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Probate & Property

Sept/Oct 2023

Helping Good Get to Great: The Power of an Effective Mentoring Process

Jo Ann Engelhardt, Timnetra Burruss, and Daniel Q. Orvin


  • Whether you work in a law firm, government offi ce, or corporation, or are a solo practitioner, spending time with someone more seasoned can help you do your job better.
  • People of color who advance the furthest all share one characteristic—a strong network of mentors and corporate sponsors who nurture their professional development.
  • Mentorship is a living, evolving stream of events, thoughts, feedback, and evaluation that does not have a distinct terminus.
Helping Good Get to Great: The Power of an Effective Mentoring Process
Viktor Aheiev via Getty Images

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At RPTE’s National CLE Conference on May 11-12, 2023, the Leadership and Mentoring Committee’s program explored three aspects of the mentoring process.

Why Mentoring Is Important and How to Structure an Effective Mentoring Process

Whether in law practice or in professional organizations like the ABA, research indicates that lawyers with mentors advance faster, perform jobs and tasks more efficiently, and experience higher work-life satisfaction. Although 76 percent of working professionals believe having a mentor is important, more than 54 percent do not have a mentoring relationship. See Mark Horozowski, How to Build a Great Relationship with a Mentor,

A recent UC Davis article discussed the specific benefits of mentoring to mentees, mentors, and organizations in which they are involved. See The Benefits of Mentoring.

Benefits to the Mentee

The benefits of being mentored can be broadly described in three categories: developing professional skills and competencies; developing personal skills and competencies; and building a network of advisors, supporters, and guides.

Whether you work in a law firm, government office, or corporation, or are a solo practitioner, spending time with someone more seasoned can help you do your job better. Having a mentor means you can learn from your experience and that of your mentor, and you may sidestep potential mistakes. A mentor can foster workplace success by imparting institutional knowledge, including how things “really” get done. In addition, a mentor can showcase new approaches to work to help the mentee build flexible skills. A mentor can ensure the mentee receives professional development opportunities in organizations where the mentor has clout.

In addition, an effective mentor will guide the mentee in burnishing the mentee’s personal skills. Learning to network, to run a meeting well, or to deal with difficult colleagues or clients with tact and respect is never easy, but a skilled mentor can smooth the way. A mentor can be a confidential sounding board and a trusted critic. It’s a confidence booster to receive guidance and support from a respected law firm, government office, or legal organization member.

Finally, an effective mentor helps the mentee build a network of colleagues within and outside the workplace. Most successful job seekers credit networking with assisting them in securing their dream job and expanding their knowledge of different law fields and different work environments.

Benefits to the Mentor

If you ask mentors why they take the time and effort to serve, many say mentoring provides fulfillment and satisfaction in contributing to their colleagues’ development. This is often reason enough, but there are other valuable benefits to the mentor. In helping a mentee, the mentor may recognize areas where she can develop greater skills and abilities and challenge the status quo. Like the mentee, the mentor extends her professional colleague network and builds community. Mentors also find that the process encourages new perspectives on the mentor’s leadership role. Mentors also can benefit from the relationship through a concept called “mentoring up,” which empowers mentees to share their expertise and knowledge with their mentors.

Benefits to the Employer and Professional Organization

A commitment to a successful mentoring process demonstrates dedication to employee or volunteer development and continuous learning. Job seekers may rate a firm that offers mentoring more highly than one that does not. Potential firm clients may factor in a mentoring program’s benefits when hiring decisions for representation or services.

A thoughtful, well-run mentoring process facilitates the growth and development of high-potential leaders, adding to the organization’s bottom line. It also helps organizational continuity by ensuring that institutional knowledge is maintained and transferred across the organization. If an organization does not have a program, it should consider supporting the employee’s participation in mentoring and professional development programs outside the organization.

Finally, mentoring fosters an inclusive, diverse, and collaborative environment. Numerous studies and articles have related how diverse teams and organizations drive superior outcomes, including greater profitability compared to less diverse organizations.

How to Structure an Effective Mentoring Process

Structuring an effective mentoring process begins with identifying mentees and mentors.

Identifying Mentees

The prospective mentee should both desire to learn and continue to develop professionally and believe that such growth is possible. An attorney expanding to a new practice area can significantly decrease the learning curve through a mentoring relationship with an attorney experienced in that area. A new leader in the ABA can likewise reduce the learning curve on how an ABA Section works and how to advance in leadership. Law firms, governmental entities, or legal organizations should consider individuals who have (i) voiced an interest in being mentored, (ii) been identified by senior lawyers as someone whose practice or work could benefit from mentoring, (iii) recently joined a new firm (or legal organization), or (iv) moved into a new practice area. In addition, the mentee should have the time to devote to the process. Otherwise, the process will not be fruitful.

