If you are a lawyer or soon-to-be lawyer, you need to find a mentor.
This should be a pretty obvious statement, but I think the value of, and focus upon, mentoring in the legal fraternity has diminished considerably in recent times. There are professional coaches and consultants, but they are generally external to the profession (and coaches/consultants are NOT mentors – they are different concepts).
Perhaps this is because of the prevalence of internet resources as a way of finding out information. Perhaps it is some idiosyncrasy of the most recent generation of lawyers, which lends them a propensity to want to “go it alone”. Or (most likely, in my view) perhaps it is a function of senior lawyers not being prepared to make themselves available for mentoring. Sure – they say that they have an “open door policy” or whatever, but the reality is normally very different from the policy. Whatever the reason, however, it’s important that young lawyers try their best to secure a mentor for each phase of their career.
At the outset I should say that this article is about professional mentoring. That is different to personal or spiritual mentoring – it’s mentoring specifically about being a lawyer, and about your career. You might have such a mentor fulfill other roles, or have different mentors in other areas – however this article is just about the lawyer side of things.
Let’s drill down a bit on why lawyers need a mentor, what you are looking for in a mentor, and how you can benefit from such a relationship.
Why Lawyers Need a Mentor
This is a fairly simple proposition, but I think we’ve lost it in the way that training occurs these days. In a number of jurisdictions that old style “articles of clerkship” has been done away with. The side effect of that is that young lawyers do not have somebody (a “master” is what they were called, if you didn’t know) to whom they can turn for their practical and professional questions. They do not have a consistent reference point in somebody senior who knows them well, that they can trust, and to whom they can turn in times of crisis.
Most young lawyers I know are extremely keen to be advancing in their careers, working on their skills, and developing their legal expertise. Those are all fine goals, but in the confines of legal practice what we have a tendency to see is that those goals exist in a formless, wishy washy state. Instead, those professional aspirations should be part of a properly considered, realistic and well rounded set of personal and professional goals. That is where a mentor can assist. They have been there, and they have done that. Hopefully they remember the zeal they had out of university and can apply it to have a greater understanding of your situation.
A mentor can also help with crisis management. Sometimes professional or ethical dilemmas can arise which you simply aren’t comfortable talking about with your immediate supervisor. Your mentor can help guide you through those situations.
Finally, a mentor who is interested in your professional development can, over time, start to introduce you to their world of contacts and clients. They can give you professional opportunities, and a chance to advance in your career.
Having a senior lawyer to guide you through your career (and it need not be the same person from start to finish, of course) is an invaluable tool. If you have somebody who is prepared to give you their valuable time and the benefit of their experience, then you need to take up that opportunity.
What are you Looking for in a Mentor
First, your mentor should ideally be more experienced than you. The benefits you are seeking come from greater experience on the part of your mentor, and without more seniority they will not have that to bring to the table. My personal view, however, is that your mentor should not be so far senior that they have no ability to understand your situation. Sometimes if you are 20 or 30 years apart, then simple personal differences can create barriers to an effective mentoring relationship. That’s not a hard and fast rule, of course, but a general concept.
Next you need somebody of integrity. If you are offered a chance at mentoring with somebody you don’t trust, then you have two options: try it out and see if that trust develops, or say no. Mentoring only works if there is honesty and willingness to share on both sides. If either side cannot trust the other, then the relationship will fail (perhaps in a spectacular and embarrassing fashion). Trust is essential.
As a side-note to trust, my view is that mentoring should be confidential. Many larger firms have mentoring programs for their younger practitioners, but not all of them are confidential (in fact some are expressly NOT confidential). Developing trust without confidentiality is very difficult – make sure you approach such things deliberately, and get the ground rules right at the start of any mentoring relationship.
You need to respect your mentor. There is no point in having a mentor if their opinions don’t in any way matter to you. That’s a waste of their time and yours.
Finally you need somebody with some wisdom. Wisdom is an under-rated quality these days, but is an important characteristic in any mentor. What is wisdom? It’s the ability to make good decisions. Wisdom in mentoring arises in many ways, but hopefully you can find someone who will give you honest, but sound, advice should you need it. The mentoring relationship is not about telling you what to do necessarily, but if that comes up then you want to know you have a considered opinion on the other side.
The Professional Benefits of Mentoring
Mentoring can offer a lot of benefits to you in your career, but in quick summary the primary benefits are:
- Career guidance. As they get to know you your mentor will be able to identify your aptitude and preferences, and ideally offer you some ideas on directions your career could take that you haven’t necessarily thought of.
- Confidence. Mentoring can give you the confidence boost you need to take a step that you might have been putting off for some time.
- Contacts. Mentors are sometimes prepared to put you in touch with their own contacts, which can only help expand your network and your influence.
- Knowledge. Mentors will know more than you about the legal profession. Over time they will start to fill in the blanks far faster than if you were simply doing it yourself.
- Opportunity. Mentors can give you a chance to expand your horizons. Perhaps a speaking opportunity, a meeting, a new client or whatever. When the time is right your mentor can help you in these areas to give you a chance to excel.
Are you on the lookout for a mentor, or are you content to use social media for your career development? If the internet is your mentor, then that’s a bad decision. If your friends are your only sounding board for ideas, then that’s a bad decision too.
Taking the step towards getting a mentor can be confronting, but in the longer term you will not regret it. Start asking around now. Find people you trust and can talk to, and get working on your hunt for a mentor today.
If you’ve got a mentor that’s great! Make sure you’re getting the most out of the relationship.
Got any questions about mentoring? Let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best.