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The Lawyer’s Guide to Finding a Mentor

By Jeremy Bloom and Carol Kanarek
Mentoring pair

Mentoring pair

CAROL KANAREK is a lawyer and clinical social worker. She has provided career management services to lawyers and legal employers, and law schools for over twenty five years. She can be reached at [email protected] or (212) 371-0967. More information about Carol’s background and services can be found at

JEREMY BLOOM is the Assistant Dean for Career Planning at the University of Michigan Law School. He has legal experience in a variety of practice settings, and can be reached at [email protected].

Both Carol and Jeremy are graduates of the University of Michigan Law School.

Mentoring as a means of enhancing lawyers job satisfaction and performance is an exceedingly important topic. The reality is that finding the right mentor(s) is easier said than done–and the wrong mentor can be worse than no mentor at all. Here’s some advice.

First, give serious thought to what it is that you are seeking to learn from a mentor. At various stages in your tenure at a particular firm or company, and during the course of your legal career as a whole, you may need someone who can serve as a teacher, role model, coach, troubleshooter, guide, protector, confidante, sponsor, publicist, and/or career counselor. A potential mentor may be perfect for one purpose, but not for another. For example, a lawyer who supervises your work may be an ideal mentor with respect to general legal skills, work habits, time management and client relationships. However, he or she probably is not the right person to give you unbiased long-term career advice. Many successful lawyers have created for themselves the equivalent of a “board of directors”–each with his or her own area of expertise–to whom they turn for advice with respect to various issues of professional development.

How Do You Find Mentors?

Take advantage of your firm’s or company’s formal mentoring program, if there is one. Because mentors selected for a formal program generally possess skills, work habits and personality traits that the company values, participation in such a program can provide you with a good sense of your employer’s “culture” and preferred ways of getting things accomplished. Lawyers who are selected by your firm or company are generally people who are regarded as excellent role models. By participating in a formal program you will also avoid the potential problems that can arise from following the advice of a more senior person who, unbeknownst to you, is “persona non grata” within the company. It is naïve to think that anyone who is substantially more senior to me to you will automatically be a good mentor. In particular, avoid becoming associated with malcontents who are trying to recruit others for their own losing causes.

It is also important to augment the insight you gain from a formal mentoring program by establishing informal mentoring relationships with other people inside and outside your firm or company. Although your assigned mentor may perform all of his or her designated “duties”–taking you out to lunch, telling you company procedures, making sure that you understand the skills that you will be expected to develop–he or she may or may not be the best person from whom to learn the unwritten rules that dictate who moves ahead and who gets left behind. Also, until you really know the lay of the land in your company, it is always best to use hypothetical questions with respect to politically sensitive issues, and to elicit information, rather than doing a lot of the talking yourself. For example, ask your mentor to tell you what it takes to be successful in your practice group, instead of providing your own candid assessment of the skills of your supervising attorney (who just may be your mentor’s best friend). Similarly, it is far more useful to ask a general question about another lawyer’s experience with balancing parenthood and his/her job responsibilities than it is to open the conversation with a statement regarding your own plans for starting a family.

Informal mentoring relationships cannot be created at the whim of a would-be mentee; they develop organically over time. The key is to build relationships with many different people whose skills and experience you admire—and the best way to do that is to do some good work for and/or with them. Think about with whom you connect or might connect with personally, and in what ways you are looking to grow professionally.

Setting up brief meetings with a range of people at your new job will give you an important overview of the practice setting and will make a favorable impression on your co-workers. Yet few people take the initiative to do this. Doing great work is necessary, but not sufficient. To really get ahead, it’s essential to build connections that will make the decision makers aware of your talents so that they will want you to succeed. It’s important to be well-liked.

What Are Appropriate Times To Ask Mentors For Feedback?

In many firms or companies, your formal mentor (particularly if he or she is a partner or high level corporate counsel) will be apprised of your perceived strengths and weaknesses on a regular basis. If you make it clear at the beginning of your relationship that you welcome continual feedback, a formal mentor is much more likely to make you aware of potentially problematic issues so that you can correct them before your formal reviews.

