by John Hollander
In his guest blog, Andrew Ferguson wrote about what it takes to make a good mentee. Here I will discuss the other party – the mentor.
Unlike many specialties and roles that are open to lawyers, mentors are not trained. Almost any lawyer can become a successful mentor. Success is very much in the eye of the beholder. Ask the mentee whether the mentorship effort was worthwhile. If the answer is yes, then the mentor was a good one.
There are two skills that define the good mentor: listening and sharing.
A great deal has been written on “attentive” or “active” listening. It requires ability, willingness, and capacity. Good listening is an art. Do we pay attention to the person who is speaking? What is the other person really trying to say to us? Are we giving off good or bad vibes? Do we invite an honest sharing? Does what the other person says mean anything to us? Does it seem like that from our behavior?
Mentorship is a two-way street. The mentee needs something that mentor has to offer. That means we have to share it willingly, without expectation of reward. It might be advice. It might just be asking questions. It might be sharing our experience, even the bad experience. It might be sharing experience without guidance (lessons learned). The object is not to entertain, but neither is it to instruct. Good mentors share. A mentor might say, “This is what works for me.” or, “Here are some possibilities. Will one of these work for you?” Really, the mentor asks, “Let's talk about the choices that you see are open to you.”
Mentorship is not judgment.
The mentee needs a relationship free from value judgments. How deeply do we as lawyers "relate" to our trial judges, opponents, and colleagues conducting business with us? There is so much stiffness, so much baggage that infects the relationship we have with our professional peers as we conduct ourselves professionally. We have to shed all of this and relate, really relate, to our mentees. Without this, what is the point?
Please allow me to quote from Katie Black, a dedicated and accomplished Ottawa-based litigation counsel (and Advocacy Club member). “I have learned as much from my mentees as I have from my mentors. The dialogue and creation of shared goals and accountability demonstrates respect and creates the relationship of trust. Sharing your goals makes them real and therefore achievable.”
It would be enough for senior professionals to “give back” to their profession by serving as mentors. The fact is that givers get. Junior professionals have a lot to offer their seniors. Senior professionals have needs, if only because they are human. Who better than a trusted professional to meet those needs? As the relationship blossoms, the dividing line blurs between who is mentor and who is mentee. Clearly, junior mentees often become excellent mentors in their own right. This track record can start as they perform that very function with their own mentor.
Mentoring is not all roses, compliments and good times. Mentees need far more than a pat on the back. This is what Katie refers to as “accountability”. Mentors make suggestions. Mentees should take them to heart, although the suggestions are rarely perfect solutions. Accountability is all about what happens next.
When a firm has a mentoring policy, it typically identifies who will serve as mentor. It will identify the mentees, typically articling students and recent calls. Effectively, the firm creates the team. This may be the only practical way to start. What influences the choice of mentor? Some people are just not cut from the right cloth to serve as mentors. Some people should not mentor some specific other people.
Consider these questions:
Change is good
Once the relationship has started, the mentee may be able to identify a better prospective mentor. Both the mentor and the mentee should be able to determine whether the team will be, or has been, effective. Specifically, the mentor should be sensitive to whether the relationship is working, or is likely to work. The mentee may be unwilling to raise the awkward subject. The firm should encourage a switch of mentor where this can assist the success of the relationship.
Mentoring is far too important to be left to random chance. It requires thought. It requires attention. Often, it requires fine-tuning or even change.
Many firms are proud of their open-door policy. Any junior associate can walk into the office of any senior member and discuss anything under the sun. So what? Junior associates simply do not walk into the offices of their seniors to discuss matters unrelated to specific files. Sure, a junior lawyer will ask a senior lawyer about a case. They may ask for help about strategy, research, or a referral. None of this has any bearing on mentoring.
For mentoring to be effective, there must be a two-way commitment. The senior and the junior form a team. This does not occur with some random walk through the firm’s offices. To allow this teamwork to develop, the senior should pull the junior into the senior’s office or into some neutral ground that might be off-site. This should be planned, not spontaneous. The senior should not be distracted by telephone, email, and other interruptions. This applies equally to the junior.
Setting Goals, Overcoming Obstacles
The mentoring session should be treated as an important, dedicated appointment. There might even be an agenda, although different teams require different levels of formality. At the very top of the list of items should be whatever concerns the junior. Both immediately and prospectively. After the team has formed, there should be regular meetings, both in and out of the office. Again, these should be free of interruptions.
Who takes charge?
We are talking about lawyers. Lawyers should not be shy, but the senior should never presume that the junior will volunteer matters of substantial concern.The senior should therefore take charge, at least at the beginning of the relationship. What makes the junior tick? What are the fears, risks, and obstacles that face the junior - in and out of the office? These are sensitive matters that should not be overheard by other professionals or staff.
Mentoring should not be a matter of anyone’s open-door policy. Sensitive issues should be raised and discussed behind closed doors. Mentoring sessions should be planned and private. That is a mentoring policy that firms can be proud of.
Are junior lawyers entitled to be mentored? The flip-side of a right is an obligation. If someone is entitled to be mentored, then someone must have an obligation to serve as the mentor. Put that way, there is neither the right nor the obligation. Let’s put the proposition another way. Should junior lawyers be mentored? Would senior lawyers benefit from serving as mentors? In both cases, the answer is a resounding “yes.”
Cui bono? (Who profits?)Here is how junior lawyers gain. First, they gain intangibly. They can discuss subjects that are too sensitive to raise with anyone else. They can rely upon the discretion of their mentors as well as the sincerity of the advice dispensed. They gain confidence in the quality of their decision-making. Second, they gain professionally. They learn to make decisions that impact their relationships with clients, colleagues, other professionals and the public. They gain access to a professional network that can include opportunities and referrals both to the junior lawyers and to other members of the professional network. They develop professionalism.
Here is how the mentors gain. Pardon me while I repeat myself. First, they gain intangibly. It is very satisfying to receive the trust and faith of junior colleagues. It is also wonderful to watch them develop their skills and grow to reach their potential. Second, they gain professionally. Junior lawyers often bring both enthusiasm and modern views or skills to a relationship. Equally often, senior lawyers tend to lag in both departments. They may be at the cutting edge with respect to the narrow area of their unique expertise, but there is so much more that they don’t know, have not experienced or have forgotten. Senior lawyers need junior colleagues to take up the extra work spun off by a successful practice. They need younger talent to replace them as they expand their practices and, eventually, as they retire. Speaking from personal experience, senior lawyers need mentors themselves. Their junior colleagues can develop quickly to become just such mentors.
It is no surprise that a successful mentoring relationship is a win-win proposition. Is it a right? Not necessarily. Is it mutually beneficial? Absolutely.
A trial lawyer since 1978, I have extensive experience in the art of asking questions, both in and out of the courtroom. I use my expertise to teach lawyers how to ask questions effectively to build rapport in interview situations. I also help politicians develop the skills necessary to adeptly handle questions from debate opponents, from the press and from the public. I am the author of a series of handbooks on the subject of interview skills for professionals.