Getting a Mentor – A 6 Step Guide for Law Students and Young Lawyers

mentoring

In my last post about mentoring for law students and new lawyers, I noted that a mentor isn’t necessary to successfully navigate all aspects of your legal career.  For instance, a mentor is overkill when all you need is information (e.g., the mechanics of on campus recruiting).  However, when you move beyond basic information and are seeking guidance (e.g., which firms should you target), a mentor can be incredibly useful.   So where are they and how do you get one?

Step 1. Understand the Different Types of Mentors

Before you begin your mentor search, consider what you hope to gain.  Why is it that you really need a mentor?  Masterworks, a career development firm, has identified eight areas where mentors can add value. 1  I’ve adapted their model for junior law firm associates, but all junior attorneys and law students should find it helpful.

Mentoring Types for Junior Attorneys

Area of Expertise

The Details

Lawyering Mentor

The Lawyer’s Lawyer

Person who teaches you basic lawyering skills and develops your technical expertise.

Industry Mentor

The Business Geek

Person who reads the Wall Street Journal like it’s 50 Shades of Grey and keeps you current on general economic trends.

Firm Culture Mentor

The Clintonian

Person who is beloved by all at the firm and navigates the law firm machine with such ease, you wonder why they didn’t go into politics.

Client Relationship Mentor

The Rainmaker

Person who the clients adore and remembers birthdays and anniversaries without the Facebook reminders. 

Work Process Mentor

The Organizer

Person who gets twice as much done as everyone else in half the time.  You know their closet is color-coded, and you both hate and love them for it.

Technology Mentor

The Computer Nerd

Person who gets excited about the technology upgrade that slows all the servers down for a week.  They likely lead the local Apple cult.

Work/Life Mentor

The Dr. Phil in the Office

Person who keeps telling you to live your best life and manages to spend time with their family and friends.

Career Development Mentor

The Proven Winner

Person whose career journey has taken them places you want to go.

 

Step 2. Take a Personal Inventory

With the mentoring universe set, it’s time to take stock of your mentoring needs.   Many law firms use competency based management, and will compare your skills against the tried-and-true qualities of their most successful attorneys.  For example, competency areas for a major law firm may be as follows: 

Key Competencies for Successful Law Firm Associates 

Lawyering

  • Written Communication
  • Oral Communication
  • Legal Research and Analysis
  • Advocacy
  • Ethics

Work Process

  • Time Management
  • Professionalism
  • Work Ethic and Initiative
  • Interpersonal Skills
  • Teamwork and Delegation
  • Diplomacy

Client Relationship

  • Relationship Management
  • Business Development
  • Billing and Timekeeping

Organizational Culture

  • Firm Activities
  • Recruiting and Retention
  • Pro Bono and Community Involvement

 

How would you rate yourself in any given category on a scale of 1 to 5?  Before you dive in and give yourself 5’s across the board, make sure you understand your firm’s definition of competence given your experience and class level.  For the lawyering competency area, expectations for a first-year associate may be as follows:

Sample Lawyering Competencies for a First-Year Associate

Area

Competency

Expectations

Lawyering

Written Communication

Consistently drafts error-free transaction documents, pleadings, memos, e-mails and articles and other written documents with an eye towards accuracy and attention to detail.

Oral Communication

Appropriately conveys views and advice with confidence, clarity, and maturity.

Legal Research and Analysis

Quickly understands key issues and/or facts, and efficiently identifies (and thoughtfully applies) the relevant authority.

Advocacy

Respectfully and concisely presents issues, findings, and suggestions to senior attorneys.

Ethics

Follows jurisdictional requirements as well as the firm’s policies (e.g., conflicts procedures, client confidentiality, reporting).

 

If your firm doesn’t publish its competency model, sit down with your professional development contact and ask about performance expectations for first-year associates.  Better yet, be bold and ask for a blank copy of your firm’s associate evaluation.  

Once, you have a grasp on the expectations for each competency, you’re ready to rate yourself.  Aim for brutal honestly.  Did you ever get confused on an assignment? Ask for more time?  Freeze in front of a partner?  You are not alone.  Even great associates have room for improvement. 

Step 3. Prioritize Your Mentoring Needs 

Now you’re ready to recruit.  Be sure to prioritize your recruiting based on your needs and your firm’s expectations.  For instance, junior attorneys should immediately recruit lawyering, technology, organization, and work process mentors.   Why? The junior associate learning curve is steep and your first priority is to be fantastic in your current role. 

Next, tackle recruiting career development and work/life mentors.  Your legal career is a marathon, not a sprint; these two mentors will ensure you pace yourself and don’t lose sight of your larger career goals. 

Last, seek out industry and client mentors.  As you progress in your career, your focus will shift from your internal clients (senior attorneys) to external clients (in house counsel).  So, you’ll need to understand the nuances of their businesses to add value.

