A mentor is an experienced trusted advisor who can provide guidance and support as you navigate the paths through your legal career. Mentors can open doors, make connections, provide advice, serve as a confidant, and act as a sounding board. Establishing a team to sponsor growth and avoid potential pitfalls throughout your legal career is critical for success, happiness, and professional development. The practice of law is a lifetime of learning and after around 20 years in a classroom, you will need to engage a variety of other sources to continue your education. Using mentors and sponsors to fill these roles will be valuable and rewarding for both parties.
Strategically analyze your goals and define your expectations
The first step is to lay out your needs and expectations. Think of mentors like medical specialists. You wouldn’t go to the urologist for an eye exam. Are you looking for a person to call to ask subject matter-specific questions? Someone who can help you navigate the complexities of firm culture? A working parent to share the challenges of work-life balance? A friend who likes to hike while brainstorming the future of legal technology? Also, what are the character traits and attributes you’d find in an ideal mentor? These needs will evolve, so when you start with the “what” instead of first focusing on the “who,” you can map out your goals more strategically.
You should also outline your expectations for each relationship. Do you anticipate meeting weekly or only on an as-needed basis? In-person or is an e-mail sufficient? Some mentoring relationships will come with a formal structure, especially if organized through your employer or a professional organization. Understand that even if you are “assigned” a mentor at work, it may not always be the best fit. Participate in the relationship to the extent it is valuable, but don’t just check off the “I have a mentor” box. Make sure that they can fulfill your needs. If not, there is no limit to the number of mentors you can have. However, use time wisely, yours and especially theirs.
Undoubtedly you recognize the value in obtaining a mentor, but it is certainly easier said than done. So where do you find people willing to give up their free time when they could be billing or practicing self-care?
Before you run off and sign up for every mentoring group you find online, take a step back and evaluate your existing network. Think of all the circles to which you already have access: high school, college, and law school friends or other alumni – even ones you don’t yet know; colleagues from prior work experiences; family members and family friends; and members of the bar and other professional organizations.
Look into your existing organizations and see if they have any formal mentoring programs. If possible, talk to other participants to evaluate the quality of the program. This is not always straightforward, as it is very dependent on who the mentor is, but asking questions about program support can be enlightening. Reach out to the schools you attended and discuss what you are looking for with your alumni relations office.
I have the privilege of sitting on the Women in the Law Steering Committee at my law school, organized by our distinguished alumni leader. No other group in my professional life provides the collective support and sponsorship as these women do. We are all from diverse backgrounds and in very different legal positions, which serves to enhance the experience. We collectively celebrate one another’s success and support our challenges. They will band together to elevate your accomplishments through award nominations, introduce you to their expansive network, and provide platforms from which you can reach what seemed to be unachievable goals. This is the ultimate group for collaborative mentorship, where everyone seems to give and receive collectively. You may find this comradery through a committee at a bar association or by doing pro bono or volunteer work. Maybe it has yet to be established and you are the one to bring this group together.
Make use of social networking sites. That is what they are for. Using your well-defined criteria, and possibly a shared connection, reach out and see about getting a coffee or a quick call. Obtaining mentors outside of a structured program is obviously more difficult, and is really dependent upon a mutual appreciation for one another. You shouldn’t come out of the gate asking for anything, including mentorship, and you don’t always need to slap a title on it. It is not something that can be bought but must be forged. The investment in time can result in the most rewarding relationships.
Once you have a mentor, you must be thoughtful and considerate about the maintenance of the relationship. Make sure both of you have a shared understanding of the expectations. If ever your mentor doesn’t have time, you must respect that. They don’t owe you anything. Lawyering is already a busy profession, and undoubtedly the people you’d love to serve in this role already have a full plate. Take what you can get and appreciate it.
Make the most of the time you have. Don’t waste it asking questions that you don’t really care about because you think you should. Be genuine. It is easy to get excited and monopolize the conversation trying to express your needs. Less is more. Ask considerate and strategic questions appropriate for this particular person. Why did you choose them? What was it about them that you wanted to know or learn? Identify a specific goal and after you’ve made your request, step back and listen. Listen for the purpose of really hearing what your mentor has to say instead of planning what you’re going to say next. You are not preparing for cross-examination.
Maintain a relationship with mentors, even if their expertise is not required at the moment. Don’t waste their time, but if grabbing a cup of coffee is something you both still enjoy, find the time. If neither of you has the time, at least keep them on your holiday card list. Being thoughtful and genuine is a critical part of having a sincere mentoring relationship.
Show appreciation and pay it forward
If it is good advice, follow it, and if you have positive results, let them know. Gratitude is the basic compensation for someone to give you their time and advice, and being able to assist you in achieving measurable results is certainly a bonus. This does not mean you need to spend hundreds of dollars on a gift basket, but a sincere and timely note of thanks goes a long way, especially if its handwritten. If the mentor is internal, you can acknowledge their contributions to their supervisors in a genuine way, which is invaluable. Or, if you have the opportunity to publicly acknowledge your gratitude for their contributions do so. Make sure your thanks are in line with what they would appreciate.
My biggest sponsor is a male colleague at Northeastern University School of Law. He would never accept anything from me and gives freely and frequently of his time, wisdom and friendship. He has a unique power to ask exactly the right question to allow you to figure out the answer that is right for you. I now have the privilege of serving as a mentor myself and I often work on employing his approaches. The most I ask for in return as a mentor is that when it’s time that you pay it forward. Keep the cycle of sponsorship growing.
About the Author
Sofia Lingos is the founding and managing attorney of Trident Legal, a Boston-based law firm that provides legal services to businesses, entrepreneurs, and start-ups. She also teaches at Northeastern University School of Law.