As you probably know, having a mentor is very likely to help you survive the transition to becoming a lawyer and being successful in your firm. What you might not understand is that you, as an associate, are responsible for making the effort to develop this important relationship.

The importance of mentors to associate development is acknowledged by most firms and has been noted in recent reports by the American Bar Association and several local bar associations. So why is mentoring not happening at every firm? Basically, there is a fundamental confusion about what mentoring is and how to promote the process. Maybe if we carefully define what it is (and is not), we can make some progress.

Most highly successful leaders in business or government or professional practice can point to someone who played a crucial role in their early career. Harry Levinson, one of the country’s leading experts on the psychological aspects of management has declared, “No one makes it to the top without a mentor.” Now, ask the individual who had such a relationship how that connection was made. One thing that you will probably not hear is that their mentor was assigned by someone else and that the relationship grew from there.

Mentoring should not be regarded by associates or firms as a training function. While training can certainly be a part of the mentor relationship, it is not the primary connection between the mentor and prot�g�. Someone who is a very good mentor may provide very little in terms of technical training. Likewise, one-on-one training by a “counseling partner” or a senior associate should not be confused with the concept of mentoring.

Another thing that mentors are not is a buddy or adviser. While buddies and advisers are quite helpful to new associates, they cannot substitute for a mentor.

Having a partner who takes a special interest in your development makes it much easier to navigate the culture of the firm. For many, being an associate is the first “real job.” It can be very difficult to make that transition from student to professional.

In law school, you may have had a professor who guided your choices and helped you to make thoughtful decisions, someone who helped you to feel competent and smart. This special relationship does not often develop with an assigned academic adviser, who might have been a big help in understanding requirements or to drop and add courses; rather, it develops with a professor who liked what you had to say and encouraged you to follow your intellectual interests.


We begin at an early age to develop an internal image of the kind of person we wish to become, called the “ego ideal” in psychological theory. As we develop, we accumulate influences from our interactions with the adult world. A young person observes others and thinks, “I would like to be like her (or not).” A particular teacher may have a direct influence on one’s direction or career choice. A famous figure, past or present, can also be an important influence, even if admired only from a distance. Much has been made, for instance, of the passing handshake in the White House Rose Garden between a young Bill Clinton and then-President John F. Kennedy. These collected direct and indirect influences help us to shape our ego ideal.

A mentor should, to some extent, fit this image of ourselves at our future best — and, in the best of circumstances, might guide us on that path. This is one reason that assigned mentors frequently do not work. If the junior person feels no attachment to the mentor, the relationship is much less likely to evolve into a real mentor/prot�g� relationship. In addition, since a successful relationship must be reciprocal, it can fail because the mentor does not see himself or herself in the prot�g�.


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