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Summary: As an attorney who’s just starting out in a new firm, a mentor can be a great resource, but how should you go about finding one?
The whole idea of having a mentor is somewhat controversial and even people who do believe you should have a mentor differ about the kind of mentor you need. For instance, some people say your supervisor is your natural mentor. Others point out, “Then whom do you go to for problems dealing with your supervisor? Are you going to say to your supervisor, ‘I have a problem? My supervisor is a jerk’?”
The bottom line about mentors is this: being a lawyer takes some guidance. As we’ll see—you need to be able to learn from other people in order to succeed. That’s at the heart of mentoring. I’ve sifted through everything I heard to give you some ideas about mentors that I think you’ll find really useful. We’ll talk about the kinds of mentors you need, how to identify and use them, and how to make yourself “mentor-able.”
1. If your employer has a formal mentoring program, at least give it a try.
Formal mentoring programs have mixed success. They’re like arranged marriages: it’s luck if they work out. The fact is, a mentor has to take a sincere interest in somebody else’s career, and you can’t tell somebody to do that. But if your employer has gone to the trouble of setting you up with a formal mentor, talk to them at least once or twice. You don’t have to jump into their lap! Ask for their advice about the employer, the work, find out what they’ve done that you can emulate, mistakes they wish they hadn’t made. A true “organic” mentor can grow from a formal mentoring program if your personality meshes with the mentor’s such that the mentor develops a sincere interest in your advancement. Otherwise—no hard feelings! We’ll talk about seeking out informal “mentors” if the formal program doesn’t work (and even if it does, you should have other mentors, as well).
2. So what am I looking for?
When you’re looking for “mentor material,” you’re looking for men-tors with two sets of—well—qualifications, for lack of a better word. One set involves professional attributes, and the other, personal qualities and views.
a. Professional attributes of mentors you want:
1) People at your office who will give you insights into the workings of your office; tips on your supervisor, who’s powerful, who you shouldn’t cross, who to seek out. Mentors at the office can be incredibly valuable. A mentor might tell you ‘X is on Y’s side and Y is instrumental to your future, so don’t stand around the water cooler and say that X dresses funny. It’s too easy to feel paranoid. You need to have someone to ask, ‘Why am I getting so much grunt work?’ ‘Why don’t I have more work?’ Mentors help you sort things out.
2) People with enough juice that they are in a position to speak up for you when you need a champion—when you’ve made a mistake that needs smoothing over, or you’re being considered for a permanent offer, a promotion, a partnership.
3) People you admire, who are models for you to emulate in their work habits and “people skills.”
4) People doing the same basic type of work as you (transactional, litigation), who will critique your work.
5) People outside of your office, to give you objective advice when (and if) you want to make a career move. As one lawyer points out, “No mentor at your firm will ever say ‘It’s time for you to go to the U.S. Attorney’s office.’”
b. Personal qualities and views of people you want:
1) People who share your values, outlooks, and perspective. For instance, if a partner at the office believes that work is the only thing in life and men who spend time with their kids are wimps, and you believe in balance above all, you’re not looking at the right mentor for you!
2) Someone with whom you feel comfortable enough to speak frankly. If you’re always on pins and needles around a powerful person, you won’t be able to relax enough to benefit from their mentoring.
3) If you are a woman, a female mentor is ideal. Another woman can more fully appreciate the issues you face, and there won’t be any potential sexual harassment issues, she adds. It’s a sad fact that men can hang out together without any tongues wagging behind their backs, but if a man and a woman spend time in each other’s exclusive company—well! You can have opposite sex mentors, but be aware of the potential issues.
Ultimately, you want their stories, their insights, and their faith in you.
If you think these qualities suggest that you ought to have more than one mentor—you’re right. As one recruiting coordinator says, “You don’t have to love everything about a person to learn from them.” Ideally you’ll have several mentors with whom you can discuss different aspects of your career and your life. And as you move on and perhaps change jobs, your mentor “group” evolves, too. Always keep your eyes open for new advisors, new people to emulate. How do you find them? That’s what we’ll talk about next.
3. Baiting the hook—making yourself “mentor-worthy”
As is true about everything else to do with mentoring, how you go about getting a mentor is the subject of some controversy. Some people tell you to actively seek them out, but here’s the problem: you can’t make someone take an interest in you and your career. Let’s face it: in every tangible respect, there’s more in it for you than there is for them. You get the advice you need to propel your career forward, practical advice and inside skinny. They get the pleasure of seeing their prot6g£ succeed. That’s not nothing, but it really is their call as to whether there’s going to be a mentor relationship or not.
