The closer you get to law school graduation, the more you realize that while you know a lot about the law, you don’t know much about the practice of law. You spent three years studying the concept and application of law. Maybe you took a class or two related to law office management. But deep down you know that you were never taught how to be a lawyer.
When you graduate law school and pass the bar, do you fake it till you make it? Do you admit that you know nothing and possibly sabotage your chances at gainful employment? Do you look for help?
The answer is a little bit of all of the above. You have to admit to someone (maybe not your potential employer) that you have no idea what you’re doing. You have to look for help and implement it into your life and begin to mimic the behaviors of a successful attorney until those actions become second nature.
You need a mentor. You need the right mentor.
Choosing a Mentor
Choosing a mentor is less about having someone who can tell you what to do and more about finding someone that you can emulate and who will help you be accountable. As a new lawyer, you should choose a lawyer who exhibits the traits that you want to have, as well as the level of success that you want to achieve.
You probably already know of at least one person who you would like to be your mentor. But choosing a mentor is more than just saying, “I like this one.” A mentorship must meet the needs of both parties. Because this is a person who will be privy to your development, both of you must be willing to make the commitment to time and accountability.
Traits of a Good Mentor
For a mentorship to do you any good, it must be effective. Mentoring and being mentored takes work. It takes commitment. It takes a willingness for both sides to be accountable. Look for a mentor who displays the following traits:
Open and responsive communication. While there will be specific times that you and your mentor set aside to chat, there could be times when you need to reach out and ask a question or want to make sure that you are headed in the right direction in the way that you’ve chosen to solve a problem. Your mentor should be someone who can respond to your emails, calls, or texts within a reasonable amount of time.
Committed to the process. Mentorships are deep relationships. To be fulfilling and helpful on both sides, the mentor must be committed to the process.
Being committed means that they are prepared for each meeting that the two of you have. They believe in your abilities. They are also respectful of time. Likely, the two of you have decided on topics for each particular session. Your mentor should have thoughts ready to share regarding each topic.
Good listening skills. When it comes to conversations, most people who are listening are busy mentally preparing an answer. But that isn’t really listening. They are probably going to miss something that is being said—something that would change how they are thinking about answering. Your mentor should be engaged in what you are saying. They should be willing to ask clarifying questions (when necessary) before they respond to you.
Objective. While a mentorship is a great way to gain support for your professional growth, it’s also important that your mentor can be objective. A mentorship isn’t about just praising you when you’re doing well, nor is it about only pointing out where you need to change. A mentorship should be an objective look at your professional life.
Genuinely interested. Your mentor should be genuinely interested in your growth and well-being. A mentorship isn’t solely about your professional life. It’s about the lives of two people intertwining so that one may gain experience from the other. For two people to develop this type of relationship, there must be a genuine interest. Maybe you and your mentor have some of the same friends. Maybe you have some of the same hobbies. Maybe the only thing that you have in common is that you attended the same law school. Regardless of what is shared between the two of you, your mentor must have a genuine interest in your growth as a whole person.
Positive role model. There’s no teacher quite like experience. If you are striving to set goals for your life, you should choose a mentor who sets and meets those goals. If you’re looking to improve your human relations as a lawyer, you will want to choose an attorney who displays good interpersonal skills.
Your Obligations to Your Mentor
Just as your mentor has obligations to you, you have obligations to them.
Know what you want to change. It’s not up to your mentor to tell you where you need to improve. That’s your job. When you enter into a mentorship, you should have at least a general idea of what you would like to work on.
Tell your mentor what you need. No one is a mind reader. Your mentor may know that you want to become a better professional, but unless you are willing to share what you want to work on, your mentor can’t help you. If you need help, you must be willing to talk about the issue.
Don’t be overly sensitive. Just as you need a mentor who is objective, you must not be overly sensitive to their feedback or suggestions. Your mentor isn’t looking to criticize you overtly. They aren’t looking to pull you apart. They are looking to give you the feedback that you need to improve. Take what your mentor says with an open mind. You don’t have to take every suggestion and run with it. Ultimately, your decisions are just that: yours. Don’t throw out perfectly good advice because it happened to rub you the wrong way.
Be respectful of their time. Your mentor is doing you a favor. If the two of you set a time to talk, make sure you are on time. Make sure you are prepared for the conversation. Do not keep them longer than the allotted time. Additionally, you don’t need to reach out to them about every little question you have about being a lawyer. While it would be acceptable to inquire how your mentor handles difficult clients, you don’t need to ask your mentor questions about how to format a document. Find those answers on your own.
Be genuinely accountable. Part of having a mentor is having someone who will hold you accountable for the changes you say that you want to make. They hold you accountable for the steps that you take (or don’t take) to move toward your goals. This is one of the most important concepts of mentoring. It’s important that you are truly accountable. You don’t get to make excuses if you aren’t making progress. You need to be open to your mentor’s feedback and to implementing their suggestions.
Say thank you once in a while. Your mentor is giving up something valuable for you: their time. As a lawyer, you know what your time is worth. Make sure to say thank you once in a while. Your mentor doesn’t have to spend time with you. They don’t have to continue to mentor you. They’re doing you a favor. Show that you’re grateful for their time both by saying thank you and by implementing their suggestions.
A mentorship can be a life changing experience. It can make you a better lawyer. It can expose you to new ways to solve problems. Remember to choose a mentor who has the traits of a good mentor and who has the time to devote to the experience.