Electronic Mentoring: A Means for Promoting Diversity in International Firms
This is the final article that will be written this year as a continuation of the “Mentoring Across Differences” column, which highlighted mentoring issues and discussed how lawyers of different racial, gender, and cultural backgrounds can build successful mentoring relationships.
Ida O. Abbott, Esq. is the principal of Ida Abbott Consulting (www.IdaAbbott.com), which helps clients create systems and environments where professionals flourish, excel, and advance. She specializes in mentoring and lawyers’ professional development. Additional information about mentoring and diversity can be found in MCCA’s Mentoring Across Differences: A Guide to Cross-Gender and Cross-Race Mentoring.
In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan famously predicted that we would one day live in a “global village” where geography would no longer limit the ability of people to communicate directly and immediately.1 The internet has made the concept of a global village a reality. American lawyers today represent clients and practice law throughout the world, across all time zones and great distances. To succeed in the global arena, they must be able to understand and adapt to a culturally diverse world.
One way to promote lawyers’ ability to interact effectively across cultures is through mentoring. Mentoring relationships between lawyers from different countries create multiple opportunities to learn about and appreciate cultural differences, promote global thinking, and facilitate lawyers’ readiness to work in global markets. Most law firm mentoring programs match lawyers who work in the same office. Technology makes it possible for firms to match lawyers not just in different offices, but on different continents. Through electronic mentoring—”e-mentoring,” also called distance mentoring, virtual mentoring, or telementoring—the mentor and mentee can be in different locations anywhere in the world. They communicate primarily online, using other methods of communication (for example, telephone, videoconferencing) and in-person meetings to the extent possible to enrich their relationship. With e-mentoring, firms can provide mentors for lawyers in any office, no matter how small or how far away, creating direct and personal links to the rest of the firm.
Law Firm Globalization Creates a Need for E-Mentoring
The globalization of companies, industries, and economies has made national boundaries permeable and created global markets for law firms. American firms are opening international offices or merging with firms in other countries at a rapid rate. Between 2000 and 2005, the 250 largest U.S.-based firms more than doubled their number of lawyers in Europe and increased the number in Asia by 60 percent. Today, 4,265 lawyers work for American law firms in London alone (a 166 percent increase since 2000), while 957 work in China, and 470 work in Japan. Latin America is also attracting American firms, with a 42 percent increase in lawyers from U.S.-based firms in the past five years.2
To operate effectively in a global environment, lawyers need to be sensitive to the way people in other nations and other cultures think and behave, as well as the way American lawyers and firms are perceived by their counsel and clients in those countries. Whether acting on behalf of international clients, representing the firm in other countries, or working side-by-side with colleagues in a foreign office, lawyers must be able to recognize and reconcile cultural differences. To do this, they need to appreciate how culture affects communication styles, decision-making, attitudes toward time and speed, and general business practices. Law firms can provide training in diversity and relevant management skills, but e-mentoring can supplement training with ongoing support and practical guidance for lawyers in the field.
This is especially important for lawyers working on global teams. In many firms, lawyers work on client teams with colleagues in distant offices whom they may never meet in person. This creates numerous challenges for team leaders and members. Working with people separated by time, distance, language, work customs, and social norms can lead to misunderstandings and mistakes. E-mentors who are experienced in working on international teams can share insights and advice with those new to such teams, lowering the risk of conflict and errors.
Similarly, e-mentoring can unify lawyers who work in the firm’s various offices. In inter-office mentoring relationships, e-mentors can disseminate knowledge; preserve firm culture; promote consistent standards, practices, and values; help mentees overcome feelings of isolation; and keep lawyers in outlying offices connected to the firm. They can also support the career development of expatriated lawyers who live and work in other countries for several months or years. When a lawyer relocates to another office, a mentor who has worked in that country can help ease the expatriate’s transition to life and practice in the new culture. And mentors in the United States can learn from mentees about issues of concern to firm leaders, such as the perception and impact of the firm’s management decisions in its non-U.S. offices.
E-mentoring is not a replacement for in-person mentoring, but a means of providing mentoring when traditional mentoring is impractical. While e-mentoring can have the same benefits as in-person mentoring, online relationships are harder to start and maintain. But where options are limited and people are separated by great distances, e-mentoring does extend mentoring possibilities to lawyers who might otherwise have none.
Examples of E-Mentoring Programs
E-mentoring is not common in law firms, but it has been used for many years by organizations whose employees, members, or target audience is located in different geographical areas. One law firm that uses e-mentoring successfully is Squire Sanders & Dempsey LLP. This global firm gives all of its associates in Asia and Europe two mentors, one in the overseas office and one in the United States. Associates stay in touch with their U.S.-based mentors primarily by telephone and email. These e-mentors give associates a direct window into the firm at large, expanding both their vision of the firm as an organization and their personal network within the firm. Most e-mentors are partners who have practice interests in the city or country where the associate is located. By getting to know each other personally through e-mentoring, Squire Sanders lawyers are able to work together more easily when international work opportunities arise. At the same time, e-mentors acquire an understanding of the experience, needs, and perspectives of associates in other countries, allowing them to support their international colleagues more effectively.
