I made the unusual choice when getting called to the bar to go solo from the outset. The reasons for this were complicated, but largely included uncertainty about the type of direct support I would receive from other lawyers in a firm.
Starting your own law practice is a daunting notion. I gathered a small group of friends who I knew were also interested in going solo, and introduced them to each other. We started participating in formal mentorship programs offered by professional and affinity associations, but quickly realized it wasn’t enough.
So instead, we started sharing notes. This form of peer-mentoring is one of the most effective ways that lawyers can build supports into their careers. Slowly this group grew, changed, and developed to the point where we were able to assist calls that were even newer than us, including recent departures from large law firms.
What we quickly learned is that most junior lawyers don’t get true mentorship within their law firms, and especially not within a practice group. The economics of how work is billed simply doesn’t allow for it. The relationships outside of these direct reports were typically much more useful.
Without internal champions, few junior lawyers succeed in climbing the ladder to the upper rungs of a large law firm. Although these champions come in different forms, the greatest deficit we observed was the lack of substantive skills in practising the law or operating a practice. Junior lawyers learn how to conduct excellent memos or do exceptional research, but their hands-on skills are often much more limited than that.
Junior lawyers need direct assistance on their files, accompanying other lawyers to court, or joining them in business negotiations. As a network of sole practitioners, we had the flexibility to arrange a cross-work lattice of contractual relationships that allowed for this, typically providing greater cost-savings to the client. The result could be better described as an incubator, allowing lawyers and their practices grow in many ways, rather than just mentorship.
What is clear is that the types of mentorship programs the bar employs need to be much more focused, and accompanied with supporting materials and specific goals. For larger firms, this typically means tracking the path to partnership (and keeping your nose down and working harder isn’t good enough).
In smaller and solo firms the supports lawyers are looking for include practice management, but also assistance on substantive aspects of their practice. Lawyers and organizations interested in supporting this can do so by recognizing what the challenges and issues are that lawyers face, instead of assuming they know what lawyers may need. That means that mentoring relationships will be as much about collecting information as they are about imparting it.
These days I’m on parental leave, with new challenges and new needs for support. The Law Society’s Parental Leave Assistance Program (PLAP) has helped on the monetary end, but I still turn to my peers for the challenges with practice.
Incredible colleagues such as Tanya Walker, Mirilyn Sharp, and Michelle Allinotte have already provided tips and insights. But the difference between this and applied mentorship is when they help directly with the childcare.
I’m still waiting for help on that last dirty diaper.
About the author
Omar Ha-Redeye is a Toronto lawyer and applied legal academic with a background in civil litigation who operates out of Fleet Street Law, an incubator in Toronto for new and young law firms.