Many young attorneys, however, struggle finding mentors and creating meaningful mentoring relationships. This article will discuss what a mentor is, how to find the right mentor, being the right mentee, and the ideal mentoring relationship.
What is a Mentor?
At the outset, it is important to define what a mentor is and is not. A mentor is a person who shares their life experiences with you to enable you to make better decisions about your life and career. Discussions with your mentor should expose you to different ideas and thoughts about life and the law that you would not consider on your own. They should also allow you to take a peek at the next step in your career before you get there.
Along with information, a mentor should also provide encouragement. Your mentor should believe in you. I do not mean to suggest that your mentor should provide you with unrealistic expectations for you and your career, but a mentor should want the best for you. They should take a sincere interest in you.
A mentor is not a magic genie who will tell you what to do with your life. I have had friends who told me that that their mentor told them they should not practice the law. That is not the purpose of a mentor. The only person who truly knows what you should do with your life is you. A mentor should provide additional information and insights to allow you to make better informed decisions about your own life.
Finding the Right Mentor
Find someone that you want to be like to mentor you. Be aware that when a person is giving you advice, those thoughts and ideas have led them to where they are now. If someone has a job that you want, that person can give good advice on how to obtain that job. If a person has personality traits that you want to develop, for example that person is a good manager or is a compassionate person, then they can mentor you on how to obtain those personality traits.
Finding a mentor also takes intentionality. Most attorneys are extremely busy and likely not seeking out potential mentees. Once you identify a person that you would like as a mentor, seek out opportunities to talk to them. Do not simply ask them to be your mentor. I have honestly never asked anyone to be my mentor. Take it slow. Find opportunities to stop by their office with questions. See if you are able to make small talk with them. Do your personalities seem to work together? You will know if a genuine relationship is starting to develop. If it does, then you have found yourself a mentor!
I firmly believe that a mentoring relationship should be natural. If you are afraid to talk to your mentor or tell your mentor what is really going on in your life, then you may not have the ideal mentor for you.
Being the Right Mentee
Once you are fortunate to find the right mentor, you need to make sure that you are the right mentee. Many young attorneys make the mistake of trying to impress their mentor, instead of trying to learn from them. A mentee needs to be honest about where they are in life and want to learn from their mentor. That means sometimes admitting that you struggle with legal research, or you are having a hard time finding a job. If you are currently doubting if you want to practice law, tell you mentor. A mentor needs to know where you actually are in life, so they can help you.
The Ideal Mentoring Relationship
The ideal mentoring relationship requires a genuine relationship and honesty. When someone shares with you the truth of their life and experiences, even if they are challenging, that honesty can change lives. My first mentor showed me what an ideal mentoring relationship looks like.
I remember being an intern at a government agency and meeting a man who recently began working there after being in private practice. He attended a fantastic law school, completed an enviable clerkship, and worked at a major law firm for years before working for the government. It was not, however, his impressive resume that drew me to him. I just liked being around him. He was funny, and he was always messing around in the office. He would come talk to me when he was walking by my office, and he would always try to give good assignments that involved legal research, instead of simple work that an intern would do. I liked that, and I liked him.
Once someone has shown that they care about you as a person, that opens the door for a genuine mentoring relationship. That is where honesty comes in. I have told the story of the specific conversation with my mentor that made me want to be an attorney with several people. It has gotten mixed reactions. The conversation may sound somewhat harsh to the casual observer. But at the time, I knew that he cared about me, and I received what he was trying to say to me without pain.
My conversion to the law occurred as follows. One day I went to lunch with several attorneys in the office, and they spent the majority of the time commiserating about the horrors of private practice. After the lunch was over, my mentor stopped by my office and asked me if I wanted to talk about what I heard at lunch. I told him that the conversations at lunch did not bother me because I did not want to be a lawyer. My mentor told me that I did not know whether I wanted to practice the law because I had not tried it. I informed him that I had tried it. I was in law school, and I did not enjoy it. He then told me that “joy comes with competence.” I thought about that conversation for several days, and I determined that he was probably right.
I am not saying that this conversation would work on everyone, but because of my relationship with my mentor and my belief that he genuinely cared about me, this honest conversation changed my life. The idea that “joy comes with competence” has followed me throughout my career. It is these moments that make a mentoring relationship so valuable for a young attorney.
A good mentoring relationship is about the things said and the things unsaid. I remember multiple conversations with my first mentor, but I also remember what I learned while watching him. I noticed his passion for the law. At the time, I was in law school, and the law seemed to be about competition: proving that you are better than another person, or that you are smarter than the person beside you. My mentor taught me that the law is about doing what is right. There is a right way to write a brief or cite to a case, and the law should be practiced the right way. I loved his approach to the law, and I learned from it.
Finding a mentor and developing a mentoring relationship can seem daunting at first, but any young attorney can do it. Seek out a mentor and develop a mentoring relationship with that person. I promise that your life and career will be the better for it.