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5 things you should know . . . about being a good mentor

Career Path
|Written By Danya Cohen
5 things you should know . . . about being a good mentor

Among the very rare things in life — like pleasant subway commutes, comfortable winters in Toronto, and low-fat doughnuts — a true mentor is hard to come by. The title “mentor” has also fallen victim to indulgent self-designations, which have whittled it down to something that can elicit the same eye rolls as “esquire.” That said, I still recall wanting a mentor when I was younger without knowing what the term really meant. I knew it was someone who might take an interest in me besides the obligatory concern you hope to get from your parents. It also sounded like something that successful people might have in common. It turns out I was not entirely wrong because the most successful people in life can point to a mentor who helped them along the way, in an official capacity or not.

Yet one of the most consistent laments I hear from young lawyers is a lack of good mentors on Bay Street and beyond. Instead, young lawyers have found this fabled mentor is actually a workaholic who gives neither instructions nor feedback, and at best, makes time for a hasty lunch with them twice a year. If associates are missing out, then it follows that the law firms and companies they work for will, too.

So for the mentors out there  — and the mentees who might have settled for a free lunch in lieu of real edification in the past — here are five things you should know about mentorship:

1. Do as I say, not as I do

If you are a mentor, you have likely (or hopefully) achieved some success. That success may have come irrespective of, or sometimes even despite, elements of your practice style. Even if your particular brand of law has made you successful, others might not be able to pull it off the way that you do. What a gruff senior partner may be able to get away with in negotiating a difficult deal, a junior with a habit of smiling in tough situations may not. Of course, imparting your tricks of the trade is part of the gift of mentorship. But it can sometimes be a tough call to make, especially if your tactics are questionable but ultimately achieve the best results for your client. Is it bad to impart an aggressive negotiating style where you insist on an unreasonable but beneficial provision in an agreement?

Just make sure your style is always tempered with the knowledge that it is not the only way to do things, as other partners will likely have different preferences. A few mentors I spoke with considered it their duty to encourage their mentee to work with other partners and in many cases, made those introductions. Perhaps the most important consideration in developing practice style is ensuring that mentors do not pass on their bad habits or even ethical misdemeanours. Whether it is lax docketing habits, or something more egregious like failing to alert counsel on the other side of a deal to a mistake in pricing, your mentee is watching. And yes, it sounds specific because it’s true.

2. The friendly mentor

In speaking with both mentees and mentors, it seems the most meaningful and successful relationships are ones where it goes beyond work and becomes friendly. And no, I’m not encouraging that kind of friendly behaviour, which can be the unintended consequence of mentorship. What mentees appreciated most is a mentor who offered guidance that went beyond substantive law topics. Of course there is a line to draw in terms of getting into personal topics, a line that should largely be drawn by the mentee. But there are personal topics that become intertwined with work that are most easily answered by someone who has been there. In the spirit of the cure-all life coach who is going to save time-pressed lawyers from themselves, mentors can offer advice with things like selecting a banker, setting up RRSPs, and childcare.

Beyond personal matters, mentees also appreciate a mentor who provides strategic guidance. Things like who to work for, who makes decisions all leading up to the more important topic of what steps to take towards becoming a partner. When you consider how much success is tied to balancing life and making good decisions as opposed to just doing good work, it becomes not only a good idea to discuss these topics, but an imperative.

3. Don’t be a deadbeat mentor

Like a colleague of mine once said, “becoming a mentor is like becoming a parent, some people just shouldn’t do it.”

Much like having kids or a puppy, becoming a mentor is a huge undertaking. So, if you are one of those people who are chronically over-stretching their time, mentoring may not be your bag. I know this seems obvious, but ask yourself: do you cringe when the phone rings and you are in the middle of drafting something? Or are you someone who is motivated by altruism or even by the self-important feeling of being able to give somebody an answer? Beyond the time commitment, mentorship should only be undertaken by those who really enjoy someone else’s success. It’s a nice sentiment, but let’s be honest, some of us are not wired that way. In the greatest exercise of self-awareness, mentorship may not be for those whose personalities don’t lend easily to things like listening, teaching, and being non-judgmental.

The answer to avoiding deadbeat mentors is for all of us to be a little bit more honest with ourselves.

4. Keep it on the down low

It is a quality you should have learned in kindergarten, although the ability of some adults to keep a secret is about as reliable as colluding with a five year old on a surprise. But for mentors and mentees alike, respect for confidentiality was high on the list of qualities that a mentor should possess. I am not getting into the Rules of Professional Conduct here because I don’t remember them and I always hoped they would naturally align with my common sense so I didn’t have to remember them. But as far as popular opinion among mentors goes, it seems a mentor’s first duty is to the mentee with respect to any confidential information they reveal to you.

In many cases, where the information only relates to the mentee’s personal life, strict confidentiality is easy to uphold beyond your inclination to gossip. This obviously becomes a more difficult prospect when a mentee reveals something that might affect the quality of their work or their overall ability to perform. But short of direct assaults to the client’s interests, a mentor’s first duty should be to their mentee.

Other situations won’t be as straightforward. For instance, consider the scenario where your mentee is heavily involved with a file and tells you they will be giving notice but asks you to keep it quiet until they finalize an offer. Although this may take some covert maneuvering to protect the client, the consensus among mentors was that they should still respect the mentee’s request for confidentiality. To be honest, I don’t know whether this kind of integrity holds up the midst of a stressful deal. Mentees should therefore consider whether they are placing their mentor in an uncomfortable situation by sharing certain information. Indeed, some things are better left to fester in the nooks of your own guilty conscience.

5. Open it, and they will come?

Having an open-door policy is the daily practice of being approachable. Though it might seem obvious, some mentors need to be reminded that it starts with actually keeping your door open. Sure, we all need private, closed-door moments, but keeping your door barely ajar most days does not scream, “I’m here for you.”

Beyond open doors, many of the mentors I spoke with considered it their duty in the first few months or even years of mentorship to be the proactive one. One mentor explained he would stop by his mentee’s office on a regular basis, building the comfort level necessary for his mentee to also make casual visits. Another mentor said he made it a point to take his mentee out for a quick coffee a few times a week. He found they were easier to maintain and more effective than long lunches that can get cancelled and tend to take on a more formal tone.

The more frequent, unplanned, and informal interactions were favoured among mentors and mentees who found they allowed for more frequent updates and a way to relieve the mentee of feeling like they are taking up too much of the mentor’s time. To be clear, though, I’m pretty sure that elaborate lunches are still appreciated.