Learning From Your Mentor
By Ida O. Abbott
New York Law Journal
September 5, 2000
LUCKY YOU! When you arrived at the firm last week, you learned that a second-year associate was assigned to be your mentor. You are excited at the prospect of having a mentor, but then you wonder: What can you learn from one who's just a second-year associate? Why isn't your mentor a partner who can promote your career? Can you really expect anything from someone who's assigned to help you?
Maybe your law firm hasn't assigned you a mentor. Does that mean you can't have one? What does the firm's lack of a mentoring program mean about the firm's commitment to you? How will it affect your future?
The rising popularity of mentoring in law firms is generating more questions than solutions. There is no doubt about the importance of mentoring relationships in lawyers' career development, but there is a lot of confusion about how mentoring happens and why it works. Whether your mentors are assigned to you or you find them yourself, understanding what mentoring is about will help you recognize and make the most of the mentoring opportunities that come your way.
The Purpose of Mentoring
The fundamental purpose of mentoring is learning. A mentor is someone who takes an interest in you and helps you learn what you need to know to become a successful lawyer. As you form your professional identity, having mentors lets you learn from people with more experience, diverse perspectives, and different personal styles. By observing and interacting with a mentor, you learn more quickly than by trial and error; you get individual attention, encouragement and feedback; you are challenged to stretch, grow and become more self-reliant; and you gain important personal contacts and access to professional resources.
The classical notion of a mentor as an old, wise and trusted advisor who takes you under his wing and expedites your career has been replaced with a paradigm better suited to the fast-paced, high-pressure environment that lawyers work in today. Mentoring now concentrates on your professional learning and development, not a mentor's sponsorship of your career. Mentors no longer carry the burden of directing the mentoring relationship, and mentees no longer depend on their mentors for career advancement. As a mentee, you share responsibility for setting mentoring priorities and goals and ensuring that the relationship stays on track. Rather than instruct you or give you answers, today's mentors facilitate your learning — and the learning is your responsibility.
In this new paradigm, you can expect to have many mentors at different times and for different purposes. Some may guide you for many years, while others will have only a brief influence. One mentor is rarely sufficient in the course of a career, as no one person can fulfill all of your development needs. Mentors may act as coaches, role models, teachers, sounding boards, social directors, confidantes, protectors, champions, and a host of other roles. Few fill all of these roles. Instead, they serve limited functions to achieve specific mentoring objectives.
Your mentors may be older than you or they may be peers or even lawyers junior to you who have particular experience, knowledge or perspectives that you can learn from. But you also have to bring something of value to the relationship. No longer a one-way relationship, mentoring is now seen as a learning partnership between mentor and mentee in which both gain a better understanding of themselves, their workplace and their profession.
The best mentoring relationships form naturally as people work together and grow to like and respect each other professionally. These natural mentoring relationships take time to develop, so many law firms have instituted mentoring programs to expedite the process — programs that assign partners or experienced associates as mentors to new associates. When you are new to a firm, an assigned mentor can jump-start your learning experience. But not all firms assign mentors to new associates; even firms that are highly committed to associate development may forego a formal mentoring program. If your firm does not assign you a mentor, it's up to you to find your own. This may sound like a daunting undertaking, but with a little intiative and planning, you can readily find the mentors you need.
If Your Mentor's Assigned
In a formal mentoring program, assigned mentors usually have defined responsibilities which are determined by the objectives of the program. Mentoring assignments are usually limited in duration and in what they hope to accomplish.
You may dislike the notion of such defined relationships, but delineating specific ground rules actually increases the likelihood of a successful relationship. When your goals and expectations are clearly understood, you and your mentor can concentrate on achieving them together. As you work together, you get to know each other.
In the process, some assigned relationships become profound and personal, while others never move beyond simply a transfer of knowledge from mentor to mentee. If you and your mentor hit it off, you may decide together to continue or expand the mentoring relationship beyond the mentoring guidelines. If the relationship remains narrowly focused and impersonal, learn what you can from this mentor and look for other mentoring relationships that may be more satisfying.
If your firm has assigned you a mentor, you truly are lucky. You have at least one contact who is responsible for helping you get started in the firm and in practice. Some firms will give you a memo or booklet that describes the firm's mentoring program and what kind of help you can expect from your assigned mentor. Carefully read the written description of the program, especially its stated purpose or objectives, and the roles and responsibilities of the mentor. If the program also expects you to take responsibility for some aspects of the mentoring relationship, be sure you know what those responsibilities are. Understanding what the program expects of you and your mentor is essential for a worthwhile mentoring experience.