Identifying Mentors

The firm or legal organization must determine the qualifications of a mentor because mentoring goals can differ. Further, no bright-line rule says a mentor must have a certain amount of experience or a specific subject matter expertise. Mentors exhibit interpersonal skills and the ability to impart quality lessons about the legal profession or participation in the applicable legal organization. A mentor must be able to devote the time necessary to allow for a meaningful ongoing relationship to develop.

Matching Mentors and Mentees

Matching mentors and mentees can be the most critical part of a mentoring process. The mentor and mentee must get along or at least be compatible to promote professional growth through personal relationships. The mentoring relationships that tend to be the most successful are those where a level of trust exists to allow sharing of personal and professional information. Arranged mentorships can also be effective, assuming the mentor and mentee can find common ground through practice areas, interests, or other factors.

Each Participant’s Role in the Process

From the mentee’s perspective:

  • Once you have a mentor, you should ask questions—lots of them. Mentors can provide valuable professional opportunities, such as introducing their mentees to local lawyers, judges, and other community leaders. Mentors can also serve as a bridge to assist mentees in other professional goals, such as serving on committees and boards.
  • If you’re newer to the practice, ask mentors for advice on avoiding common mistakes less seasoned lawyers make. Mentors can also help address demanding clients, co-workers, opposing counsel, or managers.
  • Include a discussion on managing stress and wellness concerns and be candid if you are struggling with these issues. Your mentor can steer you to helpful resources.
  • Invite your mentor to see you in action, whether presenting, in court, or otherwise in the workplace. Your mentor can help you prepare and can give you meaningful feedback. Also, invite your mentor to events or organizations you are a part of to allow your mentor to see other aspects of your personal and professional life.

From the mentor’s perspective:

  • Always keep your “office” door open. Your mentee needs to know you are available at scheduled times and as needed. It’s okay to set boundaries, but try to give a little extra, especially at the beginning of a relationship.
  • Set the same high standard for your mentee as you do for yourself. Use praise to reinforce that standard but be candid when improvement is needed. Please don’t confuse being a mentor with being someone’s boss: it’s a privilege to work with another professional, and you need to ensure a culture of respect. The mentee is not there to take over tasks you are disinclined to take on yourself.
  • Ensure you let workplace or organization leadership know how your mentee can contribute. (See more below regarding sponsorship.)

How a Successful Mentoring Process Can Advance Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

For context, we can look at the most recent ABA national study of lawyer representation by gender, race, and ethnicity, a ten-year survey of demographics.

Not surprisingly, diverse attorneys have made few gains in the last decade. An ABA study shows the most significant increase was made by women, from 33 percent to 38 percent representation. African American and Native American lawyer populations were essentially flat, while Asian and Hispanic attorneys were in the low single digits. The legal profession is still almost two-thirds male and 81 percent Caucasian/white, though the population is 49 percent male and 61 percent white. See ABA National Lawyer Population Survey.

These studies and others like them demonstrate that diverse attorneys are underrepresented in the profession and its higher ranks. Can mentoring help to narrow this gap?

The Benefits of Mentoring with a Focus on DEI

Although mentoring programs have existed in the legal industry for some time, the data above demonstrate a slight improvement in overall diversity in the profession. A logical conclusion is that traditional mentoring has not been effective in increasing diversity; another is that not enough workplaces have robust mentoring programs to address the gap. Ida Abbott, a consultant and mentoring expert, noted:

Firms have done well in recruiting women and minority lawyers at the entry-level, but the pipeline leaks at a rapid pace, and these lawyers remain shamefully underrepresented in partnership and leadership. When done well, mentoring is a proven way to slow the pipeline’s leaks by providing the personal attention and individualized support that engages these lawyers, makes them feel valued, and helps them see the possibility of a successful and satisfying future in the firm.

Innovative Mentoring Increase Diversity and Inclusion, NALP PD Quarterly, at 44 (Feb. 2018).

One of the most thoughtful reviews of the difference between mentoring whites and mentoring minorities is David A. Thomas’s article “Race Matters,” Harvard Business Review, April 2001. Though the article is over 20 years old, its message is still relevant. His research shows that “whites and minorities follow distinct patterns of advancement,” with whites’ careers advancing much more quickly in the early years than minorities. He sees how mentoring can make a meaningful difference: “The people of color who advance the furthest all share one characteristic—a strong network of mentors and corporate sponsors who nurture their professional development.”

Thomas cites several benefits to the mentee from a robust mentoring relationship:

  • Mentees received more challenging assignments to help them build critical skills
  • By putting mentees into “high-trust positions,” mentors signaled to the organization that the mentee was a credible high performer.
  • Mentees received career advice that kept them on a leadership path and guided them toward better positions over time.
  • Mentors defended mentees who were criticized or unfairly stereotyped.

