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Mentoring: The secret to career advancement in any field

By Shauna C. Bryce and Jared Redick


Everyone—no matter how junior or senior—can benefit from a mentor, no matter how junior or senior.

Leaders in every industry report that mentors were instrumental in their success. Bill Gates’ mentor is Warren Buffett, whose own mentor was Ben Graham, author of the landmark book, “The Intelligent Investor.” U.S. Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg is well known for mentoring—a commitment that stems in part from the lack of available mentors, particularly female mentors, during much of her legal career. Indeed, she relied on her spouse for much of her support during her groundbreaking career.

As you can see from those two examples, mentoring can take more than one form. In both cases, however, the goal of the mentee is the same: to find a battle-tested mentor to help push and pull you up the ladder of success.

A good mentor gives you support and helps open doors. A great mentor helps you achieve heights you may never have imagined were possible.

This article is an adaption of one of six topics from “Eye on the C-Suite: A Crash Course for Your Future.” We were asked to give the presentation in June 2015 to the Harvard Club of Washington, DC, which serves more than 20,000 Harvard alumni from all divisions, including Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School.

How do you find a mentor?

Ideally, the mentoring relationship starts off organically. You meet your Warren Buffett or your Justice Ginsburg at work or at an event and hit it off immediately. Your relationship naturally grows over time as you get to know each other.

Not everyone is so lucky.

If a mentoring relationship doesn’t develop on its own, then you may have to actively seek one out. Your employer may have a formal mentoring program or simply a culture of mentoring. Many institutions include mentoring as part of supervisory-level job descriptions or evaluations—in other words, mentoring may literally be part of your boss’s job. You can also use platforms like LinkedIn to research potential mentors.

For the purposes of this article, we will focus on senior lawyers as mentors. However, be open to the possibility of finding mentors outside the legal sector. Equity partners aren’t the only people you’ll encounter who have valuable lessons to teach. It’s to your advantage to have a variety of mentors so that you gain exposure to many ideas and perspectives. Consider, for example, approaching mentors both within and outside of your:

  • Organization
  • Practice area/industry
  • Geographical area
  • Personal profile (e.g., gender, sexual preference, ethnicity, socio-economic class, age group, religion)

Keep in mind that mentors come in many forms. Some of your most important mentors in life may be family or community members.

Why should someone mentor you?

Before you can identify and approach potential mentors, spend time honestly reflecting on what type of mentor may be best for you.

What are your:

  • Overall life goals?
  • Career goals?
  • Strengths and weaknesses?
  • Leadership and learning styles?

While your goals can be aspirational, your self-assessment should be realistic and focused on what’s achievable. You can’t start an honest and open relationship with a potential mentor if you’re operating within an illusion.

The second part of your self-assessment is thinking about whether you’re ready for mentoring. When seeking a mentor, you’re likely asking a successful professional to take time out of her business schedule to invest it in you. You’re also asking her to, in a sense, risk her hard-earned reputation on you. Are you worth the resources and the risk?

Take the time to consider whether someone will want to nurture your career and help you succeed:

  • How can you help your mentor? What do you bring to the table? One way to help a lawyer or other professional more senior than you is to research or co-author articles, books, and presentations. This is a win-win if you’re looking to build subject matter expertise on a particular legal issue.
  • Are you ready, willing, and able to have an honest relationship that challenges you and holds you accountable? Few things are more irritating to successful people than wasting time. If you can’t handle constructive criticism and challenges to your thinking or behavior, or if you don’t follow through on opportunities or suggestions, then don’t inquire about mentoring.
  • Are you determined to be the best at what you do and to give back to others? Again, taking you under their wing is a risk for your would-be mentor. Even professionals who are committed to developing others’ talent have only so much time, which they reserve for lawyers who are likewise committed to excellence and to paying it forward.

To build a powerful mentor-mentee relationship, you need to be smart, ambitious, humble, and generous.

What do you want a mentor to do?

Every mentoring relationship is different. Relationships change over time, and every mentor has her own strengths and weaknesses. When you think about whom to approach as a mentor, you’ll also need to think about:

  • What type of assistance do you need? Are you looking for someone to help you build technical skills so you have the experience and expertise to take your career to the next level? Interpersonal, management, and leadership skills? Navigating workplace politics and corporate culture? Connections to a broad network of high-level people who might otherwise be out of your reach? Business building or business management?
  • What will the terms of the relationship be? Are you looking for monthly lunches? Quarterly check-ins? Or an ad hoc relationship that lets you talk through issues as they arise?

You may realize a need for several mentors as you complete these exercises.

How do you approach a potential mentor?

