How can mentorships help attorneys advance their careers? Back in the 13th century, a lawyer learned his trade in an apprenticeship to a judge. Now there are law schools, and modern mentoring is typically thought of as a seasoned attorney giving guidance and counsel to a junior lawyer – sometimes through a formal program, sometimes not.
But in today’s law, is the tradition of mentoring going the way of rolodexes and clam shaped cell phones? It depends upon who you ask.
Steven J. Harper, a recently retired partner at Chicago-based Kirkland and Ellis believes that law mentoring, especially at big firms, is quickly becoming an antiquated notion.
In his legal blog “Belly of the Beast,” Harper said that a “MBA mentality” exists in Big Law. The short-term metrics of individual billings, billable hours and associate partner leverage ratios rule, and mentoring doesn’t have a metric.
“Each individual’s drive to attain and preserve his or her position in accordance with such metrics leaves little room (or time) for the personalized mentoring that turns good young lawyers into better older ones,” he said.
But Marschall Smith, general counsel for Archer-Daniels-Midland Company, sees it differently.
“We are a learning profession,” he said to InsideCounsel magazine. “The absolute requirement of lawyers as professionals is that we transmit and educate our colleagues and the next generation as it comes along… And on a day-to-day basis, the way that’s done in the real world is mentoring.”
Regardless of whether mentoring is dying or prospering, InsideCounsel and other experts say that obtaining a mentor is still worth pursuing because:
1. Mentorships help prepare you for the real legal world. Young attorneys are left facing incredible learning curves about the type of law they are practicing and numerous other factors. Mentors can help a mentee overcome those hurdles.
2. For the mentor, the mentee can provide a new way of examining things. A new, fresh set of eyes provides a perspective that might otherwise be missed.
3. Mentees get to learn new skill sets. They learn of new points of view and experiences. No matter if it’s in-house, or at a law firm, a non-profit or government agency, young attorneys have to learn how to plot their careers, and there is nothing like career advice from an old hand.
4. Mentors help explain the game. Imagine joining a club where your fellow members were reluctant to discuss the membership rules. The ins and outs of the organization could seem mystifying. Mentors can help mentees feel at ease by explaining the rules, informal or otherwise.
5. Experienced lawyers can also benefit from having a mentor. Entering a new job or switching to a different field of law brings new clients, contacts, and procedures, which a mentor can provide relevant guidance.
Obtaining a mentor can be as easy as signing up for a formal mentoring program. If your organization, however, doesn’t have one, or even looks down upon mentoring, don’t be deterred, writes Ashby Jones in the Wall Street Journal Law Blog.
According to Jones, junior attorneys should “demand” mentoring by going to senior associates on their own.
“You’ve got to seek these good souls out and befriend them. Ask them to lunch or coffee and let them know that you’re looking for general advice, for their thoughts on what makes a good lawyer, if there are obvious people to avoid at the firm, etc.,” Jones said. “Chances are, before you know it, they may not have taken you under their wing, but they’ll be rooting for you, wanting you to succeed. And they’ll do what they can to help.”
Ultimately, that passing down of legal and career wisdom is the essence of mentoring, and why, even hundreds of years later, it’s still worth pursuing.
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