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Navigating the Mentor-Mentee Relationship

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Depending on the relationship and the moment, they may serve as your cheerleader, coach, reality check, therapist, and/or teacher—and who doesn’t need one or all of those from time to time?

I find four compelling reasons, among many others, that make it particularly important for you to establish mentor-mentee relationships:

  1. The legal market. Getting and keeping legal positions is a competitive business. You need direction, connections, and endorsements throughout your job search and career. Having go-to people who know your strengths and potential and who are invested in your well-being and successes gives you an advantage. This is particularly true when you consider the number of graduates each year citing “referrals” as their job source.
  2. The other stuff lawyers do. You’ll leave law school equipped to tackle nearly any set of facts a client delivers, but practicing involves a lot more than finding answers to legal matters. Client development and marketing, supervising staff, managing your calendar, traversing office politics, and handling client payments are examples among myriad other tasks and responsibilities that may befall you early in your career. Mentors can model for you and guide you through the how-tos of managing and running your practice.
  3. Lack of perspective. All of us lack perspective as we approach new experiences. This is definitely true as a law student and young lawyer. It’s easy to misinterpret an assignment or misjudge a professor’s or partner’s expectations. You need someone to talk you off the proverbial ledge the first ten times you convince yourself you committed malpractice or made a career-ending mistake. Having a trusted advisor providing context to your missteps and successes can alleviate or keep in check anxiety and stress. A mentor who is willing to be an honest assessor of your work and professional development is a gift.
  4. Success is not achieved in isolation. It’s not by chance that most acceptance and retirement speeches focus on the many individuals who contributed to the honorees’ achievements. Your career achievements will come in part because others handed you opportunities and lauded your successes. You needn’t and won’t excel alone. So recognize now that seeking guidance and support is not indicative of a weakness; it’s a sign of maturity and resourcefulness.

Now that you’re persuaded as to your need for mentors, I share a few pointers to help you establish meaningful and appropriate relationships.

Have many mentors.

Mentoring relationships shouldn’t be monogamous. You benefit from having a cadre of people who can support and guide you in different ways. A quick way to kill a mentor-mentee relationship is to misinterpret the role the mentor is willing or able to play. The attorney who buys into your competencies and wants to promote you to his colleagues isn’t the person with whom you should share your doubts about whether you want to practice. Similarly the partner who invests in giving you terrific assignments isn’t the individual who needs to witness your mini-meltdown about lacking balance between your personal and professional responsibilities.

Assessing the role of a mentor and your reliance on a mentor is important in situations where you are “assigned” a mentor internal to your organization. An assigned mentor may turn out to be a close confidant and guide, but typically the most rewarding relationships are those that grow organically out of mutual respect and natural chemistry.

Continue to add mentors.

You will outgrow mentors. This isn’t to suggest that you discard relationships and learning, but, as you advance, your needs will change. Consider how your concerns morph throughout law school. During first year, you crave guidance about class preparation and writing exams. By second year, you have a handle on classes but may need assistance in navigating fall recruitment season. In third year, you might be seeking help on how to be an effective editor of a journal. The individual who walked you through exams during your first year may have no wisdom to espouse about editorial responsibilities in year three.

This is true as you develop professionally as well. The learning and experiences that shape your first years of practice are replaced by newfound responsibilities and expectations like sitting on committees and preparing associate development plans.

Be open to finding mentors in unexpected places.

As a young lawyer, I found a mentor in a senior partner who was intimidating and generally regarded as a curmudgeon. In my first year, he fed me great projects, made certain I was staffed on cases with an abundance of work, and spoke highly of me to other partners. When I finally mustered the nerve to ask him why he was so committed to taking care of me, he noted that his daughter recently had had a baby. He knew that I was a mom with infant twins, and he had an appreciation through seeing his daughter what I was balancing at home and at work. He simply wanted to make it a little easier for me.

Mentors aren’t always the aged, wise ones.

Many lawyers and law students recognize their peers as mentors as they exchange ideas and offer one another support and encouragement. And sometimes mentors aren’t individuals with whom you have a close relationship. I learned how to chair a committee and run an effective business meeting from observing a colleague who did both masterfully. She mentored by modeling without necessarily intending to do so. It wasn’t until I wrote her a handwritten note of appreciation that she recognized her role as teacher. When I was a young lawyer, I learned from administrative staff a lot of the preferences attorneys had for documents and communication.

Don’t expect a job.

“Teach me what teaches you.” A judge spoke these words to a room of law students when discussing how they should approach mentors. Mentors teach, guide, and support. Mentors don’t owe you a job. Mentors don’t owe you a shortcut to a job. When you approach relationship building with an expectation for a job offer, you are likely to fail in both establishing the relationship and in getting an offer if there is one to be had.

Invest in the relationship.

The mentor-mentee relationship is a two-way street. You shouldn’t only surface when you need something. As a mentee, you should reciprocate the investment of time and interest. Follow and acknowledge your mentors’ achievements. Reach out with notes of gratitude. Attend and support your mentors in their professional successes and community contributions. Simple and sincere acts of appreciation foster meaningful, rewarding, and long-lasting relationships.

Accept that people want to help.

Don’t question why someone would want to help you, but rather accept that they do. The “why” was nicely summed up by three lawyers during a mentoring event: “I find that I am now in a position to be a mentor, and I am more than happy to serve in that role. I want to pay it forward and have someone else benefit the way I benefited.” “I take time to talk to young attorneys in honor of all the people who took me under their wings in the past.” “I mentor because maybe I can make it just a bit easier for the people who are behind me a step or two in this profession. Had I known the rewards of mentoring, I wouldn’t have been so hesitant to seek out mentors as a student and young attorney.”

Law isn’t practiced in isolation, and no one expects that you figure out the nuances of the profession alone. Open yourself to the generosity of others who are excited and willing to teach and applaud you. And be alert as to when and how you can be a mentor. The law remains a helping profession, and that includes helping one another.

 

Erin Binns is director for career planning at Marquette University Law School.

Vol. 41 No. 6