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Law Practice Magazine

The Management Issue

Practical Tips to Maximize Mentoring Relationships

Thomas Barnard


  • People in the field of law are often reluctant to acknowledge the need for mentoring.
Practical Tips to Maximize Mentoring Relationships
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Any individual success in life, whether personal or professional, is seldom a product of one’s own individualized growth with no help from others. Few people develop in a bubble without influence—whether positive or negative—from others. Nonetheless, in many professions, including law, succeeding independently is viewed as a sign of real success or strength, and people are often reluctant to acknowledge the need for mentoring.

In reality, an individual’s fully developed and realized version, both professionally and personally, is not preordained or necessarily static and can greatly benefit from an effective mentor. “Mentor” is a term often used generically to describe a number of different developmental influences in a person’s life; but the first step to successfully finding or being a mentor is understanding what it is and what it is not.

How To Make An Impact As A Mentor: Knowing The Difference Between Mentors, Role Models, Leaders and Teachers

A mentor is different than a role model. A role model tends to be someone you look up to and try to emulate. This may be a person you know or a person from history. A role model is not necessarily someone with whom you have a close personal relationship, but they may have certain aspects to their character or life that you admire. You could see them as a role model for just a specific quality—for example, an athlete you model your style of play after, but not your personal life. Sometimes a role model may serve as an inspiration based on ideals, someone like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr.

A mentor is also different from a leader. Leaders are ultimately responsible for the success of an organization, not just the development of an individual. Their obligation to individuals extends only to the end that it is consistent with the good of the organization. Leaders often must make tough decisions that are bad for individuals. Leaders can be good mentors but are more likely to be responsible for ensuring the members in their organization have mentors, rather than being a mentor themselves.

A mentor is also different than a teacher or trainer. A teacher or trainer’s primary job is to impart specific skills and knowledge to someone. This requires a different type of relationship than a mentor-mentee. Often, it requires grading and critique in a way that may hurt the mentor-mentee relationship’s need for trust and openness. While teachers or trainers often become mentors, my experience has often been that they became mentors in my life only after the teacher/trainer role ended.

Connecting With The Best Mentor For You: Advice To Accelerate Your Success

Despite these differences, finding or becoming a mentor is not as challenging as it may seem. The following are a few helpful principles in identifying a mentor or becoming a good mentor:

Do not feel confined to your assigned mentor or mentee in an organization.

Modern organizations have realized the value to employees of strong mentor-mentee relationships to share knowledge, multiply experience and communicate organizational values. But while leaders may do their best to pair younger employees with those more senior, it is difficult to instill a program from the top down. It is perfectly acceptable to maintain those relationships and let them carry their natural course, while also developing other relationships that occur and develop over time.

Do not feel confined to the same race or gender for a mentor or mentee.

In fact, use this as a reason for being open, knowing that sometimes the best mentors are different than you. Similar life experiences may help develop a strong mentor-mentee relationship, but it is dangerous to presume that someone has a similar life experience just because they are the same race or gender. On the contrary, some of my most successful mentor-mentee relationships have been quite the opposite. This article does not address organizational dynamics, but it is easy to imagine the consequences to an organization where women only mentor women, men only mentor men and races segregate for developmental relationships. There is nothing wrong with finding a mentor or mentee of the same race or gender, but a professional should not feel like that is necessarily the only, or even best, mentoring relationship option for them.

Look for good leadership traits.

Good mentors usually demonstrate recognized good leadership qualities. These are three leadership traits that often go hand in hand with being a good mentor.

  • Leading by example. A leader’s conduct matches what they preach and teach. They do not ask junior professionals to do anything they would not do.

    I remember being involved in some very challenging training at a basic training company. The training was led by a wiry, gritty sergeant who seemed to come from the casting of Full Metal Jacket. He was not a physically imposing figure; he smoked several packs of cigarettes a day and drank coffee by the gallon. Nonetheless, we did a difficult run in full chemical protective gear and masks in extreme heat in Kentucky with a bunch of 18- to 20-year-olds. I was there to learn from him and his experiences, and he and I were running in front of this group. I thought both of us were near death. I forget what I said to him, but his comment back to me was something like, “I don’t care, I’ll never let one of these kids see me fall behind them, or ask them to do what I won’t do, no matter what.” (Colorful language removed.)
  • Eating last. One of my most lasting memories from my military experience as an officer was making sure every enlisted soldier went through the chow line before any officer. I realized this was less a concern about the food supply than it was about expressing a value. “Leaders eat last” is a useful metaphor to use when looking at the people you work with and deciding who would make a good mentor.

