Everyone says to find a mentor. It’s a daunting task for a lot of people. Where can you get a mentor? Bar associations? Work? LinkedIn “cold calls”? Open up a directory and throw a dart?
I’m about to make this seem more difficult–you should try for more than one mentor. Quite a few folks benefit from a “board of mentors”. This means that you can get different perspectives, or even simply ask different questions to different people. For example, I’m a disabled Latina who worked for 15 years in the patent industry. The number of attorneys who were “the same” as me that I knew of? You guessed it, not a lot. But I know amazing Hispanic patent attorneys, Latina patent litigators, and disabled attorneys in the patent field. And I know a lot of white abled men who have careers that I find impressive, too. I’m incredibly lucky that I forged bonds with quite a few folks higher up than me who would give advice and mentoring–now they’re judges, partners, vice presidents, you name it. All of them give me different perspectives while sharing similar values with me. After all, you want to find mentors who are ethical attorneys and believe you should succeed, but you don’t have to like the same sports teams or pizza toppings.
Something else to keep in mind–mentors aren’t the same as sponsors or coaches. (I’ll cover those in a few posts coming soon.) Sponsors are folks in your organization who can help you navigate your employer’s specific culture. They can review your work and be a voice for you in rooms where you’re not yet allowed. But they are also individuals with whom you’ll have a working relationship, and you should not divulge some concerns to them. Coaches, on the other hand, are individuals who provide short-term relationships where the coach uses professional tools to strategize personal and professional growth. They’re often specialists who have narrowed their clientele to individuals in your profession or your background. I’ve worked with an incredible coach who works with attorneys and concentrates her research and pro bono efforts on Latina attorneys.
So you know what a mentor isn’t. Who is a mentor?
- Someone in your industry;
- Someone who has succeeded in your current role;
- Someone who is in a role that you have an interest;
- Someone who can introduce you to folks you might not otherwise meet; and
- Someone who understands the “big picture“ better than you do.
This is a wide net. But there are ways to whittle it down. First, figure out if the person might have the time to be an effective mentor. I know an incredibly successful attorney who has dozens of mentees. If someone comes to her for mentoring, she will try to find them another mentor because she recognizes she simply doesn’t have the time. Not all mentors are this honest with themselves.
Similarly, only consider people with whom you might have a candid relationship. If you can’t be honest with your mentor, they can’t help you. If you’re awed by their power, it will be very difficult to open up. I still have trouble talking to a judge whom I know because I’m in awe of her. When I clerked at her court, my judge found it endlessly entertaining watching me become silent in her presence. Believe me, if you met me in person, you’d know just how rare that is!
Here’s another way to narrow the list–look to people you already know. You have professors, former bosses, maybe family friends or even someone who interviewed you for a position you didn’t take, but where you “clicked” with that person. If you don’t have someone like this who would be a good mentor, don’t panic. Ask that same group if they know someone who can be a good source for mentoring. And if that doesn’t net dozens of individuals you can meet, you’re still ok, I promise. Look to common connections such as bar organizations, schools, outside interests, or if you have kids who go to the same school. There are many ways to form a more personal bond.
Once you’ve chosen a target, what do you do? This is likely obvious, but if you have a mutual connection, ask for the introduction. If not, reach out in a way that is convenient for the mentor, but will also get their attention. Write an email that congratulates them on a recent accomplishment, an article they published, or a CLE you attended. And if you choose the latter two, make sure you know what they wrote or said! Then explain why you want to speak with them. Try to make it as specific as possible, but not overwhelming. Some examples are, “I’ve recently joined X organization, and I’m on a case in a court that’s new to me. I was wondering if you might have time to talk about your experiences as a junior attorney working on trial cases in the Y district court.” A simple request will give you information as to how they will communicate with you without having the burden on both of you of expecting a mentor/mentee relationship before you find out if you’re a good match.
Approaching someone to mentor should be a little daunting. If you don’t respect the individual enough to be a little nervous, then it’s not someone you respect enough to be a mentor. My friend had a mentor request who simply assumed she would be happy to mentor him. She is very senior in her career. He was a law student and approached her as if they were equals. In many ways, they are equals, but not in the legal profession. Consider this–his lack of respect for her efforts and success reached my ears, and it was the first thing I knew about him. Always consider what you do in regard to your reputation!
So how do you show that you’re worth your mentor’s time? Ask yourself if you would want to mentor you. Do you show respect for their time? Do you make it easy to mentee? Make sure to reach out with a second request of their time. If the times they have are specific, work within those times as best you can. I got up for breakfast meetings even though I hate getting up early and had to work late the night before. It was worth the pain and suffering of waking up at 5 am. Send the meeting request for them.
Set aside time before your request for a meeting to determine what questions you have ahead of time. This isn’t just a casual chat–you’re trying to gain advice and insight, and you both are busy. If it’s comfortable to you, send them an email the day before with a question or two so they have time to consider your issue before sitting right in front of you. Show up early. Offer to buy the coffee, but if the person insists on buying, it’s coffee.
More importantly, be open to feedback, whether it’s positive or negative. I was very bad at taking compliments for a while. My upbringing taught me it was rude to take compliments. It’s not. The person is being honest, and you should show gratitude for the honesty. Likewise, if they’re willing to risk the relationship to give constructive criticism, thank them for that. They’re looking out for you.
Take notes if it’s not rude to do so, and ask permission before you pull out your notebook. If they recommend a book, do your best to read it and let them know you did that. Watch the clock for them to show you appreciate how valuable their time is.
Share a bit about who you are as a person, and make sure you give them time to do the same. Still keep in mind the professional aspect of the mentoring relationship. I shared with a mentor how I was finding house-hunting frustrating, but I didn’t talk about how my then-husband and I were at odds about buying a house in the first place.
Follow up. If you see an article on the topic you were discussing, email it to them. Send them a link to an article you helped author so they can share in your successes. Set calendar reminders for you so you remember to reach out periodically, but not incessantly. Consider how you can help them. You might have contacts they don’t, such as potential clients in their field or suggesting a classmate who might be a perfect fit for their organization.
What if it isn’t working? I’m sad to say that I did fail a mentee one time because my life was such that I didn’t have the capacity. I had a large personal loss, I was having to move to a different time zone and find a new position, and I was coping with health issues to boot while still trying to maintain my career. I wasn’t expecting two out of three of these problems to happen, and I couldn’t plan ahead. I still root for this attorney. He’s done incredible things without me, and I am forever impressed with him, but I should have been honest with him. None of it was on him, though, and if an attorney doesn’t give you their time, please remember mentors are people, too!
Mentors aren’t necessarily for life. Some of my mentors are on paths that I never intended to follow. But I still have a strong bond with many of them to this day. And those I’ve mentored? It’s been the highlight of my career so far. The satisfaction of watching a mentee shine is a great feeling.