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leadership lab

Phil Donnelly

Chief talent officer at Borden Ladner Gervais, responsible for talent management BLG nationally, for the firm's partners and all legal and business services professionals.

The last decade has seen a fundamental transformation in the legal services landscape, following the global financial crisis. Law firms and lawyers have to change at a pace and scale not previously seen in the legal industry.

Being a successful lawyer today requires a broad and deep skill set to deal with the complex and ever-changing legal landscape. One needs to be a "T" lawyer, bringing both broad experience (represented by a horizontal line in a "T") and deep expertise in their field/discipline (represented by the vertical stroke).

The question, then, is how do lawyers develop this rich and varied mix of skills? Law school teaches some of them, but educators are now looking at innovative models to broaden graduates' skills.

For many years, law firms have operated an apprenticeship model of development, with young lawyers paired with those more experienced (often partners), who pass on their knowledge in much the same way as guild craftsmen did in the past.

However, firms are being challenged to provide a different approach to development, much in the same way as schools.

Mentorship remains an important element of development, but with an increasing number of millennial lawyers in the industry, this model requires a rethink.

Firstly, mentorship needs to be viewed as just one of a number of developmental interventions. Formal learning programs, sponsorship, coaching, feedback and experiential learning all play their part in developing the modern lawyer.

The concept of the T-shaped professional is gaining relevance in legal services, recognizing the need for deep legal technical expertise allied to broad business skills (e.g. business development, client relationship, legal project management or financial management). To develop a T-shaped lawyer requires a multi-pronged approach to legal education that the mentor model alone is unable to provide.

Mentorship is also changing as flaws in the old model are exposed. Choosing mentors is crucially important, as the criterion of greater experience or knowledge is, in and of itself, no guarantee of being an effective mentor. Choosing individuals who are motivated to be good mentors and who demonstrate the characteristics and traits associated with effective mentorship is key.

Similarly, training and developing both mentors and mentees to optimize the relationship is important. Finding the right pairing is key, as the chemistry between both parties is a vital ingredient of success. Finally, it's critical to ensure that mentors' contributions are recognized and rewarded by their organization.

The lifeblood of any mentoring relationship is feedback, and providing data to support teachable moments is important. Increasingly, technology is playing a part in providing regular real-time feedback and my firm, Borden Ladner Gervais (BLG), has recently introduced such a technology. "Feedback in a Snapshot," which has a 200-character limit similar to Twitter, gathers feedback about what a lawyer has done well and how they can develop.

More than 80 per cent of BLG's associates are millennials, and so providing a varied portfolio of development experiences is important. Peer-to-peer mentoring and reverse mentoring are other ways that lawyers can receive and provide guidance.

Mentorship remains a crucially important element in lawyer development and care needs to be exercised to ensure that the mentoring relationship is valuable. However, to build a T-shaped lawyer, in response to a complex and rapidly changing environment, both legal educators and law firms require a sophisticated, pluralistic approach to lawyer development.

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