    In a law firm setting, great opportunities to go to fun and interesting events, like professional sports games or networking meals, come along frequently. Look at your leaders when participating in these opportunities—how often are associates included in these events? Listen carefully to discussions about compensation, bonuses and promotions. Notice where the focus of the conversations rests. Leaders will make sure their support personnel, associates and staff are fairly compensated before determining their own profits.
  • Respecting superior management. Another saying from the military is that “Complaints go up, not down.” But this should be true in any organization. A more senior employee should not complain about the organization’s leaders to a junior employee. Leaders never complain about their leaders to their subordinates. This fractures trust in the organization because it is merely sharing grievances with no real chance of remediation. In a law firm, if a partner has an issue with another partner, that partner should not complain to an associate. Rather, they should address it with the other partner and reach a resolution. Doing the contrary is unproductive.

    Additionally, in a law firm setting, an individual who complains frequently about firm policies, leadership or compensation is probably considering leaving the firm. Regardless, even if that is not the individual’s circumstance, persistent complaining creates the perception that they may leave. It creates a lack of security, trust and certainty that distracts from positive job performance.

    Watch for warning signs. Several indicators can tell you whether a person does not possess strong mentoring abilities. While no mentor is perfect all the time, if you notice your mentor exhibiting any of these qualities repeatedly, it might be time to seek out a different mentor.

A mentor should do more listening than talking.

Good mentors listen first, empathize second and coach third. They appreciate that they can learn from the mentee’s experience and provide feedback based on their own experiences. If you go to a mentor to discuss an issue and share your story and they interrupt to tell you their own problems, this illustrates that they are not interested in listening to your concerns.

They don’t take credit for your accomplishments.

After a team wins a championship, a good coach does not say it was their excellent coaching that won the day. They typically give all the credit to the team. Good mentors realize that while they may have guided you toward success, you are the one who ultimately did the work to achieve it.

Their advice seems to be aimed at what’s best for you and is not primarily focused on protecting their own reputation.

Selflessness on some level in the mentor-mentee relationship is crucial. Beware of mentors whose immediate concern is about them or how the organization’s leadership will perceive them if a concern you bring to them is voiced. Rather than analyze the legitimacy or seriousness of the concern and how it affects the whole organization, they are preoccupied with its personal effect on them. Good mentors are not just looking out for themselves.

They’re not possessive or scared to let you move on professionally.

A good mentor wants the best for you in your career and personal growth, even if that means you move on and leave your shared organization. If your mentor is reluctant to support your independence, discourages you from attempting new challenges or does not take the time to teach you new skills, it will be personally frustrating, mentally taxing and professionally counterproductive for you.

Discussion is more positive than negative about other people or the organization.

What Jack says about Jill says more about Jack than Jill. When you meet with your mentor, the conversation should focus on points of your professional development. If the discussions tend to drift toward comparing you to others, complaining about others or blaming the organization, the focus is shifted away from your personal growth, and this can turn into a toxic relationship.

Trust Is The Ultimate Value In The Mentor-Mentee Relationship

The ultimate goal in a mentor-mentee relationship is trust. This does not happen overnight. From my experience, trust is earned through actions—a series of instances where confidence is built through consistent, reliable behavior. For example, if you can go to your mentor’s office, work through the best courses of action for dealing with a difficult situation, express your emotions openly or vent profanely, recover, go back to work and never worry that your mentor will tell everyone what happened, that is trust. In a law firm, these relationships develop after two people reach a mutual understanding that they are not trying simply to “get” something from each other. That is often the trust barrier in a law firm—whether its access to work, experience, support or opportunity. Getting past the fear of being used is critical.

In sum, to create a connection between mentor and mentee, both people must be invested in the relationship. As described above, relying on an assigned mentor process is not always sufficient, and being guided by race, gender or other demographics does not always lead to a real connection. Mentees should watch for common warning signs that may impede a relationship, and both parties must put in the effort to develop trust. One of the hardest things to accept is that you may never truly appreciate a great mentor until one person moves on to a new job—but that is often the best test for knowing the strength of a mentoring bond.