What Makes a Good Mentor?

What Makes a Good Mentor?


Law practice is fraught with professional danger: Opportunities to make mistakes, burn out, and get stuck on an aimless career track abound. The inherently adversarial nature of law compounds these challenges because it limits the pool of colleagues whom we can approach for guidance or support. We may pause before seeking the counsel of other lawyers, not knowing how those fielding our questions and complaints might later exploit their knowledge of our vulnerabilities.

For example, if I tell a contemporary that I wish I were stronger on a certain sub-specialty of family law, and I later oppose that colleague in a case featuring that issue, she might suspect, rightly or wrongly, that my prior ignorance lends her a strategic advantage. Operating on that assumption, she might take a more aggressive stance than she otherwise would, or might otherwise alter her approach to my client’s detriment.

These minefields aside and considered, mentors are invaluable to the legal profession. Paradoxically, the very cohorts positioned to take you down can also boost your confidence, reignite your passion for your work, and give you ideas about your career progression. I credit almost every job I’ve landed in family law, including my present one, to one mentor in particular. Skilled at connecting people with complementary resources and symbiotic needs, she has recommended people to me and me to them on many occasions, to great results.

We’re not all so fortunate to find someone who assists at every stage, and others have also shepherded my professional path. There is no shortage of available mentors, whether or not they identify as such.

Often, nominating an unsuspecting colleague whom you admire is the only way a mentorship will happen. In my experience, when asked, people are often flattered and willing to accept the mentor role. We all know how difficult this work can be, and most if not all of us can likely remember at least one person who eased the journey for us.

Whether you are looking for a mentor or considering a colleague’s request for you to serve in this capacity, you should keep in mind the following characteristics of good mentors:

They create structure for your mentorship. The right mentor takes responsibility for the progression of your mentorship. This person should initiate and help execute a plan for your regular meetings, and should assist you with creating a list of professional goals for you to review at each meeting. You want a career with a positive, clear trajectory, and your mentorship should mirror the structure and goal setting that your career management will require.

They are connected in your field. It is essential that a mentor and mentee share a network that will benefit the mentee. For this to be the case, the mentor should be active in the community, with strong relationships and people who are inclined to do a favor for the mentor. After the mentor and mentee have established sufficient mutual trust and admiration, the mentee should be able to expect and ask for introductions to people within the mentor’s network. Far from being a parasitic relationship, the mentorship enriches the mentor’s career, too: the practice of lending contacts to her mentee could result in the mentor handing her peers an impressive associate, who comes with the bonus of being able to call on the mentor as work challenges arise. For people considering a request to serve as a mentor, this is an important factor: do you like and respect your potential mentor? If not, taking on the relationship will not serve either of you, since you will not be inclined to pipe this person into your hard-earned network of valued professional contacts; accordingly, you won’t be helping a junior attorney find a job or introducing your friends to a good associate.

They have longevity. Law firms presently have a high associate turnover, and attorneys revolve through a door that leads to other specialties or even away from law practice altogether. If you are a junior associate who wants to remain in your legal specialty long term, preferably with one firm or organization, you should find someone experienced at sticking it out through hard times. Anyone who has remained within one sub-specialty and/or with one firm or organization fits that profile. When you confide in this mentor about problems with your boss, fatigue with your area of law, or any other account of a less-than-perfect experience, he will have encountered and muscled through similar circumstances. Every professional who has stayed in one place over time—whether in the same specialty, with the same office, or both—can say “I’ve been there” and provide sage advice.

They provide a different point of view. Mentor and mentee should be sufficiently similar in field and trajectory so that the mentor’s career path will provide the right insights to the mentee regarding her own. But the similarities can end there. I have personally sought out female mentors, believing that such supervision would best equip me to handle the unique hardships women face in the work world. But I know other women who have attained enormous professional success through the encouragement and acquaintances that their male mentors have provided. Race, sexual orientation, and disability are just a few other characteristics that a mentee may wish to maintain as distinguishing characteristics, or which may lead her to search for a similarly featured mentor.

Your relationship is not personal. Ideally, mentors and mentees regularly meet for years, with the mentee holding a “mentor-mentee privilege” of sorts, for all the whispered appeals for support and reality checking that he makes to his mentor in those sessions. This often yields a mutually supportive relationship that can feel a lot like friendship, especially to the person looking up to his mentor. But in a truly effective mentorship, the participants should not blur the mentor-mentee boundary into a friendship. It is in some ways more valuable to have and to be someone’s career champion, and it is natural to feel tempted to develop a friendship. But the roles of friend and mentor/mentee are necessarily different, and are best kept separate.
However you end up being a mentor or a mentee, cherish the relationship and jump all the way in. Your career will be stronger and more meaningful for it.

Katie Burke practices family law at The Wald Law Group in San Francisco.