Mentoring for the Government Attorney
From Both Perspectives
  By Jeff McDermott and Amy Bowser
Jeff McDermott is a senior attorney and Amy Bowser is a staff attorney at the U.S. Government Accountability Office in Washington, D.C. They may be contacted at and, respectively.
Mentee: When I received an offer to work at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) after law school, I didn’t know the first thing about practicing government law. I was assigned to the Budget and Appropriations group and was not even sure how the government defined the word “appropriation.” As I faced the reality of beginning my professional career, I quickly realized that I was moving to a new city to start a new job in a field completely new to me, and I was scared.
Luckily, the GAO had a formal mentoring program in place to help new attorneys transition into the office. My designated mentor contacted me prior to my arrival, which helped to alleviate my anxiety. While the formal mentorship helped me hit the ground running, it later became important to seek both formal and informal guidance from other coworkers. I have since come to rely on many others as mentors due to their areas of expertise, their knowledge of both the substantive and procedural aspects of the office, and my ability to relate to them.
For me, a mentor is more than a model employee with a wealth of experience who is well versed in the inner workings of the office; a mentor is someone who you trust and admire and who is willing to help you not only at work but in life. I was fortunate that my office both assigned a mentor to assist me in the early days and provided the flexibility for me to seek out a mentor of my choosing to guide me as my career progressed. My current mentor, Jeff, helps me daily by answering minor procedural questions, acting as a sounding board, and talking through complex legal issues.
Mentor : I remember the days when I, too, had a formal mentor assigned to me. I found it invaluable to have someone to go to lunch with, to teach me the formal and informal protocols of the office, and to be available for my many questions. As my career progressed, I also sought out other informal mentors, and even found that more experienced attorneys in other divisions or offices can be useful mentors, as a certain level of comfort is derived from the fact that the person from whom you are soliciting advice is not your supervisor.
To get the most out of a mentoring relationship, particularly in a government job, look for mentors who can help you in the following ways:
  • Providing reliable information. Look for trustworthy colleagues who have good diplomacy skills and experience in the specific areas of the law in which you need information.
  • Navigating office politics. It is equally important to have someone well versed in office politics who can share experiences with you and warn of potential pitfalls.
  • Serving as a sounding board. Find a mentor who you are comfortable with and respect; it is always beneficial to have someone with whom to talk over an issue, whether it is legal or personal. A sounding board can be a more senior attorney, a peer, or even a newer attorney; trust and judgment are key.
  • Networking. Seek out colleagues who can connect you with other attorneys, both within and outside your government agency. As a new attorney, it is important to have a mentor to introduce you to your new office colleagues, and in the federal government, it is crucial to connect with attorneys at other agencies and across branches of government. Your mentor can help you make these connections, so when you need a quick answer to a pressing legal issue, you won’t have to make a “cold call.”
Ready Resources
• Judge for Yourself: Clarity, Choice, and Action in Your Legal Career. 2006.
PC # CEV05JFYB. ABA Career Resource Center and Center for CLE.
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