10 Tips for Mentoring a Young Lawyer

Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.

According to the PricewaterhouseCoopers report in its 14th Annual Global CEO Survey, 98% of Millennial workers believe that working with a coach or mentor is important to their development. More would choose training and development as a benefit than a cash bonus. When I shared information about this survey on Twitter, Jasmine Decarie, Director of Marketing & Business Development at Foley Hoag, wisely pointed out that law firms need to train mentors on mentoring.

Jasmine’s admonition brought me back to my official mentor in BigLaw. He was a kindly gray-haired gentleman in the trial department. Although all first-years were on General Assignment in those days, I wondered why I received a trial lawyer as a mentor, when I wanted to do corporate work.

It was my first day of work as a “real” lawyer. He took me to lunch at an elegant restaurant in a private club, and warmly welcomed me to the firm with polite conversation. I appreciated how nice he was to me that day, especially when I tried to cut my soft-shell crab into a bite-size piece. To my horror, it shot through the red sauce on my plate and skipped across the white tablecloth like a smooth stone on a pond, leaving a bloody trail.

Perhaps my mortification prevented me from recalling any helpful advice from him that day. I’m sure he invited me to let him know if I had any questions. That was our last meeting until the end of my first year, however. When I saw him at firm social events, he politely asked me how I was doing, and I politely responded that I was doing fine.

I was too green to know how to use a mentor, and evidently he wasn’t any better informed about the process. I truly believe that if he had known what to do, he would have done his best. Today when I talk to young associates who have an assigned mentor, some don’t fare much better than I did. So I’m setting out 10 tips on how to be an effective mentor to a young lawyer.

1.) Clarify your role as a mentor. Have a conversation with the mentee in which you mutually explore your respective roles in the mentor relationship. If you’ve been a mentor before, give some examples of how your past mentees used the opportunity. If you’re new to mentoring, be honest with the fact that you will be feeling your way along, and will need input, suggestions, requests and feedback from your mentee about the process. Share your expectations and assumptions, and ask for hers.

2.) Set up regular meetings. A young lawyer may be hesitant to bother a busy partner with minor issues and “dumb” questions. If you have a monthly lunch, it will create an opportunity for issues and concerns to come out and get resolved, before they turn into real problems. More frequent regular meetings can put pressure on an associate, and less frequent ones may not foster a close relationship. If questions come up between meetings, be as generous with your time as you can, but encourage young lawyers to batch their questions when possible. That will help reduce the number of interruptions you experience.

3.) Keep your commitments. Although a lawyer’s calendar often gets hijacked by client needs, accord your mentee appointment as much respect as you would any other appointment. Fulfill the promises you make. Your commitment will send many signals to the mentee. It will model integrity with one’s word, reinforcing the importance of accountability. It will help to foster a relationship of trust, and may help your firm overcome the widespread perception that associates are little more than cannon fodder to their law firms.

4.) Seek to understand your mentee before advising. This is particularly important if you are a baby boomer and your mentee is a Millennial, as your values may differ significantly. A mentor relationship is different from a boss relationship, even when you play both roles with the same person. A subordinate may be expected to understand the needs of the boss, but in a mentor relationship, the focus is on the mentee’s success. Ask about your mentee’s vision and goals and help him clarify them. Calibrate your advice to his goals, rather than your own.

5.) Maintain confidentiality. Reach an agreement with your mentee about what will be considered confidential between you. You are investing your time and effort in her. Keep your investment productive by making it safe for your mentee to be honest and forthcoming with you.

6.) Tell the truth. Mentees need help in learning the unwritten rules of the organization, avoiding the potholes, knowing where the power lines run, and just generally grasping the subtleties of life as a lawyer in your environment. They also need caring and honest feedback about how they come across to others. War stories can be instructive, but they’re usually told more for the benefit of the teller than the listener. Keep it real.

7.) Ask powerful questions. Engage the Socratic Method you learned in law school, minus the humiliation. Help your mentee to discover his own answers when possible. Probe and challenge his assumptions. The answer may be obvious to you, but he’ll gain more by thinking it through with your help. Try to listen more than you talk. The process is often as important as the product.

8.) Make introductions. Reach out to friends and colleagues whose resources, experience, knowledge or connections may be more germane to your mentee’s needs or concerns. Help her expand her network and build the relationships that will support her career advancement.

9.) Have an agenda. Consider asking your mentee to be responsible for a brief agenda for each regular meeting. That will help you avoid having polite, but inconsequential surface conversations. It will school him in having effective meetings, organizing his thoughts, and thinking things through in advance. Of course, flexibility will still be important. Keeping it real will be more important than keeping to an agenda.

10.) Ask your mentee for advice. Ask for her input on what she needs from you. Get feedback on how you can be more effective as a mentor. Use this as an opportunity to hone your own communication skills and gain understanding of a younger generation.

If you are a young associate, share this with your mentor in the spirit of creating an effective relationship. Don’t forget to ask your mentor for tips on being a good mentee!

Post by Debra L. Bruce reprinted with permission from the August 11, 2011, issue of The Legal Intelligencer. (c) 2011 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.


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