With the advent of Fall, many of us are welcoming new associates into our practices. And as we do so, it is a time for us all to be reminded of the importance of mentorship in our profession. My good friend, Tom Cox, is back this month with another excellent post. Below are some of his thoughts on the value of this undertaking for not only the mentee, but for those of us who serve as mentors as well.
Most aspiring young professionals have been advised frequently about the importance of obtaining mentoring from experienced and well-positioned individuals in their fields. We have also read about how difficulties in identifying and securing effective mentors can serve as a hidden barrier to career advancement in most any field of endeavor (especially for women and minorities entering into the business world). The value of effective mentoring to a young lawyer extends beyond merely obtaining an advocate to assist in career promotion, as an involved mentor can offer support and advice, and serve as a role model, in dealing with the many demands and opportunities presented in any legal practice. What can be overlooked, however, are the potential benefits to the mentor from entering into and fostering such relationships.
My own career, like that of many lawyers, was aided immeasurably by mentoring from experienced attorneys with whom I had the privilege of working during my early years in the profession. In addition to providing me with access to considerable legal knowledge and practice advice and playing a direct role in my advancement within the law firm where I worked, those mentors served as models for me of lawyers who maintained a high level of professional competence and integrity, while exhibiting both a passion for their work and a commitment to their families and the community.
As my career progressed, I found myself occasionally occupying a mentorship role with respect to younger colleagues. I soon came to see mentoring less experienced attorneys not as a selfless act or a burden, but rather as a satisfying and meaningful development in my own career. To be sure, the relationships provided me the opportunity and privilege of both passing along some hard-earned (or previously gifted from others) lessons regarding the practice of law generally, and sharing some substantive expertise. But what I also discovered was that I learned nearly as much from novice attorneys as they did from me. I doubt that my experience was unique. When a bond of mutual respect and trust can be established between mentor and mentee, then both almost surely will benefit. A thoughtful, bright and energetic (but inexperienced) lawyer may have dynamic and creative ideas, or insightful and probing questions and opinions about legal strategy and tactics, but might feel understandably hesitant to risk sharing them with a senior supervising attorney for fear of being “wrong” or “out of line.” If a mutually respectful and supportive mentorship relationship exists between the attorneys, the less experienced lawyer will feel more freedom and a stronger commitment to the task at hand and thus will make a more effective contribution to the case and the client.
Serving as a mentor also offers opportunities to reflect about one’s own career and to share perspectives gained from experiences, both good and bad. Having a significant role in the professional maturing and flourishing of a young lawyer can provide a measure of satisfaction like that experienced by teachers in many other contexts. After all, we lawyers did all chose to enter a “helping profession” so the mentorship role should be one that feels naturally rewarding to us.
So my advice to new and less experienced lawyers is to seek out and identify potential mentors. Focus initially on experienced lawyers you already know, or know about, particularly those whose professional careers and personal qualities you admire. Do not hesitate or apologize about asking someone to serve in that role, as most will view it as a privilege to do so (and those who turn you down would not likely have served you well anyway).