The mentoring topic is inspired by the Women, Influence & Power in Law (WIPL) conference held in Washington D.C. by InsideCounsel earlier this month. A recurring theme emerged from the leadership track sessions. Essentially, no one succeeds alone, and you should seek out mentors and personal advisors throughout your career.

While a general counsel might serve as an internal sponsor to help a protégé gain executive level acceptance — and we will address sponsorship in a future column — mentoring relationships come in many varieties, usually outside the boss/employee structure. Recognizing that healthy mentoring relationships serve companies well, what role can a general counsel play to foster this behavior?

In the spirit of WIPL, I posed that question to three female general counsel with whom I have networked at various in-house counsel functions this year. These are individuals who value relationship building and enjoy discussing best practices. Susan Lichtenstein is general counsel of Hill-Rom; she kindly participated on a roundtable for InsideCounsel on building great teams while general counsel of Baxter International. Kathryn Mlsna is chief legal officer with Girl Scouts of Chicago and Northwest Indiana after holding senior level legal positions with McDonalds. And I’m just getting to know the dynamic Michelle Trumpower, general counsel of Ingersoll Rand Industrial Technologies, who I met at WIPL.

Susan, Kathryn and Michelle all pointed out that mentoring relationships should not be structured or forced by a general counsel. “Successful mentorships evolve organically,” was said by both Susan and Michelle. Michelle adds, “It is our responsibility to create opportunities for that to happen and to provide a support system for those to be successful.”

How? Susan states, “I try to create ample opportunity for informal social interaction so that these kinds of relationships have room to develop. I also encourage more junior people to ask for guidance; I tell them that no one has ever been anything but flattered by such a request.”

Kathryn emphasizes that the mentee must take ownership of the mentoring relationship, but states that “the chief legal officer can impact the individual and the organization in important ways.” When the mentor and mentee both happen to be lawyers within the same law department, Kathryn says it’s imperative for the parties to define the relationship. “Is the attorney looking for a mentor – someone to serve as a sounding board and offer objective advice – or is she seeking a sponsor – someone who will invite her to the right meetings, introduce her to key organizational stakeholders, and recommend her for recognition?”

Although organic mentoring relationships yield the kind of confidentiality and trust that our contributors recognize as most helpful, those relationships can emerge as a by-product of formal leadership or best practices programs. Ingersoll-Rand, for example, is rolling out an enterprise-wide “5 Centers of Excellence” initiative that will, in part, provide staff attorneys with new global connections within the company. “I truly believe we will see some informal mentorships develop during this process,” Michelle predicts.

This may be stretching the word mentor a bit, but I cannot conclude before mentioning a terrific structured reverse mentoring program at Girl Scouts. Each board member is paired with a scout, so that the younger “mentor” can keep her board member current on changes in the world of being a girl scout today. While light years away from LawWorld, it’s a cool way to make the point that mentoring relationships always enrich the lives of both parties.

Everyone recognizes the positive value of mentoring, so the simple advice for law department leaders is to please encourage the behavior. Create an environment of trust that is conducive to mentoring internally. And sending your attorneys to networking events, like WIPL, is a great way to help them start mentoring relationships externally.