July 01, 2018

More Lawyers Want Mentors; They Should Consider Being a Mentor First

By Cheryl Rich Heisler

I get a lot of buzz from my clients about the lack of mentoring in their legal career. Many feel disappointed or angry, labeling their firm or employer as “negligent” for not actively helping to provide mentoring relationships for them.

Despite the fact that many of the best and most meaningful mentor-mentee relationships arise organically, or that a number of senior lawyers recommend having multiple mentors across a wide range of work experiences, a strong sense of unrequited entitlement comes through.

We in the legal profession need a reality check.

Mentoring fantasies are just that—fantasies

Mentoring, like most other relationships, is a two-way street. We tend to fantasize about how wise elders randomly take newbies under their wing and then offload all the wisdom they’ve gained from a long and prosperous career. The young professionals then flourish from the advice, while the venerable elders look on with pride as the mentees take flight.

In truth, many mentor relationships arise much less formally. Mentorships can arise out of personal as well as professional relationships. There’s no requirement that one party be senior to the other. A match can be between peers with different but complementary areas of expertise.

Often the pair work together on a project, recognize a similarity or compatibility in work style, and as one member expresses curiosity about why things are happening, the other member takes an increased interest in training. It’s not the assignment of the two that forges the bond; rather, the working together allows the connection to take hold.

You reap what you sow

If you accept the premise that many strong mentoring relationships arise from, and are fostered through, existing relationships, I want to propose that rather than waiting on the sidelines to be “chosen” as a mentee, lawyers can choose their own mentors by reaching out to those with whom they want to work and who’d also benefit from learning something from them.

If you aren’t sure what you have to offer in a mentor/mentee relationship, ask yourself: What do I know about that someone else might not? How can my expertise be shared up (and down) the chain?

Your contribution to the team can, but doesn’t necessarily have to, be substantive. Do you have a tech sensibility that your would-be mentor does not? Perhaps you bring a fresh viewpoint that might be contribution enough. Maybe you understand an issue from a different generational lens, and that perspective is extremely valuable.

It’s ladies’ choice

Much of this issue of Experience is devoted to the strength of senior women in the legal profession whose achievements are even more impressive because they were pioneers. Some of these women received no mentoring help from anyone. When they began their practice, it was common for established men in the profession to be downright hostile, and there were no other women to whom to reach out.

Which brings us to the elephant in the room: Why do so many women attorneys allege that other, more senior women attorneys don’t engage in productive mentoring relationships?

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t believe mentorships can be assigned. Just as a personal bond needs to be forged between any mentor and mentee, two female attorneys won’t automatically click.

What makes it harder is that women who themselves have succeeded without a mentor may not know how to best help. Or they may assume that since they achieved success independently, so should everyone else. But if you’re a woman attorney and you want to enlist the help of a woman mentor, I say go for it.

Whatever your gender, or whatever stage your career, don’t wait to become a mentor. Reach out and try to engage. Offer something of yourself. Be a mentor as well as a mentee. And then go on to mentor other lawyers as you succeed.

Learn from everyone, and give back to everyone. We’ll all benefit as individuals and as a profession.

Cheryl Rich Heisler

Cheryl Rich Heisler is the president and founder of the Chicago-based Lawternatives, a career consultancy helping lawyers transition into careers inside, outside, and around the law. She has worked in industries ranging from BigLaw to brand management for a Fortune 100 company to hosting a radio feature on career issues to outplacement consulting. She’s also a board member for the ABA Career Center.