Being a Mentor in the Legal Profession

Becoming a lawyer and establishing a practice takes a great deal of hard work and the realization of various skills and intellectual capacities. These well-earned attributes are often recognized and admired by many in and around a lawyer’s life, but perhaps most acutely by other lawyers. And thus often, formally or informally, lawyers are presented with the opportunity to act as a mentor to a new and upcoming lawyer looking for guidance.

These lawyer mentees are looking for wisdom, support and perspective, and a lawyer mentor is looking to help and to contribute to another’s life and their profession. A good mentoring relationship can be mutually beneficial to both the mentor and the mentee. But what does being a mentor entail? Specifically within the legal profession, what do good mentors do, and more importantly, what do they not do?

Unfortunately, many lawyers need to work hard to be good mentors; the profession can attract those who are skeptical, argumentative, impatient and perfectionists, strong character traits unsurprisingly absent in many good mentors. In addition, some of the very skills that make lawyers successful in their profession can also prevent them from being effective mentors. The broadest example of this is a lawyer’s well-trained ability to identify faults and weaknesses. While this skill is of great use professionally, applying this mindset when working with a mentee is counterproductive. The reason is that research shows the majority of people do not actually learn from or absorb negative feedback from a third party very well. If anything, criticism actually delays corrective changes and self-analysis.

This pattern of negative feedback is based on three commonly accepted but untrue theories about the role of feedback. The first is the “theory of truth”, which posits that the mentor is better at identifying the mentee’s weaknesses than the mentee is—that only the mentor can see the hard truth and the reality of the mentee’s situation.

The second is the “theory of learning”, which is based on the notion that the mentee’s primary problems are the lack of certain knowledge and skills—the mentor’s most effective role is simply teaching the mentee.

Finally, there is the “theory of excellence”, which posits that greatness and success are universal and the mentee should strive for socially accepted goals and/or those the mentor holds in great esteem. As tempting as it is—especially in the legal profession—for a mentor to adopt one or more of these theories when working with a mentee, such temptation must be resisted. An effective mentor must deliberately pause their desire to fix what they perceive as the problems and instead focus on what the mentee is actually telling them, directly and indirectly, about their needs.

Good mentors spend more time listening than talking. A good mentor listens for areas of strength and competence to build upon and avoids the natural urge to implement the negative feedback theories with their mentee. More often than not, the mentee knows which areas they are not thriving in and needs support and validation that they are capable of addressing them. A good mentor encourages this self-reliance in the mentee and helps build their resilience at the same time.

Identifying abilities and paying attention to a mentee’s strengths catalyzes learning; neurologically, we developed to grow in our areas of greatest ability. In simple terms, this means a mentee is more likely to learn when some nuance or new element is added to an existing understanding or a related skill or habit is added to an existing base. Once a mentor and mentee establish a relationship based on this strength expansion principle, it is easier to start building skills and habits in the areas where the mentee needs more work. The starting point is an assessment of what the mentee is doing or can do well in that area.

A good mentor acts as a guide, one with experience and perspective, and helps their mentee develop and progress along the paths they have chosen. A good mentor needs to be aware and to ensure their mentee is thriving in key areas of their lives. Often in a mentoring relationship created around the legal profession, this means the mentee’s occupational performance may be the initial concern, but a mentor must understand that the occupational dimension is only one of the well-being dimensions that make a person whole and effective.

A good mentor will explore and consider their mentee’s emotional, physical, intellectual, spiritual, physical and social dimensions as well. Rather than being focused solely on a specific skill or performance metric, the mentor considers the “whole” of their mentee.

Applying the dimension model can help a mentor decide when to share a personal experience. If the experience can be linked to an improvement in one or more of these dimensions in the mentor’s own life, then it can be inspiring and highly relevant to a mentee. But a good mentor must always consider the purpose behind sharing a personal experience. Is the purpose to sow hope and inspire the mentee, or is the purpose centred on a mentor’s objective? This consideration forms part of the boundaries that exist in healthy mentor-mentee relationships.

A good mentor is conscious of where their role begins and ends in the relationship and can acknowledge and integrate clear boundaries. A good mentor must be prepared to meet their mentee. This means ensuring the mentee has the mentor’s full and undivided attention. To accomplish this, good mentors are self-reflective and honest. They “check-in” with themselves physically and mentally. They reflect on whether they are bringing any prejudices or biases to the meeting. They consider their physical well-being: Will their sleep, diet or exercise habits influence their ability to be fully present? They consider their emotional well-being: Are they irritated, angry, sad and too distracted to engage with their mentee? Regardless of whether the meeting is in person, on the phone or online, the environment should be conducive to communication and confidentiality.

Finally, a great way for a mentor to monitor the relationship with a mentee is to regularly apply the “keep, stop, start” model to the relationship. What should the mentor keep doing—what seems to be working to create progress and positive momentum? What should the mentor stop doing—what is really just filling time and is unproductive? And what should the mentor start doing—what is missing from the relationship and should be explored? Regularly and honestly assessing the relationship, and being unafraid to explore new practices, is an empowering collaborative experience for both the mentor and the mentee and will only make the relationship stronger and more effective.

Acting as a mentor requires hard work, honesty, diligence and compassion—many of the same skills that successful lawyers have. When done well, it can be extremely challenging, but also deeply rewarding. We at LAPBC would love to help you develop your mentoring skills, especially by ensuring that you can focus on your own well-being and that of your peers.