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After five years at the firm, I now qualify as a “senior” associate, which basically means I have more grey hair on my temples and no longer remember any of the bar exam subjects. But it also means that I’m expected to help mentor the new and junior associates even as I continue to seek my own guidance from more senior lawyers on a regular basis. I’ve learned pretty quickly that in addition to time and patience, mentoring also requires a fair degree of introspection. When one has been successful it’s easy to believe that the best course for others is to follow closely in your footsteps. But on occasion great results are not necessarily the result of best practices. More importantly, fresh approaches and ideas can lead to even better outcomes in the future. For these reasons, mentoring should not be too heavy-handed. I’m reminded of the scene in the 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner when Sidney Poitier’s character, Dr. John Prentice, is arguing with his father who has objected to Prentice’s plans to marry a woman of another race. Prentice, frustrated that the prejudices and proclivities of the elders are preventing a new generation from finding their own way in the world exclaims,
You don’t even know what I am, Dad. You don’t know who I am, how I feel, what I think. And if I tried to explain it the rest of your life, you would never understand. You are 30 years older than I am. You and your whole lousy generation believe the way it was for you is the way it’s got to be! And not until your whole generation has lain down and died will the dead weight be off our backs! You understand? You’ve got to get off my back!

The goal of a mentor is to be the voice of experience and provide examples, but not to transform your advisee into an automaton or a dependent. For example, when editing a draft brief or instructing on how to take and defend depositions or conduct oral arguments, ask yourself whether you are teaching how to do it better, or instead just how to do it differently, that is, your way. Obviously, you should correct any mistakes, but also communicate just why it is you would take a different approach. Unfortunately, more often than not you will find yourself mentoring someone in a situation where you have tight deadlines and ultimate responsibility for their work. You will find it difficult in those situations to allow anyone else to be overly creative or deviate from your directions. At the very least, after the dust settles, have a post-mortem to explain why you chose the path that you did and the pitfalls you perceived in the young associate’s alternate approaches. That way, instead of a rigid rule that does not adapt to changing circumstances, you will be providing a toolset for decision making in the future. Always remember that your guidance dictates the future of our profession because it may change forever the way someone will practice law. Your attempts at fixing behavior that might not need correcting could lead to unexpected results. Here’s an anecdote to illustrate my point. I was strictly right handed back when I was young. Then, on my fifth birthday, my dad bought me a left hander’s baseball glove. It was awkward to use, but my dad refused to buy me a new glove no matter how much I cried and complained. After a few weeks, however, my brain adjusted and, at least when I was playing baseball, I forgot that I was ever not a southpaw. I’m sure my dad hoped to make me ambidextrous, but instead something very odd happened — I eventually lost all ability to throw a baseball with my right hand. Now, I have a strange and uncontrollable quirk that causes me to switch between being left- and right-brained without warning. For instance, half the time that I step up to the plate I bat as a right hander even though I always throw with my left. And, although I always hold a pencil in my right hand, some days I’m extremely artistic and can make high quality sketches of exactly what I see, while other days I can barely draw a stick figure. If I’m playing football, on one series of downs I may throw with my right, on the next with my left. Sometimes I can perform complex mathematical operations in my head but I have trouble stringing a creative sentence together to write even a short column for my favorite law journal. The very next day, I can churn out a 25 page brief in a few hours, but I need a calculator to figure out the filing date. I don’t know if my dad’s intervention made me better or worse off in the long run, but it certainly changed me in an irreversible and unexpected way. Everything I have done, and ever will do, since I was five years old has been altered by a single purchase my Dad made 27 years ago. Your effect as a mentor could last just as long; may your guidance be as timeless as it is timely. Ellisen Turner is an associate at the Los Angeles office of Irell & Manella LLP where his practice includes intellectual property litigation and patent prosecution. You may reach him at [email protected].

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