However, do not expect your mentor to give you unbiased advice if his or her interests are in conflict with your own. This is a particular danger if your mentor is also one of your supervisors, since he or she has an inherent interest in having you excel in particular kinds of work that may or may not be career-enhancing for you in the long run. Seek mentoring outside of your firm or company with respect to any goals or issues you may have that are in conflict with your current employer’s “vision” for you. Because there are a limited number of senior positions in the vast majority of law firms and legal departments, most lawyers eventually must change jobs in order to move up. Unless your firm or company wants you to leave, it is both unrealistic and dangerous to expect an in-house mentor to help to you to position yourself to make a lateral move outside the organization. Indeed, soul-baring disclosures to an in-house mentor can have the opposite of the desired effect, since most legal employers don’t want invest time and energy in the professional development of lawyers who are going to leave anyway. Indeed, law firm partners have a fiduciary duty to their firms that trumps that of their relationship with you.

A more safe and reliable mentor with respect to broader career issues may be someone who has left your firm or company. A more senior lawyer who has recently retired or moved to another place of employment can be an ideal mentor, provided that he or she was “in the loop” with respect to issues of your firm or company’s politics and power. If you have successfully mentored more junior lawyers who have recently changed jobs, they, too, can provide you with valuable insights. You also may find mentors outside your workplace by becoming involved in bar associations or other professional associations that are associated with lawyers in your particular area of expertise. A career counselor who has significant experience working with lawyers can provide you with an unbiased longitudinal perspective on your career.

How Do You Deal With Basic Cultural Differences Within A Work Setting?

This is a very personal question. Succeeding in a new job requires some level of adaption to the organizational culture, but you also need to be your authentic self. Your organization’s culture influences—and may even dictate—how you should dress, what your work hours should be, level of formality in communications, and many other issues. At the same time, efforts to “fit in” must have their limits. You are setting yourself up for failure if you pretend to be someone you are not. If you are going to have long term success and satisfaction in your career, it is important to ascertain the culture of your employer and decide if and how you want to bend to it. What feels like bending and what feels like breaking are different feelings for each of us. Finding that balance can be a particular challenge if most of your colleagues have similar culture identities that differ from your own—particularly if you have obvious characteristics that tend to be stereotyped Most employers see the value of maintaining a diverse and inclusive work place, and many have systems in places to mitigate stereotypical assumptions. Even so, this is a challenging and sensitive topic. Co-workers might ask (usually inadvertently) inappropriate questions or worse. Always assuming good intentions is an excellent start. Find ways to get past the cultural differences and to help your colleagues to think of you as someone who is not one-dimensional. Once again, building relationships is key. Finding multiple points of commonality, however minor, can build comfort and trust. Learning that you and the person for whom you are working both have yellow dogs, have needed glasses since middle school, run marathons, love the new “Star Wars” movie, and enjoy sushi will help you feel connected to one another. The more points of commonality you share, the more the differences will fade away.

If you are in the job market, look for signs that a potential employer really is serious about mentoring, rather than merely giving it lip service. Objective barometers of a firm or company’s genuine level of commitment to the professional development of its lawyers include the following: “360 degree reviews” as an integral part of the evaluation process; sincere efforts on the part of the employer to accommodate the desire of a lawyer to broaden his or her area of professional expertise; and a demonstrated commitment to lawyer training and development. Whenever possible, you should speak to lawyers in your area of expertise who have recently moved on from the firm or legal department before you accept the offer, in order to gain insight into the prospective employer’s attitudes towards mentoring and professional development.

Finally, never forget that mentoring is a reciprocal process. A really valuable mentoring relationship will develop only if you make your mentor feel that he or she has something to gain (and nothing to lose) by taking an active interest in your career development. This “quid pro quo” can take many forms, ranging from giving a positive review of your mentor to his or her supervisor, to keeping a mentor who is senior to you apprised of the particular strengths of more junior lawyers who may be reporting to you. There are innumerable ways to be helpful to those outside of your firm or company who may serve as mentors to you. Lawyers are always eager for insights into best policies and practices of other legal employers, as well as your perspective on the job market. If you regularly and consistently acknowledge the assistance of those who help you progress in your career, you will gain a reputation as a good team player. And as you become more senior, you will discover that the best way to find a mentor is to be one.