I recall being sworn in as a new attorney and being scared out of my mind. One can only imagine my relief when I found out that I would be assigned a mentor in practice. I learned the year before I was sworn in that the South Carolina Supreme Court had mandated each newly licensed attorney be assigned a mentor. This was some of the best news I received. I knew I wanted to practice law, I had successfully completed law school and passed the bar, but I had no one to show me the ropes. My mentor was my saving grace.
I finished law school the year of the mortgage crisis, and when I passed the bar, things were even worse. No one was hiring. Most firms were firing. I figured the only way I would be able to practice law was to do it on my own, so I did. Luckily, I was assigned the best mentor anyone could ever ask for. She was a solo practitioner and had been in practice for 20-plus years. Her husband was an accountant who did her books. She advised me on case management software, guided me on document preparation, and assisted me in making connections for obtaining business. She was my sounding board, and if I had a question that she could not answer, she introduced me to someone who could. Her husband also took the time to show me how to set up banking accounts and balance my accounts. My mentor was willing to share her knowledge, experience, and time with a baby lawyer, and for that I am forever grateful. I still ask her questions to this day. Because of what she did for me, I have made it my mission to pay it forward and serve as a mentor as frequently as possible.
Becoming a Mentor
Being a mentor is one of the most rewarding tasks I’ve ever come upon. What I enjoy most is guiding mentees through their personal and professional life. I have done this by getting to know my mentees’ specific needs and challenges. Although making myself available for support can be challenging at times, my commitment to working with my mentees keeps me grounded. As I have matured throughout my career, one of the most rewarding parts of being a mentor has been providing the opportunity for my mentees to gain from my leadership style and experience. My goal has always been to help them flourish in their professional careers. By stepping in at the right moment, I can correct a mentee’s unfortunate decisions and provide needed clarity. This can be uncomfortable at times, but in the end, mentees generally see the importance of the tough talks and challenges they may face as a leader. Constructive criticism usually increases the respect and loyalty the mentee develops for his or her mentor.
It is also important for mentors to help set goals for their mentees. This can involve identifying smaller tasks that lead to the larger objective and developing specific skills they may need to meet major deadlines. Goal setting for the mentee has allowed me to hold mentees accountable and keep them focused and on track. The knowledge that I’m watching motivates the mentees—they don’t want to let me down.
Learning how to motivate and inspire someone has been extremely rewarding. Quite often, I have observed my younger colleagues early in their careers experience setbacks, destructive criticism, and discouragement from the people they work with—sometimes even the people they think they can trust. Given the competitive nature of our profession, seasoned attorneys can be more concerned with getting ahead than helping the new kid on the block. On many occasions, I have had to help my mentees push past the various stages of self-doubt and see that they can come out on top. I must admit that there have been many times when it was a struggle for me because I had to keep it all together while dealing with many more challenges in my own personal and professional life. I just keep reminding myself never to let them see me sweat.
The Importance of Listening and Learning
Prior to attending law school, I recall speaking with an attorney about my ambitions, and his response was that law school would eat me up and spit me out because I am so quiet. I recall laughing to myself because, even then, I knew it was more important to listen than to speak all the time. I believe it is this mindset that has assisted me in being successful in my endeavors. I knew then and am constantly reminded that in order for me to be most effective, I have to be an excellent listener, which naturally lends itself to showing empathy. By listening, I’ve learned that everyone is different. Different people need different levels of support, advice, and motivation. Empathy allows for the correct type of understanding to evaluate what my mentees’ needs really are. Listening and showing empathy have allowed me to fully understand my mentees’ positions on issues before I offer them advice. It is always a good practice to learn the mentee’s personality and circumstances so you can build rapport. This trusted relationship will allow your mentee to feel comfortable about approaching you with any problem.
To gain that trust, you must give honest feedback, even when that feedback is perceived to be negative. Over the years, I have learned that I should not be afraid to tell my mentees the things they need to hear rather than what they want to hear. The most productive method of doing this is to speak without judgment and provide clear instructions on how they can learn from their mistakes and do better next time. I’ve found that constructive criticism is essential for their growth and professional development.
In my opinion, the best mentors never stop learning, and this is why it is important to attend conferences and workshops to keep you up-to-date on changes or new procedures in your field. When you return from any training, block out at least 30 minutes of your time during the workday to have one-on-one mentor sessions with your mentee to pass on your new knowledge. If you are in the same office, it may also be a good idea to pick up an additional copy of any training literature that the mentee could use as his or her personal copy.
Don’t Be Afraid to Become a Mentor
Over the years, it has become apparent to me that some people in leadership positions have self-doubt about becoming a mentor. They think they would not be effective in this role because of that inner voice telling them they are not worthy of passing on their knowledge, skills, and abilities. The thing most people don’t understand is that you don’t need to be at the top of your career to mentor someone. What has worked for me is to bring to the table my relevant experience that’s applicable to the mentee—rather than my entire ten-plus years of experience. It has allowed me to empathize with an issue my mentee may have struggled with, and it has helped me understand that I do not need to know all the answers as a mentor. Sometimes, the mentee just needs a sounding board and a listening ear. There are other times when the mentee just needs to be reminded that he or she is not the first one to experience this issue and will not be the last, and, more importantly, it is never the end of the world. At still other times, it is more about the questions I ask the mentee than the answer I give regarding a difficult decision he or she has to make. By simply asking questions, I am able to help my mentees self-evaluate and think about what they need to do, which can lead to a better outcome.
Helping mentees succeed and seeing the positive impact I have had on their life or career have been wonderfully fulfilling. Most rewarding of all is knowing that I have served as an inspiration for my mentees to pay it forward themselves and do the same for someone else.
Anytime I have the opportunity to serve as a mentor, I accept with open arms. I do not claim to know everything or even to have the best answers, but I do have a giving spirit and will help others as much as I can. I appreciate those who have helped me along the way, and the least I can do is pass along the gift.
Ten Tips for Being an Effective Mentor
- Be a good listener.
- Schedule a weekly, biweekly, or monthly meeting with your mentee.
- Invite your mentee to networking events.
- Share resources about continuing legal education classes.
- Share material/resources that have helped you.
- Provide constructive criticism.
- Be willing to answer questions.
- Be patient.
- Be objective.
- Remember what it felt like to be a new lawyer.