The Benefits of Having (and Being) an In-House Mentor
When Alan Triggs joined MPD Inc. as its sole in-house lawyer last December, he brought more than 20 years legal experience to the table. Triggs knew a lot about being a lawyer, but he soon found out that he had some questions about the day-to-day duties and responsibilities of being a general counsel. And with no other lawyers in the office to ask, he sought an in-house mentor.
The first-year GC started a discussion thread on the LinkedIn page of In The House, a web-based professional networking community for in-house counsel. Triggs asked for advice and mentorship and has gotten around two dozen comments from the group's members.
The response has been great, he says. The in-house vets gave Triggs some perspective about what to expect in the GC position. And Triggs was also able to connect with several in-house lawyers who, like him, have been the only lawyer in their company at one time or another. Its hard to know whether youre going the right direction or the wrong direction when youre the only attorney in the office, says Triggs.
Polyard Petroleum International Group Limited GC Meng Kuan Han applauds Triggs for having the courage to speak up and ask for assistance. The Hong Kong-based lawyer said in an email that at the general counsel level, it can be difficult to seek help because it is always assumed that the GC should know all matters.
Han said learning is a constant process for everyone. Over the years, the veteran attorney has been happy to mentor in-house lawyers, paralegals, and secretaries alike. Han cited an old Chinese saying: When at home you depend on parents, but when out in society you need to rely on friends.
Having mentors to rely on is already paying off for Triggs. Now that he has an online lifeline to other in-house lawyers, he says that he has a much better sense of security about his work. The MPD office is located in the small town of Owensboro, Kentucky, which makes it unlikely that Triggs will be able to meet with any of his mentors in person on a regular basis. But he does now have email and telephone contact information for several seasoned in-house lawyersand several open invitations to utilize them as a resource as needed. I feel like Im on the right track, says Triggs.
Uncertainty among new in-house lawyers isnt uncommon. Elizabeth Levy, counsel at Siemens Healthcare Diagnostics, says that regardless of where a lawyer comes from, transitioning to an in-house position is a big adjustment. While she says theres no substitute for experience, Levy notes that its helpful for new in-house lawyers to have someone whos been there sketch out the landscape ahead.
An 11-year in-house veteran, Levy participates in a formal mentoring program through the National Association of Women Lawyers. NAWL paired Levy with a young lawyer who, like herself, came from a somewhat nontraditional legal background.
The partnership has been a good fit for both of them, says Levy. For the first couple of years, they talked almost every week. Now that her mentee is more experienced, theyve cut back the frequency, but still talk regularly by phone and meet in person several times a year.
Levy has found that mentoring has helped her improve her own skills, particularly actively listening. Its a good practice, she says, and its one that translates directly into better service to her clients.
Care1st Health Plan GC Alan Bloom has engaged in both formal and informal mentoring during his 30-year in-house career. For the last several years, he has been part of a mentoring program established by the American Health Lawyers Association. Bloom has met for lunch with some program participants and just talked on the phone with others. Some have called just once, while some have called many times, says Bloom.
The GC tells all of his mentees that taking a job in a new company requires some anthropology skills. Its much like coming to an alien society, according to Bloom. New in-house lawyers are tasked with learning all they can about the culture of their workplace. And their success, says Bloom, will depend on their ability to adapt to their new surroundings.
Every situation is different, and Bloom acknowledges that new in-house lawyers wont all benefit from the same advice. I dont think you can mentor by giving a speech, says Bloom.
Instead, he initially sends mentees his Five Bs for Surviving as an In-house Counsel cheat sheet:
- Behave like a lawyer.
- Be a team player.
- Bring value/service.
- Beef up your skills, knowledge, and resume.
- Be aware of the Humpty Dumpty Syndrome. (There are some things you might do or say that all the kings horses and all the kings men cant repair.)
Its difficult to go to a mentor and say, Give me your advice, Bloom notes. He has found that the B List serves as a good starting point for them to generate their own questions, as it helps both lawyers focus on whats important to the mentee.
Bloom is happy to use his experience and knowledge to give back to up-and-coming lawyers. Over the years he says his own superiors have steered him in the right direction when he has had questions or made mistakes.
And being a mentor has also paid off for Bloom. The long-time lawyer says he takes something away from all of his lunches and phone calls with mentees. Frankly, every time we meet, I also learn something new.