February 27, 2012 Articles

The Recipe for a Successful Mentoring Relationship

Two mentors provide their insight into a successful mentoring relationship.

By Sabrina C. Beavens

I met my mentors during my second year of law school. I was a student member in the local Inn of Court and had been assigned to Camille J. Iurillo and Judge Pamela A.M. Campbell’s group. At the time, Judge Campbell and Ms. Iurillo were partners in a law firm in downtown St. Petersburg, Florida. A few meetings into the Inn year, I stood at the salad bar and became aware that Ms. Iurillo and Judge Campbell were not so discreetly whispering to one another and looking in my direction. As we moved down to the rolls, I found myself in the middle of an interview for a summer clerking position. While we were selecting desserts, I was essentially hired and, by the end of the buffet, I was awaiting only the formality of an actual office interview. Soon after the summer clerkship began several months later, the firm began a transition, including the departure of Judge Campbell and Ms. Iurillo to separate firms. Indeed, I consider this their first mentoring lesson: how to weather a law firm shakeup.

Judge Campbell and Ms. Iurillo are extraordinary mentors. Admittedly, they “rescued” me after they were settled in their respective new firms and I divided my time during the remainder of law school clerking for both of them. Both offered me an associate position, and I chose to pursue a bankruptcy and litigation practice with Ms. Iurillo. My mentoring relationship with Judge Campbell did not change, although to this day she does not fail to remind me of my choice. After working with Ms. Iurillo for four years as an associate, I resigned to move out of state; however, two years later I was rehired. Considering the success of our mentoring relationship, I asked each of them to share their mentoring wisdom.

Q: What is the most valuable advice or lesson you gained from your mentor(s)?

JC: I have been fortunate to have many mentors. First, let me give my definition of a mentor: people who have taken an interest in my professional well-being, those who I have trusted and valued their advice and outlook, and those who have influenced and shaped my career. You can see the basic components require a relationship of two people who are willing to spend some time together listening or observing each other and where trust and respect are critical elements of the bond. For whatever reason, the mentor is willing to listen and offer their advice, and the mentee is willing to listen and consider the advice. Some of my mentors have been long in duration and others have just been for a particular chapter.

My longest and still present mentor has offered many pearls of wisdom––probably one of the earliest was to continue my education and always give whatever project I was working on my very best. You don’t have to be the smartest to reach your goals, but with enthusiasm, energy, and dedication you can be the best prepared and successful. Never lose sight of the goal.

CI: Gale Bobenhausen, an attorney practicing law in Clearwater, Florida, was one of my great mentors. What I learned most from her is the fact that I really did know more than what I thought I knew and confidence in your ability is key. In addition, I learned that one of the most important aspects of practicing law is the ability to clearly and concisely communicate with your clients so they truly understand what their alternatives are. The same applies when presenting arguments to the court.

The lesson learned: When speaking to your clients, always end with an explicit summary of their alternatives and the pros and cons of each. When presenting to the court, always begin with and end with the summary of what you are asking for and why your client is entitled to the relief sought.

Q: What are the important elements of a mentoring relationship?

JC: Trust and respect. Also, I have consistently found that the common personality traits of natural curiosity, zest for life, love of learning, and ability to hear and receive feedback are key elements for a successful mentor/mentee relationship.

CI: (1) Teaching by way of example and demonstration in the courtroom as well as drafting pleadings. (2) Let go and allow the mentee to do it on their own. (3) Observe and provide positive constructive criticism on how improvements can be made.

Q: How would you describe effective mentoring?

JC: Taking an interest in the professional well-being of the mentee and developing a relationship based on mutual benefit.

CI: The fundamentals to effective mentoring are to take the time to spend with your mentee, listen to your mentee, and communicate with your mentee. This cannot be done if you focus on the present bottom line. No doubt, the time that you spend with your mentee will go a long way to developing a successful lawyer in the future and an opportunity to make a difference in someone else’s career.

Q: Why is it important for experienced attorneys to become mentors?

JC: Mentoring younger attorneys is energizing for me. Especially now as a judge, I have more opportunities to work with younger law students and attorneys. To see the excitement and passion when things come together is very rewarding and stimulating.

CI: It is essential to the future success of the law firm and the future of our legal community. Mentoring also is a refreshing reminder of how far we have come in our own career and not to forget what it was like when we were first learning all the many aspects of the law.

Q: I recognize that I am not unlike many lawyers who are not always receptive to constructive criticism. As a mentor, how do you approach mentees who do not immediately appreciate your feedback?