So finding a mentor is really a matter of positioning yourself so that people you want to have as mentors will want to mentor you. The East-ern proverb that opened this section, courtesy of Dennis Kennedy, says it all: “When the student is ready... the teacher will come.” How do you make yourself ready?
a. Ask questions!
When you identify people with “mentoring potential,” talk to them. Ask, “How did you do this or that?” One attorney suggests that you ask, “I see what you’ve done with your career, I’d like to be there. I’d love your advice.” Say things like, “I’d like to learn how you do this particular practice or how you got this client,” or ask “I’ve heard great things about your work. Can I see some of your memos so I can emulate them?” Overall, “Let them know you want to learn from them. Be overt about it!”
b. Pay appropriate compliments.
It’s rare for someone not to enjoy being told by a younger per-son, “I admire you. I want to be like you. It amazes me how you get along with everybody. People rave about your work.”
c. Think of people you clicked with during interviews.
If they liked you when they interviewed you, their recommendations helped bring you into the organization in the first place. That makes them potential mentors.
d. See who’s been pleased with your work.
If someone tells you “Great job!” on something you do, you’ve got a potential mentor.
e. Take advantage of social events at work.
Whether it’s a social event at work or a community event, you need to be open and create a comfort zone around you. You can’t build barriers. They don’t want to help you if they don’t know you. See who you click with best at those functions. An easy relationship is at the heart of mentoring.
f. Get active in the legal community outside of work.
Get active on a committee. Take on a project for the bar association. Co-chair a project. Don’t just go to meetings. Show yourself so people will notice you.
g. Don’t jump at the first person who strikes you as a potential mentor.
When you start in a new job, it’s tempting to glom onto the first person who takes an interest in you. Remember, you have to “qualify” people as mentors before you align yourself with them. As one partner pointed out, “You don’t know on the first day of school if you’re hanging with a geek—until you see them make a jerk of themselves in class.” Be cautious until you’ve had a little time to analyze the situation and make sure it will work for you.
4. Listen and watch for cues. Mentoring springs organically from there.
When people express an interest in you and your career, take them up on that. Listen for phrases like ‘Feel free to come in and speak to me.’ Openings like that lead to mentoring relationships.
5. Now that you have your mentors, handle them wisely!
First of all, remember that you can be open with your mentor but if you work together, (s)he still a colleague first. Don’t throw your discretion entirely to the wind. And if the mentor in question is someone from outside your office, remember confidentiality: “You have to speak about your cases with outside mentors in general terms to protect confidentiality,” says one attorney.
Second, be a sponge. Incorporate what people tell you and emulate them. If you routinely don’t heed their advice, they won’t go to bat for you. Show them that you respect their advice, follow up, let them know what, and how, you did.
Third, remember that sometimes what you get from a mentor is criticism. The more you get, the more grateful you should be. They’re trying to help you succeed.
Finally, remember that you’re not married to your mentor(s). If the relationship turns sour, or you find the mentor isn’t who you thought they were, move on!
CAREER LIMITING MOVE
New associate at a large firm. He identifies his mentor target the day he arrives: a partner in the litigation department who seems powerful. He aligns himself with this partner, and in his words "pat myself on the back for choosing this guy." The partner gives the new associate some work, and they have a good rapport. At the new associate's first semi-annual review, nobody has anything good to say about him. The associate stammers, "But... but... didn't X have good things to say about me?" The reviewers roll their eyes, and say, "Frankly, we didn't ask him." The associate reflects, "It turns out this guy was dead wood. He had no political clout. In fact, he was the laughingstock of the firm. If you find out your mentor is no good, cut bait. I hadn't taken the time to figure out who to be aligned with before casting my lot with this guy. You're responsible for managing your own career!"
6. Giving back to your mentor—and people who follow you up the ladder
I’ve already told you that mentors get the pleasure of watching you progress. It reflects well on them. They’re flattered by it. But don’t be a hog. Take advantage of ways to help your benefactor in return. For instance, many senior attorneys don’t feel comfortable with computers. Help them out! Or if you know they like hearing the inside skinny on what’s going on among the junior associates, tell them (being mindful of secrets—don’t violate confidences any more than you’d expect anyone else to violate yours). Or maybe your mentor needs help with an article or a speech. Be willing to step up to the plate for them as they do for you.
As you progress, keep your eye out for people behind you. As soon as you’re a first year associate, you’re more senior than the summer clerks! As Kathleen Brady says, “If you miss out on watching protégés succeed, you’re losing out on one of the true joys in life. And it helps the profession. You hand off the ball to the next generation.”
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