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A Curmudgeon's Perspective

Experience Is the Best Teacher

By Otto Sorts

When it was all over, I took a few days off. When I returned, the managing partner wanted to see me. I entered his office ready to be fired. It was the first big case I had led, and there had been quite a few problems.

“So, how did it go?” he asked.

“Some parts were okay,” I replied. “But others were a shambles.”

“Yeah,” he nodded, “that’s what I heard.”

We sat in silence for a minute before I finally asked, “Am I fired?”

He looked at me solemnly, then smiled. “Are you kidding? We’ve spent a lot of time training you, and now you have some valuable experience.” Then he paused and said, “You gain experience from your mistakes, and I believe you just had a world-class lesson.”

I wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or terrified.

He was one of my early mentors. He knew how to guide me rather than drive me, and always tried to understand where I was coming from.

Mentoring: The Wise Ones Have an Obligation

A few weeks back, I saw some of the old guys at a firm alumni gathering. It made me think about all the wisdom I have been exposed to, thanks to those people and others during my career. We didn’t have a lot of self-help books back then. (“I’m Okay, You’re Okay” and “How to Win Friends and Influence People” were the standards.) I not only learned from them how to work in the world, I also learned something about how to be a mentor, how to guide the new ones.

Here’s a little bit of what I learned from my mentors about mentoring others.

  • Hear what they have to say. Ask questions rather than tell, and try to understand what they mean. I find that much of the time, each person’s perspective, though different from mine, is valuable in understanding the way they think.
  • Be objective. Try not to be judgmental. Not everyone has to agree with you, your opinion or your approach. Take what they say and try it on, see if it’s a way that could work, even if it’s not the way you would do it (since obviously your way is the best). Maybe you can learn a new trick or two.
  • Discuss differences in approach, and the strengths and weaknesses. Get them to evaluate options and approaches. Find out what they know about or see in the situation, then show them what you know and how you might do it. Never dismiss their ideas out of hand.
  • Model good behavior. You don’t have to be perfect. Let them into your head about how you think, what your approach or strategy is, and what you have experienced. Show them how you do it, and be frank and open with them about what worked and what didn’t. Why do you do one thing and not the other? What external factors did you assess, and how did those affect your decisions?
  • Accept some risk. Part of your job as a mentor is to explain risk and benefit and how those factors are weighed when making decisions. You also have to explain risk and benefit in terms of career and the future. I’ve been fired for making decisions that turned out wrong, and I survived (bruised, but alive). But sometimes, being too cautious is worse than taking too many risks. That’s where experience comes in. To learn, they have to get the experience, whether they are successful or not.

Ultimately, mentoring is about helping the new ones gain the experience they need to be successful. They may fall off the bike a few times, but the keepers will get it. Hopefully, your advice will help them to suffer only a few bruises and scrapes instead of broken bones.

But I can tell you from personal experience, broken bones heal, too.

Illustration ©

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Otto Sorts Otto Sorts

Otto Sorts has been reading law since before Martindale met Hubbell. Of Counsel at a large corporate firm that prefers to remain anonymous, Otto is a respected attorney and champion of the grand tradition of the law. He is, however, suspicious of “new-fangled” management ideas and anyone who calls the profession the legal “industry.” When he gets really cranky about something he blogs at Attorney at Work.

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