He also reminds us to support and complement one-on-one efforts by taking additional steps, including ensuring a diverse pool of candidates for every position and tackling what he calls “implicit rules”—e.g., the assumption that those not on the fast track early will never rise to leadership positions.

Another integral tool for advancing diverse attorneys involves sponsorship, in contrast to mentorship. In the June 30, 2021, Harvard Business Review, Rosalind Chow distinguishes between these two approaches and argues that although mentoring is valuable for providing direct guidance, information, and feedback, sponsorship focuses on “the management of others’ views on the sponsored employee” (italics in original). She likens it to being a brand manager or publicist for the mentee, ensuring that the sponsor:

  • Amplifies and shares the mentee’s accomplishments with the appropriate audience. Not all mentees are comfortable doing so for themselves, so a well-placed sponsor must shine a light on the mentee’s work.
  • Puts the sponsor’s reputation behind the promise of success. Chow gives the example of a letter of recommendation or a referral —both convey legitimacy.
  • Connects the mentee with the mentor’s circle, inviting the mentee to participate in high-level events and leadership roles. The invitation is a badge of belonging.
  • Defends the mentee against bias. Recall the test that revealed that lawyers graded the same essay more harshly when it appeared a person of color drafted it. A sponsor can challenge the bias, but Chow notes it takes courage.

Addressing Difficult Conversations for Both Sides

In the December/January 2022-23 ABA Journal, “State of the Profession,” a law firm consultant identifies a barrier to the advancement of diverse attorneys. “Lawyers who are in a position to include other lawyers in the firm on their matters or share credit often are more likely to do that with people who they know and trust. And often lawyers build trust with people like them, rather than people who aren’t like them.” See id. at 37. The article also points to the dominance of Ivy League-educated lawyers and judges. An effective mentoring and sponsorship process can help ensure that diverse attorneys from various educational backgrounds become part of the trusted group and are visible when opportunities for advancement arise.

How to Avoid Common Roadblocks to a Successful Mentoring Process

We are deliberately using the term “process” here: mentorship is a living, evolving stream of events, thoughts, feedback, and evaluation that does not have a distinct terminus. The process changes, depending on the mentee’s role, point in the mentee’s career, and needs at a given time.

Guidelines for Mentors

Too many people think the most important part of mentoring is talking. If you do all the talking, the mentee may learn something but probably nothing that needs a mentoring relationship to convey. Listening to those you mentor allows them to share their insight and thought processes.

Mentors need to keep their skills fresh. It is never too late to acquire new mentoring skills. Processes evolve, and so should you.

Be flexible. Work to the mentees’ strengths and help them overcome their weaknesses. As the mentor, allow yourself to learn from your mentee—that’s one of the most significant rewards.

Allow people to fail and embrace the “successful failure.” Failure can teach a great deal about the mentee’s strengths and weaknesses.

As noted in SmartBusiness Broward/Palm Beach, March 2005, “Managing for Tomorrow”: “As followers improve their performance, leadership style needs to move from telling followers what to do, to mentoring and persuading them, then to encouraging and facilitating their actions, and finally to simply entrusting them and monitoring their progress.” A mentor who flexibly adapts as the mentee gains skills and achieves milestones can help a mentee not just to the next position but to satisfy personal and professional success that can span a career.

Guidelines for Mentees

Be scrupulously honest with your mentor. If you have only limited time, say so upfront.

Work to create what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset: “Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset. They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts).” Carol Dweck, What Having a “Growth Mindset” Actually Means, Harvard Business Review, Jan. 13, 2018.

Feedback from Previous and Current Mentees and Mentors in the Section’s Program

We asked a few mentors and mentees to share their experiences and feedback about the process.

From a Mentee: “My experience was enjoyable and fruitful. Specifically, my conversations with my mentor helped me to get comfortable with ‘possibility.’ I had a hard time imagining that I could be active in leadership or participate in academic panels. My mentor showed me that possibility was real and helped me get started with ideas, materials, and even as a speaker at one of my events.”

From a Mentor: “My mentee feels that being from a small firm, she doesn’t have a lot of specialized knowledge to contribute. I encouraged her not to discount her knowledge and experience as a unique person with her own individual perspective. When she has client experiences, she can share what she learned with other lawyers through e-Report or Probate & Property, Group calls, or Group CLE programs.“

In reflecting on this process, the mentor observed: “Our conversation is very common for a lawyer from a small firm. Another small firm mentee told me that the high level of involvement we have seen from her is a direct result of the process. She had underestimated what she could contribute; our discussion revealed ways she could participate.”

For those interested in learning how the RPTE Leadership and Mentoring process has operated thus far, please see “Perfect Pairings” in the January/February 2023 issue of Probate & Property.