I recently spoke with a lawyer friend who just made a career change and I asked her how she came about deciding to switch up her professional path. She explained that a conversation over lunch with her mentor provided interesting insight that started her on the track to exploring something new. She is now thriving in her new position; all because of a little insight from a mentor.
During a student advising session last month, one of my graduating students excitedly announced that he had an interview for a graduate position. When I asked how he found out about the opportunity, he stated that he was referred to the opportunity by a mentor at his current externship — a supervising attorney with whom the student worked closely for several months. He was offered the position after the interview, and accepted; all with the helpful personal recommendation of a mentor.
Mentors are an important part of our professional growth. We’ve been told from our first day of law school to find and secure a mentor and for good reason. Not only can mentors open doors for job opportunities and prepare us to be our best professionally, they can offer more nuanced help by guiding us through the many stages in our professional paths and provide invaluable perspective from their own experience and past. But to some, the idea of securing a formal mentor feels complicated, forced, and sometimes leads to mentor-mentee relationships that are all name, but not actually productive. The good news is that we all have mentors in our lives right now, even if we do not call them by that title. Mariam-Webster Dictionary defines mentor as a trusted counselor or guide. As such, it takes more than just a quick meeting or signing up for a mentorship program to create a trusting mentor-mentee relationship. Behind every successful lawyer is likely a team of mentors playing their supportive role to that success.
So how can you create a lasting and enriching mentor-mentee relationship beyond matching with a more experienced lawyer through a formal mentorship program? Below are a few tips.
First and Foremost, Get Involved
By involving yourself in your community, professional or otherwise, you will be in the position to develop relationships with others over an extended time period. Find a cause, hobby, or activity that is meaningful to you and in time you will build relationships that will organically turn into mentorships. Attending professional organization meetings on a consistent basis, volunteering at the same time each month with the same group of fellow volunteers, playing in a just-for-fun sports team every weekend — all lead to meeting potential mentors with whom you share something in common. Beyond the professional gain of such involvement, you will get so much more by feeding your soul with time spent on a cause or hobby that’s personally important to you.
Build Professional Relationships
The best mentor-mentee relationships develop organically over time through relationship building. It may take a little work to get to know others in professional settings, but a developed sense of trust and rapport go a long way into creating opportunities to genuinely advise, educate and inspire. Take the time to engage in conversation with other professionals around you. Show sincere interest in what they have to say and pay attention to their character and personality. Take the time to learn about their professional journey and the paths it took to get where they are today. Then ask yourself if this is someone you want to seek guidance from as a mentor. As emerging lawyers, we have all created professional relationships already, so take a moment to reflect on who in your current network could already be a good fit for a mentor.
Request the Action, Not the Title
The best time to find a mentor is when you have a specific issue or topic that could use a little guidance. You can establish a mentor relationship just by seeking someone’s input a few times on a topic they know well. Rather than asking someone to formally “be” your mentor for the sake of it, go ahead and reach out for advice, guidance, and perspective on something specific. Bypass the formality, and at times the awkwardness, of instituting an official mentor-mentee relationship because one does not need the title of Mentor to act like one. Let the relationship grow organically and naturally from an actual need. Before you know it, you have been mentored without formally establishing an official mentor-mentee relationship.
Follow Up, Nurture, and Give Back
Once a mentor relationship has started, do your part in nurturing it so that it grows and evolves with your professional career. Always be gracious and appreciative of the advice your mentor gives you. Follow up with your mentor to say thank you, and let them know when you acted on their advice. Fill mentors in on the positive impact they had on your professional growth. Just because you are on the receiving end of a mentor-mentee relationship does not mean that you do not have anything to give back. Ask if they might need help with something and do your best to reciprocate. You never know when your mentor might need your advice and guidance. Establishing that trust goes both ways and only reinforces a lasting relationship.
Your ability to foster meaningful relationships in the legal profession will grow as your professional network grows. Keep it simple, be proactive about getting to know people in your professional community, and you will see that lasting and strong mentors are all around you.