Mentoring: It’s a Team Sport

A new lawyer taking the field is going to need a lot of coaching.  He or she will be using muscles in new ways, trying to learn new plays and strategies, and maybe joining a new teamall at once.  A good mentor can act as a personal trainer to help the rookie attorney get in top form, and help develop skills, teamwork, endurance and, ideally, show him or her how to be a good sport.

Some mentors and mentees may meet up and start working out together, as when a more experienced player takes a newbie under his wing, but often a mentee will seek out a coach, or a team may want a mentor to work with a new player.  Especially in larger firms, new attorneys may be assigned to a partner or senior associate who will show them the ropes and the team’s style of play.  Some mentors may be “drafted,” through a mentoring program organized by a law school career and professional development office, or a state or local bar association.

However the trainer and the new lawyer start working together, the mentoring relationship requires a training plan, and a strong coaching team will help the new attorney be successful throughout his or her career.


Develop a Training Schedule

When setting out on a formal mentoring relationship, it will help both trainer and the new lawyer to develop a plan for how to get the most out of their mentoring experience.  Each one, mentor and mentee, should start by making a list of goals.  The mentee should list the things he’d like to learn or experiences he’d like to have, and the mentor should come up with a list of ideas of what she’d like the mentee to get out of the experience, what she wishes she’d known starting out, and what sort of experiences she can provide for the mentee.  Some ideas might include:

  • Sitting in on a deposition
  • Taking a tour of the courthouse
  • Meeting attorneys in the mentee’s desired practice area
  • Attending bar functions, or other legal community events together
  • Sitting in on a client meeting
  • Drafting a research memo/will/contract for the mentor to review
  • Building and maintaining a contact list

After comparing their goals, mentor and mentee should work out a schedule, or at least some deadlines.  Perhaps it works well to meet once or twice a month for lunch or coffee, or it might work better to set a deadline: by the end of September we’ll have sat through a court proceeding, and by the end of October the mentor will have introduced the mentee to two attorneys in different practice areas.  When mentor and mentee work in the same office, there is opportunity for more frequent meetings, or for the mentor to arrange meetings with other attorney-coaches in the firm.

Don’t Drop the Ball

One important component of training and conditioning is accountability. It’s all too easy to meet someone new and say, “We should grab lunch sometime.”  A strong mentor/mentee work out requires follow though, and each member of the team should take responsibility for reaching out to the other.

For one mentor/mentee pair I’ve met, this meant that once a month the mentee sent a reminder to the mentor saying, “I’m looking forward to seeing you next Tuesday for our monthly breakfast meeting. This month we decided to discuss time management and tracking billable time.”  That reminds the mentor that she’d better check her schedule for Tuesday morning and come up with some time management issues to talk over with the mentee.  For some pairs, it may be the mentor who contacts the mentee when an interesting issue or point of law comes up in her office, and she sees chance to show the mentee some new plays.

Using a Coaching Team

Although formal, one-on-one mentoring is an excellent way for a new lawyer to find some help in the overwhelming early-on practice of law, it should only be one piece of the picture.  Remember, no one mentor can be “your everything,” and a confident mentor should encourage a mentee to get out and meet other people.

It’s important for the mentor/coach to be on the lookout for other coaches who can help the mentee.  To take the sports analogy one step further, a new player might need to work with a batting coach (maybe a litigator?), a strength and endurance trainer (someone who can help with work-life balance issues), and even if the player doesn’t think he wants to be a pitcher (insert your own metaphor here), it can’t hurt to meet a pitching coach to learn more about those skills.  The good news for the mentor is that you don’t need to be everything to your new lawyer, and by introducing your mentee to other attorneys in your firm or friends in other practices areas, you’re spreading around the mentoring tasks, as well as providing your mentee with a richer experience.

New lawyers will encounter formal and informal mentors.  Some will be teammates, like a fellow associate who can fill you in on how a certain partner likes her memos written, or a former classmate who practices in an area that you have a question about.  Others may be on the other team; if you see opposing counsel make great oral arguments, ask them to have coffee with you, so that you can learn more about their style.  Remember that experienced attorneys don’t necessarily need to practice in the area that most interests you to have experience and contacts to share with you.

Good lawyers seek out mentors throughout their career; what you learned as a new lawyer will need to be improved upon or taken to the next level.  A good mentor is often someone who has a few mentors of her own to call on from time to time, and she can draw on that experienceand those mentorsto help coach her mentee.


Free Agents

For a new lawyer setting out on his own, finding mentors can be a challenge, but it’s even more important.  In addition to advice and guidance, a mentor can be a good source of introductions and networking support.  If your local bar or your law school does not have a formal mentoring program, you’ll need to be a free agent and find your own mentors.  Ask your former classmates how they have met people, and whether they can help your with your networking. Consider joining bar association sections or committees, young (or new) lawyers’ sections, professional organizations, minority bar groups, and generally any group where lawyers meet with other lawyers.  When you meet experienced attorneys, ask them what groups they belong to, and whether they would take you along the next time they attend an event.  It’s much easier to meet people when you have a coach to introduce you to the other players!

Not every experienced attorney you meet will become a mentor, but keep your eyes open.  As you meet other attorneys, think about what kind of information they have to share, whether they might be able to introduce you to other people, or give you advice in your job search or your new job.  In addition to being mentors, some lawyers can become scouts or agents, helping to find opportunities for you.  For new solo attorneys or those looking for a job, picking up contract work can be an excellent way to get experience and let your skills shine, and attorneys in your network can be a good source of referrals and contract work.  Don’t be afraid to ask to be put in the game.

Team Support

No one makes it to the Hall of Fame on his or her own.  We all need the support of our fellow players, our coaches and trainers, and even team managers.  Good coaches and trainers will help a new lawyer to meet a variety of other coaches and trainers, to support a well-rounded rookie year.  The mentor/mentee team can make all the difference for a rookie entering the pros.

About the Author

Sarah Petersen is the Director of Alumni Relations and Recent Graduate Advising at Lewis & Clark Law School (@lewisandclark), and is a member of the Oregon State Bar’s (@OregonStateBar) New Lawyer Mentoring Program Committee.

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