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Professional Development

The Benefits of Mentoring in the Legal Profession

Dan Cotter


  • The benefits of mentoring cannot be understated—lifelong friendships and business relationships can be the fruits of that labor. 
The Benefits of Mentoring in the Legal Profession
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Every law student and young lawyer has undoubtedly heard the term “mentoring.” Many law firms, bar associations, and law schools have mentoring programs. Like any relationship, the success of the mentoring pairing depends in large part on both the mentor and mentee giving time and energy to the partnership. Below are some thoughts on the elements that make the mentor-mentee relationship a fulfilling and successful one.

What Is the Role of the Mentor?

To me, the mentor’s role is akin to that of the offensive line in American football (full disclosure: I played center on my high school and college football teams). The best offensive lines are anonymous but effective; they pave the way for others to excel. Similarly, the focus of the mentor-mentee relationship is not on the mentor; rather, the mentor should be working hard to open opportunities and doors for the mentee. Like the anonymous offensive lineman, a mentor should not be in the role to seek the spotlight or glory from the relationship but should be providing the mentee with meaningful guidance and a foundation on which to build his or her skills. The mentor should be hands-on without overly controlling the relationship. Again, like the offensive lineman, a successful mentor-mentee relationship is one in which the mentor “blocks” and creates “holes” so that the mentee thrives and “scores.”

One of my mentees turned our relationship into a legal intern opportunity. When he went back to school, he applied for a position at a company in the same industry. His application was not moving. I mentioned that I knew the CFO at the company and placed a call. I received a follow-up from the company’s attorney, and my mentee was hired. The attorney became a good friend, and eventually, a colleague of mine; the intern also became a colleague, and then a client.

What Is the Role of the Mentee?

Once the mentor has provided the mentee with holes or opportunities, it is up to the mentee to take advantage of those openings, step through those doors, and pursue those leads. A good mentee takes the wisdom, encouragement, and guidance of the mentor and translates it into a successful pursuit of her goals. As a running back in American football, the mentee uses the opportunities created to run with the ball toward the end zone of becoming a seasoned practitioner.

At a student/alumni exchange a few years ago, I met a 1L. He asked if he could shadow me, then asked if he could be hired for the summer. He literally “ran with the ball,” capitalizing on the opportunity to build relationships and further his career.

What Traits Are Common in Successful Mentees?

Not every mentor-mentee relationship works. Of course, both a mentor and mentee must be committed to the relationship. Speaking from experience, the ideal characteristics for a successful mentee are:

  • Active learner;
  • Active listener;
  • Active self-promoter;
  • Proactive approach to mentor’s guidance;
  • Passionate and enthusiastic about goals and objectives; and
  • Appreciative of the mentor’s time and advice.

A mentoring relationship is not an ongoing job interview—while the relationship might lead to eventually working together (that has happened on several occasions in my experience), the mentee cannot seek a mentor for the sole purpose of securing employment. At the end of the day, a mentor provides some broad thoughts and helps achieve goals and objectives. The mentee should have a clear plan outlined and drive the relationship, seeking the guidance and wisdom of the mentor. Ask your mentor for guidance on resources that might be helpful, including people that might foster and advance your goals. At the same time, find ways to become a mentor to your mentor. If there is something you think would benefit your mentor, such as technological or social media expertise you possess, share it.

As noted above, the 1L was actively self-promoting and was passionate about his goals and objectives. Now, he has established a growing practice, and we continue to advise and provide him with mentoring opportunities.

What Is in It for the Mentor?

Many of the formal programs at law firms are not as successful as possible because the mentor does not see the value in spending time away from billable hours to foster the relationship. Such a perspective is often short-sighted. In my experience, mentoring provides its own rewards, including:

  • Staying fresh and keeping up with what younger generations are doing and thinking about;
  • Fulfilling experiences, especially when the mentee succeeds and achieves her goals; and,
  • Generating referral opportunities when the mentee lands a position or has matters she does not handle.

Naturally, mentoring also helps mentors further develop leadership and networking skills too.

The intern mentioned was a very active user of social media. At the time, I did not see the value of having a social media presence (other than LinkedIn). Benefiting from his guidance, I reassessed my position; I am a regular user of more social media outlets, including Twitter and Facebook.

Done right, mentoring relationships can be rewarding experiences for both the mentor and mentee. Establishing a strong partnership takes time and effort from both individuals and like any relationship, it requires nurturing and care for it to continue working. But the benefits of mentoring cannot be understated—lifelong friendships and business relationships can be the fruits of that labor. As a mentee, make sure you enter the relationship for the right reasons so that the mentor stays engaged and is reassured that nurturing a mentoring relationship and your career is a worthy endeavor.