JC: It depends upon my level of commitment to the mentee. For you Sabrina, I was devoted––I knew your potential for success and knew there would be some growing pains to reach the level I thought you would seek and were certainly able to achieve––and, I believed you would welcome the challenge and get through it even wiser. For others I have mentored, I did not have that same level of faith and belief that they would stand the test of time, so I let them go. Sometimes the challenge is the most interesting part of the journey. In ways, like a parent who knows what is best and may have to let the child fail to learn and achieve, the higher good will come.

CI: The crucial consideration here is to remind the mentee that the advice I am giving is a gift that I want to share and if you are reluctant to listen to the advice then I lose the opportunity to give that gift. I try to take the focus off the mentee and her perception of being wrong and focus instead on the mentor’s desire to give. For example, sometimes when Sabrina asks me questions I can hear in her voice that she thinks she should know, but actually the question is valid and warrants brainstorming to resolve the issue. My comment usually is, “I am glad I’m needed.”

Q: What is appropriate for a mentee to expect of her mentor?

JC: In my experience, the relationship grows (or not) based on the mutual benefit. All of my mentors and mentees have grown out of a natural progression of some professional experience––it could be through involvement with my local bar association or Inn or from some volunteer project I was working on. I have never had the awkward disappointment from a mentor. I have had disappointment in a mentee, but that is a different topic. If the mentee is having conflicting feelings that the mentor is not performing the task expected by the mentee, I would suggest that the mentee discuss it with the mentor––something like: I was hoping we could establish a set time to review certain things, or, I was looking for some feedback on this––then ask the mentor if they have the time and when. If the mentor does not want the challenge or does not have the time, perhaps suggest another time or reduce the expectations. One should take time to weigh the benefits and discomfort and make a decision to continue the relationship, or not.

Q: Judge Campbell, has becoming a judge changed or expanded your thoughts on mentoring? How so?

A: In private practice, my exposure to mentees was more limited. However, as a judge, I have more opportunities and thus more experience as a mentor. It is such a bonus to see young professionals develop passion and love for the law––that deep-down appreciation for our constitution and form of government, especially when I may have provided or contributed to some spark in the beginning. As an attorney, I feel honored to be a part of our profession and our system of justice. I enjoy a sense of pride when I can help someone else share in this glory.

Q: Also, Judge Campbell, what have you gained by acting as a mentor?

A: I have gained even more of an appreciation for our profession. Working with younger attorneys has given me insight into the progression of the law, especially as it pertains to the impact of technology and mass media. They help to keep me current and motivated.

From my perspective, the fundamental component to both of my mentor relationships was Judge Campbell and Ms. Iurillo’s willingness to get to know me as a person, not just as a lawyer, and vice versa. This was the foundation for building trust, respect, and an open and honest dialogue between us. For example, as a mentee you should expect feedback from a mentor that may be difficult to hear or understand at the time. Several years ago Judge Campbell said to me over lunch, “You need to get comfortable in your own skin.” At the time, she was correct. In our private conversation, she was encouraging me to build self-esteem to mirror the confidence I projected but did not yet fully believe internally. I did not fully grasp her message right away. Nevertheless, I trusted and respected her observations and opinions—and I kept coming back to her message as I did my own self-evaluations.

Law school does not teach lawyers the unwritten politics of bar associations or how to chart a path to leadership positions. My mentors were active in local and state bar leadership and encouraged me to do the same. They provided me with a roadmap and opened doors for me in those organizations. Once involved, Judge Campbell and Ms. Iurillo both provided sound advice when I was frustrated with a particular committee or not sure how to handle a situation.

Whether you realize it or not, as a mentor you are a role model for your mentee. Mentoring provides a great opportunity to demonstrate professionalism. Over the past ten years, I have had the opportunity to observe my mentors in several situations that required professionalism and restraint. The situations ranged from dealing with staff, clients, and opposing counsel to advocating for unpopular or controversial issues in certain cases. Those moments had a greater impact on my own development because Judge Campbell and Ms. Iurillo candidly spoke to me behind closed doors about the situation, sharing what they were actually thinking and why it was important to react the way they did.

In sum, there is more than one way for mentoring relationships to grow and develop. I hope that by reading this account of one set of mentoring relationships, you will be inspired to pursue mentoring relationships of your own––even if the opening to your conversation is “Please pass the salad dressing.”

Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, Campbell, Iurillo, mentoring relationship