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One common question in law student interviews for jobs in a law firm concerns the mentoring system a law firm may use. This question, while appropriate in its way, misses the point of most mentoring relationships. Although it is possible for a law firm to facilitate mentoring by recruiting mentor volunteers, providing training to potential mentors, and offering an environment where mentoring is valued, in the end, a successful mentoring relationship depends much more on the individuals involved than on law firm support. From a junior lawyer’s perspective, moreover, a real, active relationship with an appropriate mentor is much more important than simply having some mentor assigned by the firm. Indeed, having no mentor is often better than an inappropriate or unavailable one. From a junior lawyer’s perspective, here are some of the most important elements in finding and developing mentor relationships. MENTORS CANNOT BE FORCED Just as no one can pick a life mate for you, so too it is not really possible for someone else to find a mentor for you. Nor can you personally talk someone into serving as a mentor for you, even if you have made a reasoned choice of someone who “should” be a great mentor. Mentors must be found and developed; they cannot really be coerced into helping you. In searching for a mentor, you must begin by considering factors that may indicate that a potential mentor will enthusiastically embrace the task: � History matters. Generally, the most effective mentors are those who have prior experience as mentors. Experienced mentors know the value of mentoring, and have perspective on the ups and downs of such relationships. � Availability matters. Most effective mentoring relationships require frequent contacts between mentor and prot�g�. Where the mentor is physically distant (on the road frequently) or inundated with work and other responsibilities, such frequent contacts may be impossible. Despite good intentions, a mentor in these situations may not be able to serve effectively. � Value to the mentor matters. A mentoring relationship must be a two-way relationship. If the mentor gets little value from the relationship, the mentor may come to see it as a burden. You must make sure that you have something useful to offer the mentor. Ideally, you should look for mentors who will see your success as in their best interests. A senior lawyer in your practice area, for example, may be much more interested in developing your skills and experiences — the better to use those talents on his or her projects — than would a lawyer in another practice area. In firms where a mentor-prot�g� matching program is in effect, some initial match with a mentor may be provided for you. If you are lucky, the firm will find you an experienced, enthusiastic mentor, with interests that are congruent with your own. The firm may even set up a lunch with your mentor, or a mentor-prot�g� reception, to give you the chance to become acquainted. But that’s it. Most firms will not set a schedule for meetings with your mentor, and most will do little to check to see that the mentoring relationship is working out. You must take the initiative to make sure the relationship progresses. Indeed, in a “sink or swim” law firm environment with no mentoring program, you must take the initiative both to find a mentor and to develop the mentoring relationship. Several points are key to this initiative: � Be interested. The first portion of any mentoring relationship should be heavily oriented toward getting to know your mentor well. Ask questions, and express an interest in your mentor’s career path. You can learn a great deal from listening to senior lawyers tell you how they came to achieve their positions. Your expressions of interest, moreover, will reinforce for your mentor the fact that you do not view this relationship as purely one-way. � Offer to help. Whenever possible, but especially at the beginning of a mentoring relationship, your principal goal should be to find ways that you can help your mentor that will also be of help to you. This is more than simply offering to work on your mentor’s matters. While it is possible to develop a mentoring relationship on these lines, it is often difficult to distinguish between work that is helpful to your mentor and work that is helpful to both your mentor and to you. Be specific about the types of work experiences you desire, in order to avoid being buried in mere “grunt” work. It is often better to offer to assist your mentor with extra-curricular projects, such as articles, seminars, client development activities, and charitable work. Offering to work on such projects will clearly mark you as someone who is willing to “go the extra mile” to help your mentor. You may have more ability, moreover, to control your own destiny in accepting or rejecting such extra-curricular projects. KEEP UP COMMUNICATION Busy senior lawyers have many priorities to satisfy. Despite good intentions, keeping up good relations with a prot�g� will rarely be a high priority. That does not mean that you should expect your mentor to ignore you, but there is clearly a danger of “out of sight, out of mind.” You must take responsibility for keeping up frequent communications with your mentor. Frequency, in most instances, is more important than length of individual communications. Dropping by your mentor’s office on a regular basis, catching up briefly with your mentor in the lunch room (or even in the hall), or making a periodic date for a check-in-meeting — any and all of these may be ways for you to keep in communication with your mentor. The point is to give your mentor lots of opportunities to talk with you. Some of these opportunities may lead to longer conversations than others. Over time, with persistence, however, you will get plenty of “quality time” with your mentor. GET WHAT YOU WANT No mentor can give you exactly what you need, at all times. Your needs may vary over time, and you may have several, separate needs that can only be satisfied by more than one mentor. Yet, because development and maintenance of mentoring relationships takes time and effort, you will have to make compromises to get what you truly need. Consider: � Your first mentor can be anyone. Unless you have very specific interests and needs, your first mentor can be practically anyone. You need someone, at the outset of your career, who can be a sounding board, answering your questions about the practice of law, your law firm, and potential career choices. Such a person need not necessarily be involved in your preferred practice area, and need not be someone with whom you expect to have a long-term relationship. The person, moreover, need not be particularly senior. � Be prepared to change mentors. You are not required to stick with your initial mentor choice throughout your legal career. Indeed, permanent mentor relationships are quite rare. It is much more likely that you will change, or perhaps add, mentors over time. As you discover that one mentor is not meeting your needs, or that your needs are changing, you can and should change mentors. FOCUS ON PRIMARY NEEDS Because no mentor can be everything to you, you must make choices in mentors based on the primary needs you hope to have a mentor fulfill. Early in your career your primary needs may be rather general, such as answers to basic questions, encouragement, and some introduction to the practice of law. Soon, however, you may be looking for more of a role model, someone who practices in your preferred area of law who can show you how to become successful in that area, and who can give you specific guidance in the course of your practice. Eventually, as you begin to approach partnership, you may need an even more senior mentor, with many contacts in the firm, who can give you advice on playing the end-game toward partnership. These, of course, are just some of the needs you may choose to fulfill, over time, through your personal system of mentors. � Say what you want. Although experienced mentors may be able to intuit many of the things you need as a junior lawyer, it is not fair to assume that your mentor is a mind-reader. If you have a specific need or desire, you should share it with your mentor. Some of these conversations may be awkward, at least at first. Asking for specific kinds of work or training, for example, may seem out of character, given the normal superior/subordinate power imbalance between senior and junior lawyers. Yet if you have built a strong relationship with a mentor, you should have no hesitation about making such requests. Although your mentor may not be able to deliver on every request, a competent, appropriate mentor should at least be able to help you form a plan to get what you want. If your mentor cannot or will not help you get what you want, it is time to get a new mentor. PASS IT ON Mentors in the profession are an all-volunteer force, helping to raise the next generation of lawyers. If you have benefited from mentoring relationships, you owe it to others to pass on your experiences. Hold on to your recollection of the best qualities of the mentors who helped you, and try to emulate those role models when junior lawyers come to you, asking you to serve as a mentor. Steven C. Bennett is a partner in the New York City office of Jones Day, and is co-director of the New Associates Group there. The views expressed are solely the author’s and should not be attributed to the firm or its clients.

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