If your firm does not give you any mentoring program guidelines, you need to find out exactly what your and your mentor's roles are. Start by asking your mentor. If he or she isn't sure, ask the program coordinator, professional development director, or a senior lawyer in the firm.
The most typical mentoring program for first-year associates is a peer mentoring system, where second- to fourth-year associates are assigned to help new lawyers learn about life in the firm. The mentor explains the nuts and bolts of law firm life and culture, provides advice and warnings about work assignments and partners, introduces you to others in the firm, answers everyday practice questions, and accompanies you to firm social events. This is not a mentor in the classical sense, and this associate won't have the reputation, devotion or clout that will assure your career success.
Nonetheless, a peer mentor's experience and knowledge can benefit you in significant ways. As someone who has recently traveled the path on which you are embarking, this assigned mentor can offer practical insights into issues like work assignments, self-management and law firm politics. This mentor can help you troubleshoot a problem and conduct reality checks when you are feeling professionally insecure. This mentor also represents the beginning of an internal network that is important to your work experience, development and advancement in the firm.
Some mentoring programs are more developmentally oriented and count on mentors to guide new associates' professional growth. These mentors may be expected to monitor your work, give you extensive feedback, coach you to higher performance levels, or counsel you about career advancement strategies. Because these mentors need more extensive experience and greater perspective in order to give you career advice, they tend to be partners, counsel or senior associates. The good news is that these more senior mentors can be enormously helpful to you. The bad news is that in spite of their good intentions, they may be so busy that they may have little time for you. Do not despair! Take the initiative; make it easy for these mentors to help you.
Regardless of whether your assigned mentor has a social role or a developmental one, here are some tips for getting your relationship off to a good start:
No Formal Program?
Mentoring occurs informally in all firms. If yours does not assign someone to be your mentor, you can still have valuable mentoring relationships with lawyers in the firm.
At first, you may just need to establish some contacts with people who can explain the facts of firm life to you. That involves finding someone with whom you are compatible and who is willing to share such information. Do not expect a partner to fill this role. Look for an associate who has been with the firm a year or more. If you can't identify a good prospect, ask your Professional Development Director, a savvy legal assistant, or your secretary to introduce you to someone who can help you.
Soon, however, you will want mentors who will be learning facilitators, career counselors, or advocates. You will be able to find such mentors when you need them if you start looking right away. As a general rule, stay alert for people who take an interest in you as a lawyer. There will be more of these people than you imagine. Within your firm, your supervising partners, the Marketing Director or Executive Director, lawyers you sit on committees with or play on the basketball team with, all are potential mentors. Be receptive to them when they offer to help you. Take advantage of those moments when someone wiser and more experienced is available and willing to answer your questions, offer advice, or help you move ahead in the firm.
Watch for learning opportunities. If you are aware of your learning needs and interests, you can transform simple assignments and routine encounters into powerful learning experiences. For example, if you accompany your supervising partner to a client meeting, think of some pertinent questions for the partner before and after the session. Inquire about the history of the partner's relationship with the client or why the partner selected a particular strategy or line of reasoning. If you do your homework, show that you are interested, and ask thoughtful questions, the partner will most likely be impressed and respond approvingly. This could spark the partner's interest in you as a potential mentee.
Remember, however, that mentoring relationships take time to grow; you don't acquire mentors overnight. Here are some measures to help you start your search for mentors:
Bring your insights to your mentor and ask for his or her reactions and input. If you do this reflection exercise regularly, you will optimize what you learn in your mentoring relationship and you will also develop a valuable life-long learning habit.
Mentoring relationships are more than mere luck. Whether your mentors are formally assigned or develop naturally, rich and meaningful mentoring relationships can be yours if you prepare yourself for them and stay open to mentoring possibilities. Benjamin Disraeli once said that the secret of success is to be ready for your opportunity when it comes. Get yourself ready. Here's wishing you success.
Ida O. Abbott, principal of Ida Abbott Consulting, based in Oakland, Calif., and the author of The Lawyer's Guide to Mentoring (NALP 2000), assists law firms with the development and retention of associates.