The importance of mentors is often impressed upon us as young professionals. A strong mentor-mentee relationship can be a critical component of career development and advancement. As lawyers, we are encouraged to seek out mentors when we are fresh-out-of-law-school attorneys or junior associates. We are instructed to look to more senior professionals, both within our organization and outside.
At some point, we gain seniority and experience and find ourselves being those professionals that law students and junior associates look to for advice. Before we know it, we have become someone else’s mentor. Thankfully, because we’ve seen a diverse range of mentoring styles, we also can identify a handful of tips for being a terrific mentor.
Although it may seem like forever ago that you were studying for the LSAT, stressing through your second year of law school, or struggling to keep your head above water as a first-year associate, it wasn’t. And while the source of stress has changed, we can all remember the growing pains of becoming an attorney.
A mentee is, most likely, looking for insight on how you pursued your career path, but also how to develop his or her own path. Try to make connections your mentee can relate to now that will help him or her succeed in the future. Share insight and advice not just about your current practice, but also your early mistakes. Remember the first time you received a memorandum covered in angry red pen marks? We know you tried to forget it, but it’s hard to do. Nonetheless, you learned from this seeming “failure,” and you can share stories with your mentee on both the good and bad ways to respond to similar situations. Be honest about your struggles and what you did to overcome those adversities. One of the worst things you can do is downplay all of your hardships and give the impression that you’re invulnerable because that may deeply discourage your mentee.
As you become more senior, you will undoubtedly see your responsibilities grow at work and it may be difficult to turn off your work brain, even during social settings. Time becomes your most invaluable resource. But when you finally schedule that coffee or lunch with a mentee, put your phone away! Not face down on the table so you can still feel it buzzing with each notification. Away and out of sight. Your vibrating phone is distracting for both you and your mentee, and signals to your mentee that you are not fully present in the conversation.
Giving your mentee your undivided attention will not go unnoticed, and sets an example of professionalism. Realistically, it may be necessary to quickly scan emails at least once to ensure nothing urgent unfolded while you were away from your desk. Of course, we are not advising you to ignore time-sensitive matters, and if you have a genuine work emergency that requires you to constantly monitor your emails, then politely reschedule another time with your mentee.
Be a Bridge
We all know that being the new kid on the block is intimidating, where everyone at the office seems to know each other. As you get to know your mentee, ask what kinds of work opportunities your mentee is interested in and their future aspirations. You may coincidentally know that your mentee’s interests closely align with the needs of another senior attorney at your firm who needs help with a particular project. By facilitating this connection, you can help both the senior attorney and your mentee. Such meaningful introductions to senior attorneys are especially helpful if your mentee is a junior associate (or summer associate) at your firm.
If you notice your mentee standing alone at a happy hour or event, offer to introduce them to other attorneys to help your mentee build their professional networks. Similarly, you can help your mentee develop external contacts by inviting him or her to a conference, industry event, bar association happy hour or other networking events.
That first year law student who asked to get coffee with you, just may become the future president of the United States. OK, so the odds of that happening are low, but you never know who is asking to meet with you. Be open to the possibility that the benefits of a mentorship relationship can be a two-way street. In fact, you can learn just as much or more from your mentee, who may have unique insights and experiences. Your mentee could move in-house and refer business your way someday down the road. Conversely, your mentee could become a well-regarded specialist in a legal niche, and you may rely on your mentee to teach you about a particular subject! At all times, treat your mentee with the mutual respect and courtesies that you’d want to see from your mentors and senior partners.
By serving as a mentor, you are growing your circle of influence and developing important interpersonal skills. Being an effective mentor takes time, so don’t be short-sighted and expect immediate returns on your mentoring efforts. You may be surprised at how enriched your life may become by investing time in your mentee and connecting people in your workplace and community.
The YL Editorial Board members: Leigh Ann Benson, Geneva Brown, Rachel Dichter, Rigel Farr, Scott Finger, Sarah Goodman, Thomas Gushue, Kevin Harden, Jae Kim, Kandis Kovalsky, Ginene Lewis, Lindsey Mills, Bethany Nikitenko, Juliann Schwegler Kelley, Rob Stanko, chairman; Jeffrey Stanton, Shohin Vance and Meredith Wooters