Step 4. Scout Out Mentor Possibilities

So, where do you find a mentor?  First, start with the understanding that you’ll likely need multiple mentors to see you through.  With a constantly changing legal profession, you cannot expect one person to serve all your mentoring needs. 

Second, keep in mind that not all of your mentors have to be lawyers.  An administrative assistant, paralegal or uber-organized friend can be your work process mentor.  Your firm’s IT folks or the guy who staffs the Mac genius bar can be your technology guru.  In that same vein, remember that mentors do not have to be older than you, just more experienced in a given area.  So, keep an open mind as you scout for mentors.

When no one but an attorney will do, look no further than your law firm; local and specialty bar associations that focus on your practice area or diverse background; your law school professors or alumni; or nonprofit organizations.  For example, as a black female tax attorney who went to UVA Law, I could look to get involved with the National Bar Association, DC Women’s Bar Association, or DC Bar’s Taxation Section.  Or, I could look to nonprofit groups like Corporate Counsel Women of Color or Minority Corporate Counsel Association.  Other resources for me include the UVA Law Alumni Association as well as the alumni groups for my other alma maters.

Step 5. Get Yourself That Mentor 

So, how do you get someone to agree to be your mentor?  Well, you don’t.  

Mentoring isn’t like 8th grade Harvest Festival where a formal invite is required.  In fact, many mentors likely don’t consider themselves mentors.  Instead, they think of themselves as lending a helping hand to a friend or a younger colleague.  Getting a mentor is surprisingly simple.  Once you’ve chosen your prospective mentor:

  • Ask to meet.
  • Stay in contact.
  • Apply your mentor’s advice.
  • Repeat.

As with your most valued friendships, a mentor-mentee relationship evolves organically, over time, and as a result of attention and nurturing. 

Step 6. Make Yourself Easy to Mentor

Getting a mentor is easy.  However, keeping one is where most folks fall short. Why? Because mentees fail to realize as the person who needs assistance, they should do the heavy lifting.  People are willing to mentor but are not keen to create additional work for themselves.  So, be a great mentee and make being a mentor virtually effortless.  Below are some tips to get you started. 

  • Respect Folks’ Time:  For mentors, particularly busy attorneys, time is a precious commodity.  So, convey respect for your mentor’s time by keeping your initial meetings to 15-20 minutes.  Long enough for coffee and a question.  Also, offer to meet near or at your mentor’s office to minimize the amount of time they’re away from work.
  • Pace Yourself: Mentoring is an ongoing exchange, so no need to get all of your questions out in one sitting like a harried Presidential debate moderator.  Aim to cover no more than 1-2 topics per meeting.  Also, tailor your questions reflect the strength of your relationship.   Early on, ask for something that takes no more than 5 or 10 minutes to provide – an anecdote, advice or introduction.   
  • Be Prepared:  Before meeting with your mentor, research the issue and develop a thoughtful area of inquiry.   No mentor wants to be your personal Google search.  You’ll also be able to better understand the advice you receive.
  • Be Honest:  In this smartphone age, do not bury your request for assistance behind 3-4 paragraphs of lead-in.  Be polite and brief –  remind your mentor of the relevant context (your connection, the advice, etc.) and make your request.   Your mentors will appreciate the fact they do not have to wade through your e-mail to figure out what you need.
  • Take Responsibility:  Only one person is accountable for your development as an attorney – you. While your mentor may provide insight along the way, only you can set goals, work hard to implement the advice, and reap the benefits.
  • Stay in Touch and Thankful:  Do not disappear once you receive advice, only to turn up like a bad penny when you have another question.  Stay in contact with your mentor once a month and leave some of your interactions question-free.  Last, when you receive advice follow-up with your mentor to say thanks and to let them know how things worked out.   If they’ve given you stellar advice, give them that warm, fuzzy feeling that comes from giving back.
  • Return a Good Deed with Another: Keep in mind that mentoring is a two-way street. Just because you’re new to law doesn’t mean don’t have helpful experience in another. You may be able to serve as a resource to your mentor in your area of expertise. Also, look for ways to volunteer and ligthen your mentor’s load. For instance, if your mentor has an event or function coming up, offer to help. 

Always remember that as a budding lawyer, you are an entrepreneur.   Your career is your business and your mentors are your advisory board.   So, happy searching!

We’d like to know how things worked out as well. How did you find your mentor? How many mentors do you have? Was being mentored what you expected? Share your experience in the comments.

 

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Melinda Hightower

Melinda Hightower

Founder and Chair at Blueprint JD
Melinda Hightower is passionate about legal diversity, literature and community activism. When she’s not busy earning her keep as an attorney, she operates Blueprint JD, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to building diversity in the legal profession.

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