E-Mentoring Pros and Cons
There are advantages and disadvantages to e-mentoring. Advantages include:
- Flexibility: In e-mentoring, dialogues can be synchronous, meaning the mentor and mentee interact at the same time, or asynchronous, meaning the mentor and mentee can interact at different times. Questions, answers, and comments can be posted hours or even days apart. People whose schedules make face-to-face meetings difficult can participate when it is convenient for them.
- Quality of interaction: Time intervals between email messages allow mentees to ask more thoughtful questions and allow mentors to reflect longer before answering. This often results in higher quality discourse.
- Larger pool of mentors: E-mentoring attracts mentors who might otherwise be unavailable or unwilling. Lawyers who travel frequently or are socially awkward or shy may be amenable to serving as mentors online. Lawyers located in offices where their services as mentors are not needed can mentor lawyers in other offices where a need for mentors exists.
- Preservation of advice: Both parties have a record of their email communications, which enables them to review what was said earlier, seek clarification, correct misconceptions, or expound on a subject. Mentees can revisit their mentor’s advice in the future, and mentors can save time in subsequent mentoring relationships by referring to earlier messages.
- Greater candor. Computer-mediated conversations remove barriers that derive from differences in status. Mentees often feel more comfortable opening up about work concerns or personal difficulties to a mentor based in another office. Even when the mentor and mentee work together on global client teams, they might be more at ease talking about work issues that they would otherwise be reluctant to raise. More candid discussions can lead to better analysis and resolution of problems.
At the same time, however, e-mentoring does have some drawbacks:
- Difficulty starting and maintaining relationships. The adage “out of sight, out of mind” accurately sums up a major challenge for e-mentoring. Building the personal relationship required for high-quality mentoring is especially difficult when there is no in-person interaction. For some people, the lack of spontaneity in e-mentoring makes the process too mannered and formal to be engaging, and their relationships fail to build momentum.
- Deficient communication. Text alone can be misleading. A great deal of communication occurs visually and aurally. Reliance on written text alone means missing nuances and non-verbal cues that suggest the need to ask a follow-up question or dig beneath the surface of the conversation. Without face-to-face interaction, it is often hard to tell if a written thought or suggestion has been interpreted correctly by the reader.
- Lack of local knowledge. When the mentor and mentee are in distant offices, the mentor may be unfamiliar with the mentee’s local office culture, protocol, and politics. Lack of cultural knowledge may limit the mentor’s ability to offer appropriate advice.
- Risk of preserved communications. A written record of mentor-mentee email communications may make some people wary of e-mentoring, even when confidentiality is promised.
- Too much candor. The same sense of comfort that leads to greater candor can also lead to imprudent revelations and remarks.
E-MENTORING ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES
|Flexibility||Difficulty starting and maintaining relationships|
|Quality of interaction||Deficient communication|
|Larger pool of mentors||Lack of local knowledge|
|Preservation of advice||Risk of preserved communications|
|Greater candor||Too much candor|
E-mentoring programs can be designed to maximize advantages and overcome drawbacks. Here are some suggestions:
- E-mentoring requires considerable structure and oversight. Set clear guidelines and timetables. Ask the mentor and mentee to clarify their expectations and decide on ground rules for their communications (for example, if and when they will use instant messaging, how quickly they will respond to email, the level of confidentiality they can expect). Give participants instructions, templates, and other resources that will keep them on track. Send reminders and suggestions. Provide a web site with frequently asked questions, articles, and other helpful resources. Assess mentor-mentee interactions and measure results.
- Make e-mentoring voluntary. Mentors and mentees require a high level of motivation to persevere in a virtual relationship.
- Match people for specific reasons and have them develop detailed objectives for the relationship. Spell out the responsibilities of each party to keep the conversation and relationship going.
- Train participants in the specific skills needed to develop and maintain online mentoring relationships. Subjects should include netiquette (standards for online behavior), the degree of formality versus informality in email, and how to recognize the underlying meaning behind the words on a screen. Consider developing a web-based tutorial for this training.
- Frequency of communication is essential for positive mentoring outcomes in any environment, and it is especially so in e-mentoring. Emphasize the need for regular email contacts, and encourage in-person meetings and communication by telephone as often as possible.
- Enable participants to use the firm’s technology to support their mentoring efforts. Provide space on the firm’s intranet for a chat room or message board where participants can ask questions, share information, and access training materials.
- Provide diversity training that embraces cross-cultural inclusiveness, especially as it affects the work environment of lawyers in offices outside of the United States. Solicit the experiences of lawyers who have lived and worked in other countries to create relevant case studies for use in this training.
- Use e-mentors to complement local mentors for lawyers in non-U.S. offices, especially when those offices cannot provide the kind of mentoring assistance the lawyers need (for example, long-term career advice, subject matter expertise).
To successfully compete in global markets, law firms need lawyers who can operate confidently in other nations and cultures. E-mentoring is an innovative and effective way to develop and support those lawyers.
- M. McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, NY: McGraw Hill (1964).
- Lindsay Fortado, “U.S. Firms Making Steady, Selective Global Gains,” The National Law Journal, Jan. 23, 2006 at http://www.law.com/jsp/nlj/PubArticleNLJ.jsp?id=1137751514770.
From the November/December 2006 issue of Diversity & The Bar®