What Is a Mentor?
A mentor is someone, typically with more experience, who provides advice and guidance. (A sponsor, by contrast, uses his or her influence to advance the protégé’s career). If you know what you want to accomplish but don’t know how to get there, if you don’t have any sense of what your goals are, or if you simply need help navigating your career, a mentor is the person who can help you figure it out, because the mentor has been there.
I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer, but I had no idea how to become one. I had never even met an attorney until I was 19, a sophomore at my large state university (that didn’t have a law school and would later cut the pre-law program while I was in the process of applying to law school). I managed to make my way through law school, struggling through many aspects of the process. I was 23 years old when I graduated without a job, and I had no idea where I wanted to live or what I wanted to do with my life. Because I was the first lawyer in my family, I felt as if I had no one to turn to. It was after I moved to Washington, D.C., and joined a local voluntary bar association that I developed my first real mentor. My mentor was the president of the organization. I saw her as an expert on everything related to being a lawyer, and I took every opportunity to learn from her.
Building a Village
A mentor who can give a mentee everything the mentee needs is rare, and one should not expect to find that type of mentor. Instead, one should have a team of mentors—a village. I’ve spent the past five years developing my village of mentors, and this village continues to grow. Each mentor in my village is different. They come from all over the country, work in different settings—government, private practice, nonprofit, or not at all—and have had a tremendous impact on my personal and professional life.
In addition to finding mentors through formal mentoring programs, you can find mentors unexpectedly. Sometimes the strongest and most fulfilling mentoring relationships are the ones that slowly develop over time, without any expectation that this mentor-mentee relationship would form. The great thing about these unexpected relationships is that they can come from anywhere.
One attorney whom I consider a mentor found me in a courtroom. After listening to a hearing in which I struggled with unexpected issues, this attorney pulled me aside and gave me advice. The next day, I went to his office where he talked through my case with me. We stay in touch to talk about what I’m working on, and his help has been invaluable. I went to court that day expecting to simply try my case, and I left with one of the most helpful people I’ve had in my career!
I also have personal mentors, people whom I can go to for anything, even if it’s not specifically law related. These people talk to me about what organizations to join, how to balance my personal life with other commitments, or just how to handle difficult situations. Because I also have significant student loan debt, I have a financial mentor who gives me advice but isn’t actually a financial advisor. I even have a relationship mentor, whom I can talk to about all things related to dating! Many of the mentors in my village don’t know each other—and they don’t need to. But each of them plays an important role in some aspect of my life.
I suggest you consider these steps to expand your village and deepen your connections with your mentors:
- Reach out to at least one mentor and update that person on something new that’s happened in your career or life.
- Think of someone you considered a mentor at least a year ago and reconnect with that person.
- Join a formal mentoring program through an organization of which you are a member.
- Reach out to undergraduate or law school alumni in your city.
You have everything to gain and nothing to lose from having the right village of mentors. Having a team with you to navigate your career and life changes will prove invaluable, even if it takes some work to put together and nurture. Eventually, you’ll be a part of someone else’s village, too!