The Art of Mentorship

person growing after being wateredAttorneys often speak of mentorship as an essential building block to a career in the legal profession.

Indeed, one of the first pieces of advice bestowed upon young attorneys is to find a mentor, cultivate that relationship, and soak up all advice like a sponge. Mentorship roundtables, “speed networking” events, and student-attorney mixers are stylish events celebrating these connections, encouraging both sides to learn, grow, and expand one’s worldview. And yes, mentorship should be important to legal practitioners across the board, from students fresh from their first briefs to attorneys with long, successful, and active careers.

But why does one need a mentor or a mentee and how does one find a perfect match? Do I click my heels together three times, whisper “Please help me,” and one will magically appear like a fairy lawmother? What if my mentor or mentee doesn’t suit me or even like me? Let’s discuss.

I can speak first to the importance of mentorship, beginning with a point of clarification on the subject as a whole. The term “mentor” is much broader than its conventional definition would suggest. Of course, tradition dictates that this relationship exists between law students and lawyers or a young attorney and a more seasonal attorney. However, I believe mentorship exists between one party with knowledge to be imparted and a second party with a willingness to receive such expertise, regardless of age or practice sector.

According to the July/August ACC Docket Magazine article entitled, “A Mid-level Attorney’s Guide to Building Social Capital in the Workplace,” mentors can be found inside and outside the workplace. For the young attorney, finding a mentor in the legal department is essential to growth; this person will teach, advise, and likely boost your confidence as you move through the hierarchy of your firm or company.

This person could be your immediate supervisor, a more seasoned attorney in your practice area, or even your general counsel or a titled partner. My advice is to find one who suits your personality, can offer valuable insight into your firm or company, and, of course, can bestow upon you a wealth of legal knowledge.

If you, sweet summer mentee, are nervous to ask for that first coffee or make that first contact, consider that your target mentor may not have achieved their success without their mentor. Maybe they have had the same mentor since the day they began their practice. Maybe they love mentoring and take pride in helping others succeed. At the very least, I have yet to come across an attorney who doesn’t like to talk about themselves or their practice.

Keep a positive attitude and just go ask. The worst they can say is “not right now,” leaving them with an impression of you as a go-getter or an employee that is interested in investing in their growth, both personally and professionally.

Mentorship in the workplace can also be found between an attorney and non-legal business executives or an attorney and law partners in a different practice area. Through these relationships, the attorney can understand unique decision-making strategies, priorities, and unfamiliar aspects of the business, perhaps leading to a holistic shift in perspective or a revision of one’s own decision making processes. Compare this to the relationship between the law student and the attorney; both relationships involve sharing practical advice on the practice of law and an (often-needed) opportunity to reconsider a different perspective.

Executives and law partners may find value in the relationship with lower-level colleagues. Perspective is a two-way street and a fresh take on an old issue may be just what is needed to achieve success. Younger attorneys also have a fresh vest for the profession; a healthy dose of this can refresh even the most seasoned practitioner in an unexpected way. And finally, today’s young people certainly have the pulse of the goings-on in their communities; they are often an essential resource on everything from new and hip locales to local charities with important and relevant missions to the state of the world’s social issues. Listen with care, as their voices are the future of our profession.

Mentorship outside one’s organization is equally as important. First, these relationships are often less formal, less pressured, and with fewer professional “strings.” Mentors and mentees can enjoy a more relaxed professionalism by building “a personal board of directors,” to use a phrase from the “Social Capital” Docket Article.

Besides the expansion of worldview, an external mentor or mentee is able to provide wholly fresh opinions on topics that may not apply to their daily life whatsoever. This provides an opportunity to hear from an unbiased third-party, leading to a re-examination of the fundamentals of an issue. For both mentors and mentees, this is an opportunity to learn new subject-matter and to perhaps be the only one with this knowledge in one’s role or within one’s own company.

By expanding skill sets, both new and experienced attorneys can provide added value to their employers and clients. And for the curious, always-be-learning types, this is also an opportunity to speak with a professional peer that can teach us something new . . . and won’t drown the conversation in Latin phraseology.

As I have described, mentorship seems to be all-encompassing; the conversation with my barista in the morning could be considered fact-sharing as to the beauty of the coffee bean and best practices for its consumption.

So what isn’t mentorship? In my experience, the most important answer is that mentorship is not cultivating a relationship with the expectation of employment, financial contributions, or an unfair “leg-up” in your business.

While any of these may be a benevolent result, the mentor-mentee relationship may be cheapened (or outright invalidated) by holding these expectations while building the relationship. When a mentor takes time from their client(s) to foster a relationship with a mentee, they want to help the mentee achieve their own personal and professional goals. For the mentee (or the mentor!) to have any other motives for the relationship not only disrespects the other’s time and efforts, but also discounts such helpful efforts as “not good enough.” Unless discussed in advance, coffee with the expectation of a job is actually an interview; lunch with the expectation of a charitable donation is a solicitation; and happy hour with the intention of a promotion is, at best, “sucking up” or at worst, a violation of company employment policy. Beware the false mentorship.

Outside of clicking one’s heels together, there are many ways to find a mentor or mentee. Good, old-fashioned referrals can be exceedingly helpful, especially considering the referrer knows both parties and can speak to their compatibility. For students, alumni or faculty recommendations can result in meaningful connections. For attorneys, a quick email to your alma mater’s alumni relations department could be fruitful. For in-house counsel, the easiest option may be to simply ask your high-level executives (or lower-level colleagues) for coffee or open an email conversation, for them to reply at their earliest convenience.

Online networking is also currently en vogue; LinkedIn’s suggested connections is both easy and practical. Further, regardless of area of expertise, every community has local organizations that specialize in bringing like-minded professionals together, whether professionally, culturally, or socially. With a little creativity and effort, the perfect mentor or mentee can be found right in your own network.

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