May 2016

Are You My Mentor?

By Alyssa Sarbacher

Skane Wilcox LLP

Many emerging lawyers understand the importance of finding and having a mentor. Some of us, however, might be trying to find a mentor in the wrong way. If an emerging lawyer has to ask the question, “Are you my mentor?” the answer is likely no.

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a mentor as, “someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a less experienced and often younger person.” To the contrary, mentors do not have to only come from superiors; it can go the other way too, or even peer to peer. Also, mentorships are more reciprocal than they appear. A mentor can obtain useful information from the mentee, greater commitment from colleagues, a good feeling for giving back to the profession, and pride in the success of their mentee(s).  But how does one forge that connection?

The unguided quest for finding a mentor may feel similar to a favorite childhood book story about a hatchling that leaves the empty nest in search for its mom. The hatchling goes up to a cow asking, “Are you my mom?” The cow says, “No.” The hatchling goes up to a horse asking, “Are you my mom?” and the horse says, “No.” After walking up to several other animals and asking the same question, the hatchling finally goes back to the empty nest.  The mom bird arrives at the nest and the hatchling exclaims, “You are my mom!” Once an emerging lawyer finds a mentor, rarely do they even have to ask the question, “are you my mentor?” because it is obvious. 

Have you ever had someone that was looking out for you? How about someone that assisted you in your legal writing or oral advocacy? That’s a mentor. A mentor does not have to go to coffee or lunch with you to “catch up.”  In fact, most mentors don’t have time for that. The word “mentor” never needs to be uttered when approaching a person for guidance or advice.  This is because developing the relationship is more important than the label.  Also, the label is open for interpretation.

Despite how critical the right mentorship is to forging a career, career training often ignores the technique of finding the right mentor.  The question may seem flattering to the potential mentor, but may be a mood killer depending on the relationship.  This type of pointed question stems from career advice and seminars directed to emerging lawyers.  The advice emphasizes the importance of mentorship, but ignores the mechanics of the relationship.  No mentor wants to be a box on a career checklist, but wants to have a meaningful and mutually beneficial relationship. A mentor selects his or her protégé based on performance and potential. As Oprah Winfrey once said, “I mentor when I see something and I say…I want to see that grow.” People invest in those that stand out for their talent or who can really benefit from their help.  Here are some tips on how to find the right mentor for you.

Show that you have done your work and are looking for guidance, not hand-holding.

Potential mentors respond better to a well-pointed inquiry rather than broad questions.   When talking to someone with whom you wish to forge a nurturing relationship, never ask a question that you could easily find on your own. Leading with a vague question often shows ignorance, and will likely not get an engaged response or a willingness to answer future questions.  In addition to developing your question, learn a little bit about the potential mentor as a person.  Make sure you find out their background and interests, incorporating this information into your interesting point or thoughtful question. Finally, always follow up afterwards to provide the results/feedback of the discussion/answered inquiry.  This can be accomplished either in person, via e-mail, or other informal means.  You can capture someone’s attention or imagination in less than a minute, but only when planned and tailored to that individual.

Create an impromptu meeting for advice or guidance.

An associate attorney can create an impromptu meeting for advice or guidance from a partner or more experienced attorney within the same law firm. For example, after a law firm meeting while everyone is returning to their offices, an associate can approach a partner or higher level attorney in the hallway or a similar informal setting.  Alternatively, an emerging lawyer may approach attorneys as they leave the courtroom or even attend SDCBA events with a plethora of experienced attorneys in attendance. Then, the associate attorney asks a well-pointed question as discussed above. Afterwards, the associate attorney follows-up with an e-mail to the potential mentor to thank them for their advice or guidance, provides feedback on the results, and seeks additional advice.  Without forcing the mentorship issue, the potential mentor is now invested in the emerging lawyer and a professional relationship is more likely to result. All the while, the word “mentor” was never uttered.

Always be respectful of a potential mentor’s time.

A potential mentor will continue to invest time and energy when the mentee uses their time well and is truly open to feedback.  The best relationships are those where both people are getting something out of the relationship.  You can show your mentor you appreciate their guidance by sending a handwritten thank you note, informal e-mail, or other means to say thank you.  Additionally, let the potential mentor know how their advice turned out for you.

When you have a mentor, don’t use their time to complain or vent.

Don’t complain or vent to a mentor to validate your feelings. Instead, focus on a specific problem with a real solution. Being unsure on how to proceed is natural and is not a sign of weakness.  Instead, it is the first step in finding a path forward.  Also, remember to recognize the mentors in your own personal and professional life.

Overall, an emerging lawyer can be confident in knowing that these types of mentorship moments are available. The more you excel in the profession the more likely you’ll get a mentor. In fact, the key is creating these mentorship moments and being content with all the various mentors that you likely already have. A change in perspective and changing the mentor definition could make finding a mentor that much easier. Above all else, remember that the strongest relationships/mentorships spring out of a real, and often earned, connection felt by both sides. Thus, the next time you find yourself asking, “are you my mentor?” perhaps the better question might be one that is uniquely tailored and personal to that potential mentor instead.