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During your first few weeks as a first-year associate, you probably will be assigned a mentor — usually a partner or senior associate from whom you may seek advice regarding law firm policies and procedures. Although your mentor can be extremely helpful to you in many ways, it is important to understand the purposes and limitations of this relationship. Failure to maintain appropriate professional boundaries can result in serious damage to your career. Mentors selected by your law firm are almost always lawyers considered to be good role models: They possess skills, work habits, and personality traits that your firm values. Consequently, participating in your firm’s formal mentoring program can provide you with a reliable sense of your firm’s culture and preferred ways of getting things done. In particular, your assigned mentor can help you to get on the right track with respect to skills development, time management, and client relationships. In your first meeting with your mentor, he or she will probably ask you to talk about yourself. Do not respond to that question as if you were answering a personals ad. Rather, talk about why you are enthusiastic about becoming a lawyer, and what attracted you to the firm. If you were a summer associate there, describe some of the highlights of that experience. Ask some broad questions that will help you to establish rapport, and give you an overall sense of your mentor’s orientation towards law practice and life in general. Some good “ice-breaker” questions include the following: • What qualities are most important for success as an associate in this firm? • How has the firm changed since you started working here? What changes do you expect to see in the next five years? • What have you found most rewarding about your career as a lawyer? • What was the most important piece of advice that you were given when you were a first-year associate? • What types of questions are appropriate for me to discuss with you? During this meeting, it is also important to establish some goals for the mentoring relationship and to ask any questions you may have about the firm’s training, evaluation, and work assignment systems. Bear in mind that your mentor is not a substitute for your mother, your psychotherapist, your law school career services counselor, or your best friend. Indeed, soul-baring disclosures to a well-regarded senior lawyer at your firm — even if he or she is your mentor — can have the opposite of the desired effect. Never forget that your mentor’s first allegiance is to the firm; his or her role is limited to helping you become a successful and productive associate. Consequently, you should discuss personal issues with your mentor only to the extent that they have a direct bearing on your work. BRANCH OUT, WITH CARE Once you have a sense of your firm’s “rules of the road,” you may wish to augment the insight you have gained from the formal mentoring program by establishing informal mentoring relationships with other lawyers at your firm. Although assigned mentors may perform all of their designated “mentoring tasks” — taking you out to lunch, explaining firm procedures, making sure you have had training in specific skills — they may not be the best persons from whom to learn the unwritten rules that dictate who moves ahead and who gets left behind. However, it is important to choose your informal adviser carefully. Do not assume, for example, that any lawyer who is substantially more senior to you will always give you good advice. Every firm has a certain number of malcontents (usually lawyers who lack political power or are actively seeking to move elsewhere) who attempt to recruit naive junior associates for their own losing causes. Being linked professionally with someone who has a negative attitude toward the firm is never helpful to a junior associate’s career. If your assigned mentor is a more senior lawyer in your own practice group, it may be safer to seek counsel from a lawyer you know and respect in another practice group with regard to issues that may present a conflict between your mentor’s interests and your own. For example, you may feel that you are being pigeonholed into doing a narrow type of work that you do not believe will be career enhancing for you in the long run. A mentor who also does that type of work may have a vested interest in having you focus on that practice area. Someone from a different practice area may give you helpful advice on how to broaden your experience without alienating the lawyers for whom you are currently working. It is always best to seek such advice from someone who already knows and likes you. Consider speaking with a senior associate or partner who was instrumental in recruiting you to the firm, or someone for whom you did considerable work while you were a summer associate. Ask if you can speak confidentially before you explain your problem. LOOKING OUTSIDE Always seek mentoring outside of your firm with respect to any goals or issues you may have that are in clear conflict with your firm’s “vision” for you. For example, unless the firm wants you to leave, it is both unrealistic and dangerous to expect someone at the firm to help you position yourself to move to another job. Law firms are not social service agencies; they won’t invest time and energy in the professional development of lawyers who obviously aren’t interested in staying at the firm long enough to become reliable moneymakers for them. For advice with respect to long-term career development issues, seek guidance from lawyers outside your firm who know the legal profession in general, and your firm in particular. A senior associate or partner who knows you but has left the firm can be an ideal — and safe — mentor. You may also find mentors outside your firm by becoming involved in bar associations or pro bono work. A career coach who has significant experience working with lawyers can provide you with an unbiased longitudinal perspective on your career, and legal search firms can help you to gauge the broader market for your skills and experience. As you begin your first year in law practice, think in terms of creating for yourself a personal “board of directors” to whom you can turn for advice on the career issues you will encounter. Most successful lawyers with whom I have worked report that they have not relied exclusively on one mentor to guide them in their careers. Those who develop a broad range of supportive relationships both within and outside of their firms encounter fewer roadblocks than do those who become overly dependent on one adviser. Carol M. Kanarek, a former large firm lawyer and a licensed psychotherapist in New York, provides career management services to lawyers and legal employers in New York and New Jersey. This article first appeared in the New York Law Journal, an American Lawyer Media newspaper.

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