Legal Mentor: Why You Should Have One and How To Find One.
I had a colleague once tell me that while he was in law school, professors commonly taught the law, but not how to actually put those concepts to use in practice. “Don’t worry, your firm will teach you how to do that!” was apparently the oft repeated mantra. Unless you were doing clinical work in law school (go you!), then you may have been just as lost as I was when you were ready to go out in to the real world as a licensed attorney.
If you are thinking about whether to hang your shingle on your own or with another attorney or two, consider for a moment what your plan is for finding and maintaining a relationship with an experienced practitioner who will be willing to teach and guide you on this difficult journey. While I am sure you may be able to slog your way through alone, wouldn’t it be better for you (and your stress levels) to receive some direction every once in a while?
Ron Culberson, MSW, CSP, contributed an article called “The Value of Mentoring” to Huffington Post in 2015. Mr. Culberson astutely posits that “[m]entoring allows us to accurately evaluate our skills, to see our blind spots and to determine a plan for improvement. And isn’t that a worthy goal for both our professional and our personal endeavors?” I would argue that it is, indeed, a worthy goal. And, beyond that, seeking out or agreeing to be a mentor could build one of the most valuable relationships in your legal career.
So how do you find a mentor? It is a role that people likely won’t be clamoring for, so some initiative on your part will be required. Before you seek one out, though, consider exactly the type of mentor you’re seeking. If you’re a new attorney, think about the practice area (or areas) on which you’d like to focus. Is there someone you interned for in law school, know socially, or is well respected within that practice area? That may be a good starting point. Maybe you’re an experienced attorney thinking of opening your own shop, but don’t have a lot of business know-how. A managing partner of a firm you admire would be a good fit for that need and may be someone already in your network.
You could also see if your law school has an established alumni mentorship program. Even if there’s no formal program, becoming active in the alumni association or other organized alumni events or even starting a local meet-up for graduates in your area could be beneficial to you and others similarly situated. Your law school obviously has a vested interest in your success, so it certainly does not hurt to look in to any available options.
You may be able to connect with a mentor through membership in professional organizations. The NC Bar Association has 31 different sections that you can join to connect with other attorneys in your practice area. There’s a cost associated with joining both the NC Bar Association and these sections, but you can pick up tons of valuable information and learn a lot about other attorneys just by joining the email listservs that are commonly a part of these sections. For example, who is quick to respond to others with helpful advice? Who seems engaged and motivated to making the practice area better as a whole? It may be worthwhile to reach out to one of these attorneys to see if they’d be willing to occasionally let you pick their brain.
Mr. Culberson suggest paying for mentorship, if necessary, and to think of the services as “coaching.” I’m not sure that this is wholly realistic in the legal community; lots of mentor/mentee relationships are more comparable to a passing-of-the-torch rather than, say, hiring a personal trainer. It certainly doesn’t hurt to offer coffee or lunch when someone has agreed to help you, though. And if you do come across a mentorship program that requires payment, it may be worth it as a long-term investment in your professional growth.
Admittedly, it can be awkward and even a little embarrassing at times to seek out a mentor. It feels a little bit like asking the cool guy or girl to the prom when they don’t even know you exists. And in a way, it is. Unlike that prom date, an attorney that you approach for mentoring is likely to be flattered and willing to help. If they are not, however, then it likely would not have been a beneficial relationship anyway.
What makes someone the right fit as a mentor is based on many subjective factors, like your personalities, work styles, and personal values. However, taking the initiative to find a mentor can improve your practical skills, provide wisdom and help you grow the kind of career that you want.
Jared Pierce hung his own shingle right out of law school and has spent every minute since then discovering the joys and difficulties of chasing success.