When the initial social barrier has been lifted between a mentor and mentee, the lessons that can be learned from a good mentor are the personal and meaningful lessons of practicing law. Creating mentor-mentee relationships is vital to the success of young lawyers and is critical in shaping the next generation of our profession.
The importance of a good mentor has never evaded me. Beginning in law school, I sought out strong attorney characters (most often women) who seemed to truly love the legal profession. I watched how they acted and I listened to what they said. I have been blessed to know some talented mentors, without whom the legal profession would have seemed just that much more isolated. What gave these relationships the most meaning? It is not that they proofread my work product or directed me to the right practice guide, but that they took the time to reveal to me the inner workings of what made them successful at their jobs, and encouraged my practice to develop to its potential using the lessons they had worked so hard to learn themselves.
For the young lawyers who wish to seek and maintain a meaningful mentor-mentee relationship, below are some tips I believe can contribute toward that goal. These are the types of lessons rarely taught in law school books, but are important lessons to learn from a mentor.
1. Learn how to litigate with the client in mind.
One of my first lessons as a new associate was one of economics. I spent hours drafting a detailed memo on spoliation that consumed 30 hours of my time. I dutifully applied law to facts and presented my exhaustive memo to the lead partner. After realizing how my efforts were grossly disproportionate to the significance of the legal question he had posed to me, I quickly learned the importance of litigating with the client in mind. The spoliation issue was an ancillary issue, at best, yet I had spent 10 times the hours and money required for the task. The importance of working with the client's needs and budget in mind, while now a seemingly obvious point, was not evident to me as a young associate where the goal was solely to produce the best and most exhaustive work product possible. A meaningful mentor-mentee relationship can explore these nuances in a way that no textbook or practice guide ever will.
2. Understand the business of law.
The "business of law" may seem second nature to most well-established and successful practitioners, but is much less obvious to the recent law school graduate. Ask questions and learn about this side of the practice as soon as possible. Learn how the law firm operates. How are associate compensation and bonuses calculated? What is the "partnership track" and what do different levels of partnership mean? What are the qualities that are considered to make partner? What are the firm's biggest clients? What is a "realization rate"? Mentors hold the key to unlocking the nuances of the business behind a law firm.
3. Ask about nonobvious networking/marketing opportunities whenever possible.
The importance of marketing was stressed by my mentors early on. While the traditional notions of marketing (like making a pitch) are most likely what a young associate has in mind, there are so many different approaches and styles to fit today's legal market. Pay attention to the significance of making marketing efforts that work with the personality of the attorney. We cannot be someone we are not.
I learned many things by watching my mentors pursue marketing efforts by drawing on their individualized personality strengths. I benefited greatly just by observing attorneys I knew who "owned" their own marketing style. Observe how your mentors learn the business of their clients. What newspapers do they read? What organizations (both legal and nonlegal) do they join? What pitches (formal or informal) do they make? How did they get those doors open to them? What cross-firm marketing strategies have they tried? By appreciating the significance of both mainstream and nonmainstream marketing efforts, a younger associate is better equipped to make and implement his or her own business develop plan.
4. Explore interests out of the office.
A mentor-mentee relationship becomes exponentially more meaningful when the mentor and mentee actually like each other. Pursuing interests outside of the office strengthens trust and friendship, resulting in a more positive and meaningful relationship for both people. Do not hesitate to take that step. Lessons learned while waiting at the airport gate with a mentor after a long business trip or while celebrating a child's birthday together cannot be replaced by any conference call or overly orchestrated mentoring networking lunch.
5. Get recommendations for opportunities outside your comfort zone.
The most memorable, and therefore informative, experiences of my early career were opportunities that frightened me. Looking back on mentors who encouraged me to take on my first court appearance and depositions — despite my (severe) hesitations — proved to be the most meaningful and educational part of my early training. Ask a mentor to recommend, and then volunteer for opportunities that will stretch you beyond your seemingly internal limits. It is not surprising how you will rise to the occasion.
6. Learn what it is to become invaluable.
Taking ownership of your case is one of the most emphasized points made to every young associate. However, finding out what that means is an excellent skill to learn from an experienced mentor. Most recent law school graduates come out of the gate incredibly eager and confident to be the best and hardest-working associate they can be. However, the importance of hard work is in knowing what work to do, and what work is not productive.
Ask for guidance in thinking like a partner. Ask for help in understanding how to anticipate the needs of the partner beyond the single assignment given. Once an associate learns the importance of ownership and can consider the entire game plan, not just the single step in front of him, the world of litigation changes. This lesson can only be taught through the lens of a seasoned mentor.
7. Develop a relationship of trust.
The most important quality of all my mentor-mentee relationships was trust. I knew that I could go to them with my questions and concerns and feel that my honesty would never be turned against me. Allowing a young associate to see both the positive and (sometimes) negative aspects of practicing law through the eyes of an experienced lawyer equips the associate with a realistic and honest set of skills to deal with the highs and lows of the practice. I would not trust any attorney who seemingly always had it together. Seeing, and appreciating, what hardships can be created from the practice of law can better prepare you for an honest look at your own decisions along the way.
The importance of fostering a productive and meaningful mentor-mentee relationship is just as important as getting good grades in law school. It is where the professional and personal lives meet, and there, reveals the truth about what it means to find success in this career.
This article first appeared in The Recorder, a Legal affiliate based in San Francisco.
Nicole S. Kilgore is an associate in Schiff Hardin's San Francisco office and concentrates her practice in ERISA litigation representing plan sponsors, fiduciaries and service providers in class actions as well as individual claims.