Looking back, I definitely remember how much lawyer mentorship was preached to me when I was a law student and a young lawyer. And 18 years later, I don’t disagree that mentorship is important in the practice of law.
At the same time, in hindsight, I wish I had more practical advice on how to be a good mentee and how to make the most of my mentoring relationships. I write this from my experience as a mentoring enthusiast who has been mentoring for over 15 years. In candor, I also write this from my experience as a terrible mentee.
Before I begin with my tips, it is fundamental to level set and work from the same understanding of what a mentor is (and just as important, what a mentor is not). A generic definition is that a mentor is an experienced or trusted advisor. This should not be confused with the concept of a champion or advocate, who is a person who uses their own credibility, reputation, social or political capital to vouch for you and advocate for your success. Also absent from that definition: Mentors are not fixers, miracle-workers, job-finders or omniscient.
This may be an unpopular opinion, but to me, a mentor really shouldn’t even be someone who tells you what to do or what you should do. Rather, the best mentors I’ve had are those who serve as an experienced sounding board, who ask questions and expand your perspective. Don’t get me wrong, mentors can certainly share how they may have dealt with situations. But be wary of anyone who is super prescriptive.
Three Ways to Make the Most of Lawyer Mentorship Relationships
With that, here are my three tips for getting the most out of mentorship relationships from the start.
1. Take the Driver’s Seat
My first tangible tip for mentees is to drive the relationship. This means that the mentee is the one who should reach out to the mentor (or their administrative assistant) to set up meetings that are convenient for the mentor. I will never forget how one of my law student mentees suggested a brunch where I could bring my child. As a senior associate and new mom in BigLaw at the time, I appreciated how thoughtful the suggestion was. It told me volumes about the kind of person she was and, frankly, endeared her to me.
Besides setting up the meeting, a mentee should prepare for what they want to talk about and any questions they have. Two common mistakes I have made as a mentee:
- Presuming that a mentor was too busy, and that was the reason they didn’t reach out (and why we didn’t meet).
- Assuming that all I had to do was set up a meeting, and they would tell me everything I needed to know about the practice of law — like some kind of brain dump.
The reality is that if someone is willing to give you time, it is up to you to take them up on the offer — and up to you to ensure that it is not a waste of their time.
2. Invest in the Relationship
The mentoring relationship is not a one-way street or a top-down transaction. And if it starts becoming that way, where the mentor feels like a gumball machine, dispensing little nuggets of advice whenever you need it, it can lead to mentor burnout and reticence. So how to invest in the relationship? Be appreciative – but don’t just say it, show it. Say it during a call. Follow up with an email or thank-you card. Maybe send a little token of your appreciation like a Starbucks card or something you know they would like from time to time.
Of course, it doesn’t have to require money. Think about how you can provide value to your mentor. Can you show them some love on Linked In through a testimonial or with a post? What about liking or commenting on their content? Is there an article or book you’d recommend based on what you know of their interests? You could also ask if there is anything you could help them with.
3. Share Your Journey With Your Mentor
My last tip is to check in from time to time with your legal mentor and share what you’ve been up to. Even better, share how the mentor’s time, connection or advice helped. This concept of providing a status update or a “progress” report may seem counterintuitive, especially because your mentors are likely to be busy lawyers and judges, but it helps with growing your relationship.
What you want to create here is investment — and people are more likely to be invested if they know what’s going on and feel like they played some part (however large or small) in your success. It may sound overly simplistic, but as a mentor, I want to know how the story ended. And it can be very dissatisfying to have spent half an hour or an hour or more of my time and energy with someone and yet never know what happened — and worse, to only hear from that person when they have another ask.
With consistent application of these three tips, you may well be on your way to being the best mentee a mentor could ever ask for.
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YOU CAN NEVER HAVE TOO MANY MENTORS
60-Minute Mentoring for Lawyers and Law Students: Small Commitments, Quick Rewards. In this easy-to-use guide, Amy Timmer and Matt Cristiano explain why having more than one mentor is essential for new lawyers — and they set you up to make the most of mentor relationships. The book explains how 60-minute mentoring works (versus traditional mentoring); finding mentors; questions to ask; how to plan for mentoring sessions; and much more. This helpful guide is packed with sample questions, anecdotes and checklists.