Once you’ve self-assessed, you can start looking for mentors and preparing your pitch. The challenge is getting on their radar. There’s no magical answer to that problem, although going up to someone and asking, “Will you be my mentor?” is not a strategy that is likely to work!

Shadow your potential mentor through the news—including social media and networking platforms like LinkedIn—to learn more about her background, work, and projects. Support her work where you can; even regularly sharing someone’s content on Twitter can help get you noticed.

Introduce yourself in a friendly, professional way that doesn’t mention mentoring, but instead proposes another reason to connect. Explain who you are and what about her work interests you. Ask for some of her time—just 15 to 20 minutes—to discuss a particular question. For example, “I’m an insurance defense lawyer and I just moved to San Francisco from Washington, DC. I saw you speak on coverage claims at the bar association’s panel last week, and have been looking to meet more Bay Area lawyers doing insurance defense. If you have time next week, I’d love to say hello and chat for 15 minutes to find out more about your work.”

Once the time comes to meet, be respectful of your potential mentor’s time. If she agreed to 15 minutes, then stick to that. If she agreed to lunch or coffee, then pay.

If it’s a good fit, you’ll know quickly and the stage will be set for the mentoring relationship to grow organically. If it’s not a good fit or she turns you down for an initial meeting, don’t be discouraged. Ask for a recommendation of someone—or perhaps a professional association—where you can continue the discussion.

Don’t forget to be appreciative of her time, and to stay in touch. Remember that just because she’s not a good fit for you today doesn’t mean she can’t be a great mentor on another topic or even five or ten years from now. Then continue your search. There’s a mentor out there for you.

How do you keep the relationship going?

Once you’ve started a mentoring relationship, nurture it.

  • Respect your mentor’s limits, whether stated or unstated. Pushing her boundaries will likely result in her walking away.
  • Show dedication and progress. Don’t waste her time if you’re not going to follow through on her advice. Don’t ask for her commitment if you aren’t committed yourself.
  • Be grateful and reciprocate. Gratitude is shown in many forms—including becoming an excellent attorney and thought leader, supporting your mentor’s work, and helping others to develop their talent.

Peer Mentoring

It’s wonderful when you can get help moving up the ladder from someone who has already done it, but finding that type of mentor can take time. While you’re looking for your Justice Ginsburg, there are other ways to get help. One of our favorites is peer mentoring.

Peer mentoring can take several forms ranging from formal mastermind or accountability groups to informal, one-on-one buddy relationships. Surround yourself with lawyers and others who share your commitment and values, then build your own team for success. Peer relationships can be just as professionally and personally powerful as other types of mentoring relationships.

Caveats in Mentoring

One of the biggest caveats in looking for a mentor or peer mentors is this: do not seek out people who are potential competitors to you. Mentoring relationships must be open and built on trust. That can’t happen if there’s an inherent conflict of interest. Unfortunately, it’s not unheard of for a mentee to confide in a mentor, only to have the mentor use that information to make a profit.

A mentor’s role is to help you succeed, so likewise you’ll want to avoid people who are trying to mold you to fit their goals, rather than helping you to achieve your goals.

Also, recognize that not every mentoring relationship needs to last a lifetime. Serial, short-term relationships can be just as valuable, especially if they’re focused on achieving a specific goal.

At the end of the day, what’s critical is building a support system of reliable, honest, people who are nearly as devoted to your success as you are.

Finally, be receptive when others approach you about serving as a mentor. Everyone benefits from the virtuous circle.


    This article is a modification of an article from Volume 100, Issue 4 of Women Lawyers Journal®, a publication of the National Association of Women Lawyers. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.

    Shauna C. Bryce

    Shauna C. Bryce is a graduate of Harvard Law School with 20 years in law and legal careers. She is a career strategist for lawyers at all levels—from law students to executive-level attorneys in Global 100 law firms and Fortune 500 businesses in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. As a lawyer, she worked in the Manhattan flagship office of a Global 100 law firm and served on the hiring committee of an Am Law 200 law firm. Her advice column, Ask the Hiring Attorney®, is published by Bloomberg Law. She’s the author of several books and the Bryce Legal® Career Advice for Lawyers blog.

    Jared Redick

    Jared Redick works with stealth job seekers in the Fortune 50 and beyond—using the résumé-writing process as a tool for personal discovery and professional positioning. As an executive recruiter in New York and San Francisco for two nationally retained executive search firms, he conducted searches for Fortune 15 companies, top ten law firms, and leading nonprofits. He is the creator of Jared Redick’s Job Description Analysis tool, presently used by a leading university.