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Attorney Development: Building the Best of the Best

Posted By USFN, Monday, October 21, 2019
Updated: Tuesday, October 15, 2019



by Jeremy B. Wilkins, Esq.

Brock & Scott, PLLC
USFN Member (AL, CT, FL, GA, MA, ME, MD, MI, NC, NH, OH, RI, SC, TN, VA, VT)

Capable and thoughtful attorneys are the cornerstone of any law firm or corporate legal department, and this is particularly true in today’s heavily regulated mortgage default servicing industry.  To maximize attorney competency, it is incumbent upon leadership to guarantee both a platform and the opportunity for an attorney to grow and develop during their tenure with the organization.  Therefore, a concrete plan must be set forth within each firm or corporate legal department to attain this goal.

The starting point for attorney development are the laden principles outlined with the American Bar Association’s Rules of Professional Conduct (“RPC”), specifically the conduct  governing the responsibilities of managing and supervisory attorneys (“managing” attorney).[1]  Pursuant to Rule 5.1,managing attorneys are responsible for ensuring that the conduct of those they supervise conforms to the Rules of Professional Conduct.  This duty of oversight is a considerable obligation because requirements under the rules are often broadly defined, far reaching in scope, and juxtaposed against obligations of other individuals., For instance, all attorneys are bound to professionalism individually, but in some circumstances, liability is imputed to a managing attorney for ethical shortcomings of a subordinate attorney[2].  Therefore, a managing attorney has every motivation to facilitate development of subordinate attorneys.  With these two ethical provisions working synergistically, attorney development becomes an essential aim for any organization.

Attorney Mentoring (Phase 1) – Striking the Right Baseline
With the oversight framework of Rule 5.1 set forth as guidance, the managing attorney must make reasonable assurances that all lawyers within the organization are abiding by the RPC. The best measure for meeting the reasonable assurances standard is a total investment in the development of the attorney. 

The first step of attorney development is a robust mentoring program commencing on their first day with the law firm.  Each attorney should be assigned a mentor that will immediately start assisting the newly hired mentee attorney with navigating through the basics, thereby cultivating an atmosphere of progressive growth through measured and strategic exposure to legal matters (including courtroom appearances), client development, and comprehension of an organization’s operations. 

When it comes to exposure to legal matters, there should be a broad-based approach to different aspects of the industry to generate maximum exposure for the attorney enhancing the attorney’s learning curve.  Diversity of legal work is paramount to long-term development.  As such, a mentoring program requires a framework that ensures valuable experiences for the mentee.  For instance, a mentor should ensure the mentee has necessary resources available to achieve early success within appointed legal work.  Essentially, this means that a mentor should help early accomplishments while developing confidence through performance.  This program must be documented to track the progress of the attorney and allow for a layering of increased legal exposure based upon the mentee attorney’s success at each stage.  This also includes the documenting of coachable moments for the mentee attorney.  This is the most effective way to learn to experience a degree of learnable remediation early on for the mentee attorney. 

Balancing training, oversight, and on-the-job performance are cornerstones of a successful mentoring program, without this equilibrium the program will be fruitless long term.  In many ways, the mentoring program is predicated upon having a successful mentor in place as this, in turn, will bolster the success of the mentee attorney’s development.  Moreover, a strong mentor will create an example for the mentee attorney, consequently establishing the foundation for a healthy cycle of the mentee attorney subsequently becoming a mentor down the road.  If the mentor does not do his or her part of the mentee attorney development, it will create a roadblock in the cycle of development, which may negatively impact organizational culture. 

The mentoring program should also emphasize the importance of client development and overall relationship development.  In the mortgage default servicing industry, long-term relationship building is a key component of an organization’s long-term success.  Law firms and corporate legal departments should embrace the view that a fundamental part of a mentee attorney’s development is learning how to cultivate relationships within the industry.  This comes with calculated exposure to industry conferences and events, as well as placing the mentee attorney in situations whereby they are interacting with clients and vendors concerning legal matters at an early stage of their development.  If the mentor fails to strike a balance with the relationship aspect of the mentee attorney’s development and maintains a protection of the old guard in the industry, any desires to build a generational organization will be impeded.  It is vital for a mentee attorney to get exposure on a calculated basis with industry clients and colleagues at a level commensurate with their demonstrated developmental proficiency.

Lastly, with respect to the mentoring platform, mentee attorneys should receive training and development in operational matters.  The mortgage default servicing industry is a unique blend of legal and operational functions.  While it is likely preferable that attorneys focus on legal issues with non-attorney staff handling operational matters, it is also important in the industry that every attorney possess a basic acumen of the operational principles, duties, and functions within the organization.  By gaining this operational understanding and appreciation, the mentee attorney will increase their overall effectiveness as an attorney and a leader within the organization.  Furthermore, it creates an environment of cohesion within the organization as the mentee attorney will effectively and naturally start adhering to oversight principles as dictated by the Rules of Professional Conduct with respect to responsibility over non-attorneys.[3]  Producing a well-rounded attorney with a wide range of experiences early on via a strong mentoring program will bolster the organization’s attorney developmental profile in the mortgage default servicing industry.

Attorney Mentoring (Phase 2) - Continual Learning, Continued Growth, and Continued Advancement
Mentoring does not stop at the intersections of work performance and involvement in organization operations.  An attorney should never stop learning and their development is predicated upon that premise.  In addition to state mandated continual education requirements, learning must continue in practice as well.  Learning and education come in varying degrees of importance and may have varying degrees of results.  However, a mentor that encourages regular education and learning opportunities ensures the mentee attorney develops alongside changes within the mortgage default industry.  In addition to state specific organizations geared to promote educational opportunities for attorneys, there are innovative member-based institutions, such as USFN, within the industry offering a litany of educational opportunities through conferences, publications, and webinars among other services.  Recognition, awareness and exploitation of opportunities for continual learning will place a natural emphasis on successful attorney development.

As the mentee attorney matures through the mentoring platform, the growth curve should be accelerated.  The best way to heighten expectations is through additional challenges and duties.  The mentee attorney should look to engage in the training of staff and the training of industrywide partners.  This will increase the mentee attorney’s visibility inside and outside the organization.  In turn, the mentee attorney’s confidence will grow, thereby enhancing the quality and image of the organization. 

Further growth paths should include exposure to industry conferences and events as means to reward the mentee attorney, by investing in their growth acceleration.  There is no substitute for imputing confidence and faith in an attorney as means to recognize their efforts.  Moreover, such exposure can also enhance organizational strength by creating the ability to be adaptable to the everchanging industry perspectives. 

Lastly, the mentee attorney should understand that with their development comes the potential for advancement within the organization.  Mentee attorneys must see the ability to move up within the organization if their actions and performance dictate such merit.  A clear and concise attorney advancement path that comports culturally and organizationally, will further bolster attorney development as it goes hand in hand with an attorney mentoring platform. 

In conclusion, to be the best, develop the best.  In the mortgage default servicing industry, law firms and corporate legal departments should strive to have the best attorneys serving their organization.

 

[1] ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct (Rules of Professional Conduct) Rule 5.1., or applicable state specific rule, for example North Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 5.1 – Responsibilities of Principals, Managers and Supervisory Attorneys.  

[2] See Rule 5.1(c) of the Rules of Professional Conduct

[3]  ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct (Rules of Professional Conduct) Rule 5.3 – Responsibilities of Principals, Managers and Supervisory Attorneys.  

 

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