Sometimes you have to look beyond the ordinary places to find someone to help steer you and your career in the right direction.
Newly minted lawyers historically look to those more senior than them for advice, knowledge, and guidance on this rollercoaster ride we call a profession. They strive to find that perfect match with that one senior counsel who will lead them down the best path for becoming a well-rounded legal eagle, who is happy, enjoys their work, and has achieved work-life balance.
It is typical in the larger firms that a formalized mentoring program is in place and, as an associate, you may be assigned a mentor. Unfortunately, these forced relationships do not always blossom into what an associate might expect a mentor-mentee relationship should be. The “mentor” may end up being a mentor in name only — someone you have lunch with every couple of months and with whom you have that same old conversation that starts off with: “so everything’s okay with you, right?” You may not click or feel comfortable speaking openly with your mentor about the hurdles that you face in your practice.
The good news about the big firms is that there are plenty of fish in the sea — there are many potential mentors from which to choose. In smaller firms, however, the pool from which to draw such persons is much more limited. It is therefore important that you like, respect, and want to emulate those with whom you work in a smaller setting. However, having said that, don’t get frustrated if you can’t find that special someone in your own big or small law firm. A potential mentor may be in places where you might not expect to find one: law associations, continuing legal education seminars, or even (do I dare say it) . . . opposing counsel.
The history of the word “mentor” comes from a literary figure who was a trusted adviser and its root men- means “to think.” In Homer’s Odyssey, Mentor is a trusted friend of Odysseus who is left in charge of the household during Odysseus’ absence. At one point in the novel, Athena is disguised as Mentor and guides Odysseus’ son Telemachus in his search for his father. It therefore appears that the ideal candidate must be someone in whom you trust, who has the ability to steer you in the right direction, and has a “head” on his or her shoulders.
In an ideal world, you would expect your mentor to be that one, perfect senior lawyer who encapsulates everything you want to one day become. In reality, no one is perfect and, at least I have found, a variety of different mentors is better than just one. Below are the categories of mentors that I have looked for and benefited from in my career.
The inspirer of greatness
What most young lawyers crave in their careers is someone who not only demands greatness, but who also inspires greatness in them. This may be the senior lawyer who you fear to disappoint (or in some cases, that you just plain fear). This person provides you with the tools and knowledge to do better next time. They give you constructive feedback and encourage you to be the best that you can be.
The success story
These are the lawyers that associates say “I want to be like him/her 10 or 20 years from now.” This may be the lawyer who is the “go to” person for a specific area of law. They get the awards, they are recognized in legal rankings and they are the first person the media wants to speak to when an important case in their particular area is decided. These lawyers provide you with the motivation to get where you want to be.
These are the lawyers who have it all: they work hard and play hard too. They travel, spend time with their friends and family, and seem to have or find the time to do things that are interesting to them. These are one of our most important mentors as it is easy to get bogged down with work. We need to learn from those who have balance how to obtain balance in our own lives.
This is the not-too-senior lawyer, perhaps a senior associate, with whom you feel comfortable speaking candidly. Anything you tell them is “in the vault” and you know that your confidences will not be broken. They are an empathetic and understanding ear since it was not too long ago that they were a new associate. They give you the tips on the best people to work with, the best sources of information, and the best way to go about addressing problems you experience in your practice. They know the scoop on how things work at the firm and teach you how to survive in the game.
This is the mentor that really cares about you on a professional and personal level. They are instrumental in assisting you in the development of your career. To them, it does not matter necessarily how many billable hours you have docketed, rather, it is how you are doing on a day-to-day basis at your work and even on the home front. Are you getting challenging work? Are you happy? Are you getting out and doing something for yourself? You may find yourself still confiding in these individuals long after you have left their firm or even after you have graduated to the role of mentor yourself.
Your career as a lawyer is like an odyssey — a quest to find success in what you do. Mentors are the key to your success and if you are lucky enough to find them, they will help you with your journey.
Alexandra V. Mayeski is an associate at Evans Sweeny Bordin LLP in Hamilton, Ont. She dedicates this column to her mentors — “you know who you are”: ATM, JCM, PRS, LCS, JFE, JS, IG, AS, BR and, of course, PEB. Mayeski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org