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Four Steps to Becoming a Remote Mentor

May 18, 2020

Mentoring relationships have existed for as long as law firms have had attorneys with different legal experience levels. While formal mentoring programs are a relatively new development in the legal industry, informal mentoring dates back to the first time a law firm associate asked a senior attorney for guidance on their legal practice. But while mentoring has long been a mainstay in the practice of law, technology is quickly changing how those relationships work.

More virtual law firms are being created. More attorneys at traditional law firms are working from home. And attorneys at multi-office law firms are collaborating with each other despite working hundreds (or thousands) of miles apart.

But with face-to-face contact no longer a given, how can you develop an effective remote mentoring relationship with a colleague you rarely, if ever, see in-person?

Follow these four steps, for starters.

1) Set the Ground Rules

At the beginning of a remote mentoring relationship, get on the same page with your mentee about what you each expect to get out of it. Is your mentee looking for advice on developing technical skills? On marketing and business development? Work/life balance? All of the above?

Once the mentee makes clear what they’re hoping to get out of the relationship, you must be sure that you can provide guidance on those topics (and that you are comfortable doing so).

On the flipside, you may have insights to share with your mentee that are outside their preferred areas. Is your mentee open to learning about these topics?

You will also have to ensure that you and your mentee agree on how the relationship will operate. Will it be your responsibility to check on the mentee? Will your mentee be expected to initiate conversations about topics? How will you hold your mentee accountable for their development during the relationship? How will they hold you accountable for being present and attentive to their needs?

2) Establish a Communications Cadence

If you are mentoring a colleague remotely, you can’t count on the impromptu face-to-face meetings that would have likely occurred while working in the same office. Because of this, a communications schedule is vital.

Aim for a communications cadence that supports your mentee’s development but does not feel forced. Quarterly, and even monthly, conversations are probably too far apart to develop rapport and tackle problems your mentee needs help with. Conversely, weekly conversations could feel forced and may be so frequent that there is not a lot of substance to cover each time.

Whatever cadence you choose, make it clear to your mentee that, when they’re faced with a difficult situation that requires a quick decision, you will be available—regardless of when your last conversation took place.

3) Use Technology to Overcome Distance

Given the lack of opportunities for you and your mentee to meet face-to-face, you should both be using technology that allows you to see and hear each other.

Video conferencing is a no-brainer for your regular meetings. For informal communications outside of those meetings, consider sending video or voice messages instead of texts. Hearing each other’s voices will help you and your mentee build a connection that text messages and emails alone cannot.

4) Invest Time Upfront to Build the Relationship

Without office drop-ins, coffee runs or conversations over lunch to strengthen the bond, your remote mentoring relationship will require an upfront investment of time and energy to get on track.

In the early going of your relationship, you and your mentee should speak often so that you can establish a personal connection. Building this early rapport will give your relationship momentum to overcome the hurdles caused by a lack of face-to-face communication.

For the first month or two, consider speaking more often than the cadence you initially established. You may also want to discuss your personal lives, even if you both agreed that your guidance would be limited to what occurs inside the office. This will give you two a feel for who each other is and will help establish a bond.

Mentoring is Mentoring, No Matter the Distance

Advances in technology and recent global events have led more attorneys and law firms to work remotely. As the legal industry becomes more comfortable in this environment, remote operation will become increasingly common. And with it, attorneys may find themselves less often in same office, city or state as their colleagues.

And while working remotely might seem like a problem for attorneys seeking a mentor/mentee relationship, mentoring from a distance is not all that different from mentoring in-person. Follow these four steps to ensure your mentoring will be just as valuable for a remote colleague as it would be if you two worked in adjacent offices.