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Mentoring & Succession Planning: Helping Others Shine by Looking Out for Number Two

Updated: Mar 18, 2022

Edith Wharton said, "There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it."

When it comes to business development, lawyers who engage in marketing consider themselves to be the candle.

It is a natural tendency to believe that since we are good at marketing ourselves, no one else can do it as well. And let's face it, we often want to keep the fruits of our marketing efforts to ourselves. We work hard to generate that business, so we protect our clients and potential clients from others with whom we might otherwise have to share.

However, we would encourage you to consider a different way of doing things — stepping out of the limelight and being the mirror for a change.

We do not suggest this as some martyr effort, but rather because it is just the right thing to do. For those of you who intend to retire one day, do you expect the book of business that you have developed — that is to say, the clients that you have grown to know well, cherish as friends, and frankly, care deeply about — to disappear? Of course not. If you have done your job, then those clients should get to know and respect your younger colleagues, so the relationship will continue after you’re no longer practicing. This is called succession planning and is not only the right thing to do but smart for your business.

It is up to those of us with business, and those of us with access to potential business, to help our younger colleagues be the candle.

If you think about your mentors in the legal profession, ask yourself: Were they most often the candle or the mirror? Most are the happiest when they are the mirror, reflecting light. They don’t need to be the center of attention and love to empower those around them to succeed, so they can then watch them do it.

So, how do we become the mirror and look out for number two? Here are three tips:

1. Take your colleagues with you.

Take them everywhere you can, to meetings, seminars, and conventions. Work the room with them. Introduce them to everyone you know. Help them get involved. But rather than keeping them in your shadow, help them cast their own. Some strategic planning before meetings can result in each of you preparing an agenda, taking your own paths, meeting new people, then getting together during the day to check in. You can make sure that your colleague is doing well, and each of you can meet the other’s new acquaintances. Feeling a little overextended? That's a perfect time to ask a colleague to take on a leadership role in your organization. It will benefit both of you. This advice doesn't apply only to younger colleagues, by the way. We often forget about the cross-marketing opportunities within our firms. Use meetings and seminars to expand your firm's reach by introducing your clients and friends around the country to colleagues from different practice groups in your firm.

2. Give your colleagues face time with your clients.

This starts with the greenest associate. It is ok to start small, but everyone must start somewhere. One of the greatest mistakes that lawyers make is to believe (wrongly, by the way) that they are the only person worthy of communicating with their clients. Encourage an associate to communicate with your clients. Allow them to report to the clients on everything, from the most mundane scheduling orders to the most critical strategy analyses. Teach them what and how to communicate with them. As a result, they will get to know the clients personally and professionally, and the clients will gain trust in them. They will also learn how to deal with difficult clients and difficult situations. Then, when the time comes, they are prepared, and those client relationships will continue seamlessly.

3. Allow your associates and young partners to get all of the practical experience they can develop.

Train them, work with them, and then give them some rope. Let them take depositions, interview witnesses, and appear in court every chance they can. Give them the opportunity to argue. You will be there lest something goes wrong, but it probably won't. Again, start small. Most of us can remember the first deposition we took, the first summary judgment motion we argued, and the first trial witness we examined. We learned from those experiences, and our colleagues will, too. Even in this age when clients often will pay only for one lawyer, it is in senior lawyers' interest to take our associates to court, even if we cut our own time. If you don't give younger lawyers the experience, how will they be ready when it is "their turn"?

It is in your interest, and mine, to help our colleagues shine. Our clients, the courts before which we appear, and our legal communities need to see that our firms have a deep bench. After all, the first rule of effective succession planning is looking out for number two.

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