January 18, 2012 Articles

Mentoring: The Rules of Engagement

The authors, who were matched in a mentoring program, offer their "rules of engagement" for forming a successful mentoring relationship.

By Patricia K. Gillette and Katherine M. Larkin-Wong

The Young Advocates Committee is focusing on providing its members with content on mentoring this year. Patricia Gillette and Katherine Larkin-Wong were matched in a mentoring program through the Ms. JD Fellowship, a partnership between Ms. JD (www.ms-jd.org) and the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession. Here, they offer their “rules of engagement” for forming a successful mentoring relationship.

A Mentor’s Rules of Engagement—Patricia K. Gillette

A Mentor Should:

  1. Be available. Being a mentor is a little like being the mother of a teenager: You cannot control when your mentee is going to want to talk. But, when he or she is ready to talk, you need to be available.

  2. Guide, not direct. Mentoring means listening, guiding, and reacting. It is not directing. Good mentors do not tell mentees what to do; they give them options, they act as sounding boards, and they share their experiences. Do not make the mistake of trying to create a “Mini-Me” out of your mentee.

  3. Be one of many. No one should have only one mentor. New lawyers need mentors to assist them in many aspects of their life, which require different types of mentors. For example, mentoring a new lawyer about how to navigate receiving the right assignments is different from mentoring a new lawyer about how to balance life and work, which is different from mentoring a new lawyer about adapting to firm culture without losing himself or herself. A mentor needs to be open to and ready for those situations where he or she should advise the mentee to seek help from someone else.

  4. Recognize generational differences. Although we all like to think that we stay hip, even as we get older, that just is not true for 99 percent of us. Mentors have to be vigilant about the fact that their world and their vision of what is acceptable behavior, dress, language, and expectations are different from someone who graduated 10 or 20 years later than they did. Before telling a mentee that he or she needs to dress differently or behave differently, the mentor needs to check his or her own biases and preconceptions. The mentee must realize that even though the younger generation may have different standards from those who are older, many of the people with whom the mentee will be interacting and who will be in positions to judge the mentee also are older. Moderating views based on the reality of the times and the workplace is important for both mentee and mentor.

  5. Know that gender does not matter. Many mentees think that a mentoring relationship only can be successful if the mentor and the mentee are of the same gender. That is simply not true. While a pairing that is based on gender may make for a successful mentoring relationship, it is not a requirement. The success of a mentoring relationship is dependent upon trust—trust that the other person knows you, wants you to succeed, and will make the time and effort to help you in your career. Neither gender has a market on building or earning trust.

Final words: Be supportive, but not judgmental. Be firm, but not inflexible. Be a friend, but have opinions. Make sure your mentee also has a sponsor, and make sure he or she knows the difference between the two roles.

A Mentee’s Rules of Engagement—Katherine M. Larkin-Wong

A Mentee Should:

  1. Have an agenda. At the beginning of your mentorship, you should ask yourself what you hope to receive from the mentoring relationship. After all, having a mentor just to have one is not useful to you or your mentor. Based on what you want to learn from your mentor, establish your own personal agenda for the mentorship. Thinking through the agenda will help you come to meetings with good questions and topics for discussion, which will help your mentor feel like he or she is helping you. Your agenda also helps you keep the conversation moving if there is a lull. Of course, be flexible. Your mentorship will hopefully be long-term. You do not have to cover everything the first day, and your mentor may also have topics he or she wants to share with you.

  2. Be flexible with timing. Time is a commodity in law, which also applies to your mentorship. There are a variety of ways to approach this issue, but it is one that you should discuss early to avoid small annoyances in the mentoring relationship. Perhaps your mentor has a time that works to meet regularly. Perhaps you need to plan ahead and try to schedule a meeting a few weeks in advance. When you need advice more immediately, you need to be flexible about how you get the advice. Finally, when you reach out but do not hear from your mentor, it is helpful to learn to remind without nagging. For example, “I just wanted to make sure you saw this. I understand that it might have fallen to the bottom of your inbox,” tends to be a nice way to remind without nagging.

  3. Use non-work related topics. This advice takes some judgment based on your comfort level and that of your mentor. However, the best mentorships are based on mutual interests, and those mutual interests need not be solely work-related. Ask your mentor about his or her hobbies and keep those in mind. When you see a great article about his or her baseball team or the theater that your mentor is involved with, forward that on. It will help build your friendship in addition to your mentorship.

  4. Make mentorship a two-way street. The best mentorships are not just a one-way street. In addition to thinking about topics your mentor might care about outside of work, think about ways you can help your mentor. You might ask him or her to serve on a panel you are planning, write an article for a publication, or attend an event with you. Consider bar associations, local trade groups, or national blogs as opportunities for working together. Is your mentor part of an organization that you could volunteer with? Can you help him or her plan an event? Consider putting the question “How can I help you?” on your agenda for one of your mentorship meetings. Your mentor might be surprised by your question initially, but he or she is sure to remember it the next time he or she needs help. Plus, showing an interest in something that matters to your mentor will help deepen your relationship.

  5. Be a mentor yourself. One of the best ways to have an idea of what your mentor needs from you is to be a mentor yourself. It does not matter if you are the newest associate, a law student, or further along in your career. You have something you can offer to others as a mentor. Consider mentoring a law student, a high school student, someone within your firm, or someone in another career path that you know something about. It will pay you back tenfold because you will receive the benefits of helping another while also improving your mentorship experiences.

Patricia K. Gillette is a partner with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP in San Francisco, California. She also serves as a commissioner for the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession. Katherine M. Larkin-Wong is an associate at Latham & Watkins LLP in San Francisco, and is the cochair of the Young Advocates Committee’s Networking and Rainmaking Subcommittee.