How To Become A Legal Mentor: A Path Towards Change
The legal industry is fluid and ever-changing. It’s one of the many industries that is heavily impacted by changing government policies and world events. With so much unpredictability for legal professionals, one factor is always constant – change.
Experienced lawyers are accustomed to this change and have been able to manage around it over the years. For those new to the legal field, it can feel like they’re being thrown to the wolves. In an industry where “sink or swim ” has been the norm, and asking for help can be looked down upon, where are new lawyers to go for help? Many may say they’ll figure it out like other lawyers before and there’s truth in that statement. Lawyers, new and old are resilient. However, as the legal industry continues to break barriers, it’s time to break the idea that struggling in silence or sacrificing one’s well-being is the way to prove you’re worthy of success.
A shoulder to lean on, a guide, a mentor. This may be what you wished you had during your early legal career. Or you did have a mentor and understand how that person helped you find your success today. Either way, to begin to change the norm of “struggle to the top” of the legal ladder, experienced lawyers must step up.
Laying the blame
Many blame the educational system for not preparing law students for the industry. Now more than ever, schools across the country are feeling the pressure to get more lawyers in the workplace. This has resulted in learning that is more focused on the law itself rather than building a set of tools to help them develop their professional, social, and organizational skills.
Regardless of who’s to blame, the solution is now falling on the shoulders of those leading the industry — law firms. Not everyone in the legal industry is on board with accepting this new responsibility. This pushback comes down to dollars and cents, or rather the billable hours vs. non-billable hours that accompany mentoring. Instead, many are pushing for external formal training. However, these have had mixed results, and many view this as merely supplemental.
For better or worse
Millennial lawyers are no longer settling for traditional practices in the workplace. They’re earning the reputation of shifting around to multiple law firms, just like their job-hopping peers in other industries. This concept is foreign to senior lawyers who have often spent their entire careers with the same firm. The irony is that many millennial lawyers are moving to find firms with better mentorship programs.
New lawyers that do opt to stay at a law firm without a mentorship program fall victim to the avoidable mistakes made from lack of proper training. This leaves many new lawyers in awkward positions, often feeling trapped and seeking new roles in or even out of the legal profession for more hospitable environments.
Shining light on change
Luckily the feelings towards this resentment are shifting, as this change is coming from the top. Starting with Reginald M. Turner, who recently accepted the position of president of the American Bar Association. Upon doing so, he committed his support towards mentorship with the phrase “Each one, reach one.”
“As your incoming ABA president, I am a believer in this house as the voice of our profession. I believe the American Bar Association is essential for excellence among lawyers and judges, as preparers for the next generations of lawyers, and as champions for equal justice under law.” Turner went on to say.
Mr. Turner even presented a story regarding two founding fathers and a chair. President George Washington had a chair with a half sun on the back of it. Benjamin Franklin asked him if this sun is rising or setting, to which President Washington had no answer.
Ben Franklin concluded then that the sun on this chair is rising. Mr. Turner likened this story to the law industry with the following quote. “It’s clear to me that the sun is rising on the rule of law in the United States and in free societies throughout the world, and it remains a powerful beacon of hope for those who do not now live as free people.”
Becoming a legal mentor
Most lawyers seeking to become a mentor simply don’t understand what it takes. So, before even considering taking a mentee, it’s important to have a grasp on the role. To start the mentor relationship right you need to consider and apply multiple traits.
Every mentee will have different levels of knowledge and understanding. As a mentor, you need to approach each mentee relationship differently. Consider what the mentee most needs, and how you can use your expertise and experience to reach their goals. Taking this into consideration, you must determine if you have the time to dedicate to properly supporting your mentee.
The only way to be effective as a mentor is to be present and be able to actively listen to the needs of a mentee. Mentorship is more than just teaching. Many mentees need support for things outside of the courtroom. For example, handling difficult colleagues, managing relationships, where to find young lawyer groups, or how to network.
Maintaining an open mind to what your mentee has to say is critical. You must learn to guide them without interrupting or forcing your solutions. This ensures your mentee feels like they’re being heard and fully understood, which encourages the strong, transparent relationship necessary for this experience.
Learn to give proper feedback
One of the hardest things for most mentors is giving feedback. In this setting, your feedback to a new lawyer needs to be as equally constructive as it is corrective. If you don’t learn to balance the two, and your feedback comes off as negative, the bond between you and the mentee can quickly be ruined.
When done correctly and positively, feedback encourages progress and necessary growth for your mentee. Remember, this is supposed to be a learning experience for the mentee.
Being a good legal mentor means having good instincts on when to step in to give your mentee feedback and when it’s appropriate for them to make their own mistakes. Mistakes are a part of the learning process and if you give them too much guidance, it can hinder their ability to problem solve and develop. Your feedback should always be given with discretion and be presented as advice. Your goal should never be to change the uniqueness within a mentee, but rather, enhance it.
How to start working with a mentee
The first step in mentoring is to set reasonable expectations for you and them. Start with a sit-down meeting to discuss the direction this arrangement will go. Ensure you are both on the same page regarding these expectations.
Part of the job of a legal mentor is being the trusted advisor. You’re there to help guide them, so you have to be available and prepared to explain, advise and answer questions in a way they will understand. When effective, a mentorship can last for years or as little as a few months.
Outlook on being a legal mentor
Luckily, because of the support of the ABA and heads of many law firms, more legal professionals are invested in creating and participating in mentorship programs. This additional level of oversight will help keep legal mentors active in the program and supporting incoming lawyers.
As more lawyers enter the industry at a younger age, they will continue to force the needle of change and open the eyes of many to new practices. Rather than resisting change, the legal industry should listen to these new ideas, mentor, and learn to collaborate as a whole.