyers, with great careers that drive the overall success of the firm.  However, the law is, and continues to be, an apprenticeship profession.  Although all successful Ivy League law school graduates like to think they are ready to try a class action case in federal court the day after they are sworn in to the bar, they are not.  Young lawyers need significant training in the nuts and bolts of lawyering, litigators and transactional lawyers.  Good mentoring programs and good mentors that recognize the need to train lawyers in the basics, therefore, both insure more capable lawyers and can also significantly decrease a law firm’s exposure to risk.

Most malpractice claims do not result from massive legal blunders, most stem from ordinary failures: calendaring problems or missed deadlines; the failure to perform a conflict check, or obtain a conflict waiver; failing to keep a client adequately apprised and informed; lack of professionalism or poor client relations; failing to document the end of a representation; failing properly to document legal advice that the client has rejected.  All of those errors and failures can be mitigated with careful, precise practices.

A good mentoring program focused on instilling best practices as well as shepherding young lawyers through office politics and toward juicy assignments, can insure that good practices are taught, encouraged and monitored.   Those good practices may go a long way to protect a firm from potential malpractice claims.  Thus, mentors should be encouraged to talk with young lawyers about their own best practices and discuss candidly the above landmines.  Mentors can train lawyers how to deal with difficult clients and how to address potential conflicts.  Mentors can guide young lawyers to commit to diligence in client communications and calendaring deadlines.

Mentors and their charges often develop a relationship of trust and confidence.  Mentors should understand that, while part of their duties is to guide a young lawyer’s career, another part is to share their practical wisdom about the practice of law.  Everyone is well served – the firm, the mentor, and the young lawyer.

Debra Squires-Lee

Debra Squires-Lee is a partner in the firm’s Litigation Department, co-chair of the Business Litigation and Professional Liability Practice Groups, and co-chair of the firm’s Mentoring Committee Read Bio

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