I have hosted dozens of guest speakers from all sectors of the legal industry in my class at Vanderbilt Law School, and if there is one piece of advice that all have invariably offered to my students, it is to find mentors, good mentors. They mean it—don’t dive into law practice thinking you don’t need mentors. But also, don’t think that there aren’t many good mentors hoping you’ll find them. Here is some advice from my guest speakers on how.
What Is a Good Mentor?
The standard definition of a mentor is an experienced and trusted advisor who provides training and advice, usually to a younger colleague. So, a good mentor is someone with substantial experience who you can trust to use that experience to impart training and advice tailored for you. That seems straightforward, but let’s look under the hood.
The most critical word in the definition is trusted. You’ll be asking for training and advice throughout your career from many others around you, but you have to be able to trust a mentor. A good mentor can accept your inexperience and uncertainties, even your weaknesses, to help you overcome them and build your career. Trust takes time to build; thus, you need to devote time to developing a relationship into mentorship and accept that not every relationship, as valuable as it may be for other reasons, will get there.
Mentors also should have experience building their careers in a way that you admire and want to emulate. This doesn’t mean that you must find an older tax lawyer if you practice tax law. Nor does it mean finding an older version of you. If you want to become a successful lawyer, look for lawyers who have become successful in the way you hope to become successful. That includes success not just practicing law but also practicing life as a lawyer. By life as a lawyer, I mean both within the work environment, such as understanding the politics and personalities of the workplace and navigating the employer’s expectations, and in life outside the work environment to maintain a healthy work-life balance.
Finally, good mentors use their experience not to remind you how successful they are but to help you become successful in your life as a lawyer through personalized training and advising. On the advising side of that, you must be able to accept critical advice and supportive advice. Good mentors are champions for your success and won’t let you make bad decisions if they can help it.
How Do You Find Good Mentors?
To some extent, you’ll know them when you see them, and they’ll know you are hoping to find them. I found one of my mentors through the serendipity of a chance encounter in the office break room. He needed three hours of urgent help on a matter, and 12 years later, we were still practicing law together daily. Another mentor reached out to me, inviting me to play a round of golf that turned out to be a tutorial on the politics of my new workplace. We played many more rounds together. Another mentor became such because I admired his approach to his career and kept asking if he needed help on any matters. Eventually, I did not need to ask. In each case, the relationship developed into a mentorship without us ever using the word. That’s good mentoring.
Two Final Words of Advice
First, given how much job movement there is in the legal industry, finding at least one mentor not working at your current employer is helpful. It’s valuable to have someone helping you by looking in from the outside. I found my involvement with the ABA, a tremendous source of mentoring in this respect, and don’t forget about social and recreational contacts.
Second, during the pandemic’s office lockouts, it became more difficult to find mentors through serendipity. The online environment requires more proactive efforts to set up visits to build mentorships. With it likely that many employers will have flexible back-to-office policies for years to come, use those days in the office to engage with others who are there as well, to establish a personal foundation even if much of your mentoring contact is online.
Good mentors don’t hang shingles on their office door saying, “Mentor Available.” You have to look for them. But, being good mentors, they are looking for you too. May you find good mentors on your way to success, and may you become a good mentor to those coming along behind you.