All students need to find mentors to succeed, but for those without an established network, it is crucial.
Navigating new territory is often confusing and stressful, especially when you’re doing it alone. But in the law, entering the profession doesn’t have to be so daunting for students and new junior associates with a mentor — someone who is more experienced in the field, who can share advice and wisdom with a protégé.
“Having a mentor is extremely helpful because they’ll let you know what you have to do to develop your skills, how to constantly be improving and give you tips,” says Vivian Li, associate at Alloway & Associates PC and protégé through the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers’ mentorship program.
There are different types of mentorship relationships: formal, where an established program pairs a protégé with a mentor in a similar area of practice or interest, or informal, where the protégé meets experienced professionals organically.
Formal matching mentorship programs exist within many law schools and law firms and through various organizations, such as the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Coach and Advisor Network, the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers, Hellenic Canadian Lawyers’ Association, Legal Aid Ontario, the First Generation Network, the Women’s Law Association of Ontario — the list goes on.
Networking events are a good forum to build informal connections, and students can often make meaningful connections at work while working on a file.
Mentors and protégés Canadian Lawyer has spoken with also stress the importance of having multiple guides at varying levels of their legal careers.
Associates or upper-year law students can often provide tips about law school itself or law firm recruiting because their recent experiences make them up to date and relatable. Breaking out into the legal profession has changed over the decades, so having a senior-level lawyer might not be as suitable for this type of advice.
But having a seasoned mentor can help impart legal wisdom informed by years of experience. These types of mentors are capable of shedding light on goal setting for the future of someone’s career or exposing the protégé to their area of practice.
“I think it’s helpful to have people at all different stages and a variety of mentors is also helpful because everybody has different styles, strategies and does things differently,” says Jane Scholes, associate at Goodmans LLP, who is being mentored at her firm. “Law school doesn’t really teach you anything about how to be a lawyer, which sounds funny, but it’s true. It teaches you analytical skills and how to think, but it really isn’t practical.”
Forming mentorship relationships can help both the mentor and the protégé. It assists the protégé by providing guidance on law firm recruitment, the on-campus interview process, how to integrate into a law firm, career planning and more.
For the mentor, it serves as a rewarding experience that could provide insight into more current or innovative ways to practise law.
Many large law firms provide internal mentorship programs that pair summer and articling students and sometimes even junior associates with lawyers working at the firm in order to ease stress, develop team bonds and assist with employee retention.
Susan Pak, director of student programs and professional development at Stikeman Elliott LLP, serves as an informal mentor to newbies entering the firm. She says that a goal is to “keep students and associates engaged” to develop the future Stikemans lawyers.
Often, having a mentor is even more crucial to success when a student or new lawyer doesn’t already have an established network of mentors, such as a student who is the first in their family to attend law school. Brooke Longhurst, a University of Toronto law student going into her 3L year, is a protégé while summering at Blakes Cassels & Graydon LLP and through the First Generation Network’s mentorship program. She points out that for many students who enter into a profession or environment where they do not see themself represented, fear and uncertainty is often the result.
“Are you nervous that [you’re] not represented or is it a certain characteristic that’s making you nervous such as being first generation? It would be useful to seek somebody else who is first generation or whatever that trait is,” says Longhurst.
For some students such as Benjamin Pan, a University of Toronto law student going into his 3L year and protégé through his school’s mentorship program, having a mentor from the same ethnic heritage helped him feel more understood.
“From my experience of being the mentee of Peter [Nguyen], I think that having that greater commonality makes the conversations more helpful for me. For instance, I have an east Asian ethnic background and having a mentor who shares that gives me someone to talk to [about] issues that may be unique to our background,” says Pan.
However, some students have struggled to find formal mentors, such as Victor Pirone, a Western Law student going into his 2L year. During his first year, he was not aware that these programs existed. Although he has formed informal connections with lawyers to whom he could turn for advice, he feels there’s a disconnect as many students who want to form mentor relationships are not aware of these programs.
“I think that more can be done in terms of marketing and exposing students — encourage them to leverage some of these programs that are offered,” says Pirone. “[Getting over] the roadblock is just being aware and making students aware of programs that exist.”
Whether mentorships are formal or informal, they help instil a sense of confidence within students and junior associates by giving them a sense of direction. There really is no downside unless the mentor or protégé isn’t committed or the match isn’t compatible.
“I think what it comes down to is that confidence helps you succeed. Uncertainty can undermine that confidence,” says Donna Kellway, assistant Crown attorney in Ontario and mentor through the First Generation Network. “The more you know about the process and the more you know what’s going on in your field or what to expect in law school and the job market in your chosen area of law, the more confident you’ll feel about that.”