July 10, 2013 Mentoring Story

“Why Didn’t She Call?”: A Mentor and Mentee Share Their Story

Fernande R.V. "Nan" Duffly, Elizabeth Bailey

Through the Ms. JD Fellowship, Ms. JD annually selects women law students to be matched with accomplished women in the legal profession, and it is this program that brought us—a justice on the highest court in Massachusetts and a Harvard law student—together as mentor and mentee. When Perspectives asked us to write about our experience, a curious thing happened: we talked to each other.

It turns out that it’s not enough to put two driven women together and pronounce them mentor and mentee. Our thoughts before we spoke on the phone about this commentary illustrate the need for both women in a mentoring relationship to make the extra effort to communicate.

Why didn’t she call me?

When I communicated with Elizabeth about the column, she mentioned that she was overwhelmed by her job search. My first thought was, “why didn’t she call me?” Isn’t a mentee supposed to seek out advice and support from her mentor in difficult times?

Why is she e-mailing me?

I was surprised when Justice Duffly e-mailed about writing this piece. While she had involved me in a few events and introduced me to some wonderful women, we hadn’t been in touch much during our first year together and hadn’t spoken since I started my clerkship.

Our initial discussion was formal; we caught up on Elizabeth’s clerkship and exchanged pleasantries. But then we started talking, really talking, about what we thought had happened over the past two years. It became clear that our first impressions of each other, though positive, had formed a barrier.

She has her act together and doesn’t need any help.

During our first summer as mentor–mentee, I brought Elizabeth to several events where I watched her interact with people I introduced her to, speak at a public ABA forum, and organize law students to help at an event. She was poised, articulate, and confident, and deflected questions about her future—she already had applied for clerkships and clearly didn’t need my help.

She’s an important, busy person and probably doesn’t have time for me.

When Justice Duffly and I attended events, she was amazing to watch. When she walked into a room, everyone noticed; she would escort me to meet someone, get the conversation going, and then seamlessly slip away, which I understood because she had tons of people she needed to greet. But we never took time to chat privately about our lives, our jobs—yet isn’t that what mentors and mentees are supposed to do?

During our conversation, we learned that both of our impressions had been wrong. Elizabeth didn’t seem to need a mentor, and Justice Duffly didn’t seem to have time to be one, but the opposite was true. Justice Duffly explained why she enjoys mentoring and how mentors get real satisfaction from providing encouragement and advice. She asked Elizabeth where she had applied, and offered to call the individuals she knew well to inquire about openings and convey positive impressions about Elizabeth. Elizabeth discussed challenges she faced finding work and her reluctance to ask people in prominent positions for help.

It may not seem like it, but ours is a success story. As we shared our impressions on the phone that day, we also shared our first real mentoring moment. Nan’s first solicited advice to her mentee Liz? Ask for help. People like being asked! That weekend, Liz did something she had never done before: she picked up the phone and called a professor she hadn’t spoken to since law school. He welcomed her call and warmly gave advice and feedback on her job ideas. Lesson learned. Today, Liz has secured her first post-clerkship position, and she and Nan remain in contact, having forged the foundation for a lasting connection.