The practice of law can be incredibly fulfilling. It also can be complex, giving rise to substantial challenges and obstacles, which is why we all can benefit from mentors. Those of us who have wonderful mentors realize, looking back, that we could have made (even bigger) mistakes or taken the wrong turn but for the guidance of a mentor. As a new lawyer, what can you do to find the right mentor?
First, begin with the right mindset. What are your expectations for this relationship? When you have no pre-existing relationship with a senior lawyer and he or she knows nothing about you, it is a mistake to presume that person wants or can spend precious time helping you boost a career, guiding as you navigate the murky waters of an organization, or otherwise providing advice. Rather than focusing solely on your needs, be prepared to focus first on what your potential mentor needs. The process for learning this information is intrinsic to the second and third steps below.
Second, be intentional about building relationships with potential mentors. What does that mean? It means that when you interact with others, you learn and absorb significant information about them: what are their legal skill sets; what new and interesting cases are they working on; in what direction do they hope to grow or develop their own practices; how do they prefer to work and what causes them stress. For example, some lawyers are meticulous planners, such that violations of internal deadlines in advance of a court deadline will upset them. Others use docketing systems to ensure court deadlines are always met, but are more flexible in managing internal workflow, and become annoyed by unnecessary inflexibility. Take them to lunch and find out what they enjoy, what they dislike, and most importantly, what they value. In this process, it is your job to be focused on the other person. Depending on your personality and “emotional IQ,” you may have to be thoughtful and deliberate about this.
Third, make yourself valuable to potential mentors. What does that entail? Volunteer for that lawyer’s critical project over a weekend; volunteer for the potential mentor’s new matter that just came in the door; or volunteer to serve on that lawyer’s committee in the ABA. Then, be sure to deliver outstanding work. In short, do something that makes a meaningful difference for the potential mentor. If you don’t know how to make that type of impact, or don’t know what actions you can take to make a difference for that person, simply ask: “How can I best contribute to your work?” or “Where do you need the most help?”
Why should you care about relationship building? Because quite frankly, unless a potential mentor gets to know you—becomes familiar with the strengths and weaknesses in your legal skills, judgment, personality; or understands the areas where you need to grow professionally—the advice he or she provides may be of limited value. What’s worse, their advice could be well-intentioned and good for some but very, very wrong for you.
Not all senior lawyers or colleagues will make great mentors; there’s no guarantee and none of us is perfect. But when you make an impact for the better (and you absolutely can), those lawyers who are wonderful mentors and who care will take notice and invest in you and your success.