As a racialized and first-generation lawyer, when asked about the greatest barrier I faced early in my legal career, I always revert back to the same thing: the lack of mentorship opportunities and mentors. Mentors are critical in motivating you to consider pursing a legal career, in showing you the ropes once you start you career, in providing you with advice, acting as second, sober thought in making career transition decisions and in helping you make critical contacts and build networks.
Over time, I have focused on developing a solid network of legal colleagues, from whom I can get advice, support, discuss concerns and, at times, just say hello. The value of this is limitless. But, early on, I did not have such a network on which to rely. Serendipitously, I found myself in a GC role, only two years after being called to the bar. While others saw this as a huge success, I often felt unprepared to take on such a role. I was nervous, often flying by the seat of my pants and, as an OLO — only legal officer — I often felt like I had no one to talk to or to get advice from. I had legal colleagues who I met throughout articling and practicing as a junior associate always willing and available to help, but as a new in-house counsel, I quickly realized that this was a whole new game. Eventually, by joining in-house associations and participating in law society events and diversity associations, I was able to build and establish this critical support base. I just wish I had started earlier.
Today, I highly encourage all law students, junior and even mid-career lawyers to seek out mentors and mentorship opportunities. But not all mentorship opportunities are the same. I tend to place mentorship opportunities in a quadrant. On the vertical axis, there are informal and formal mentorships.
Formal mentorship programs tend to be those that are organized, include the setting of objectives and then a periodic follow-up to discuss the steps being taken toward achieving these objectives. Conversely, informal mentorships are those casual conversations that take place while enjoying a lunch or coffee meeting with a senior lawyer and they tend to be more ad hoc and unstructured. On the horizontal axis, mentorship can take place within a law firm, law school, legal association or in-house legal department or outside these organizations as the result of a personal connection.
Personally, I prefer and gravitate toward giving and receiving informal mentorship opportunities. But one size does not fit all. Someone’s preference with regard to the type of mentorship program can also change depending on their career stage. At different points in one’s career, one type of mentorship program may be more appropriate or useful than another.
Another option to consider is sponsorship, which has become the new buzzword today. Similar to mentorship, this can be formal or informal, organized through an association or group or leveraged through a personal relationship. However, sponsors do not just provide advice, recommendations and support, they actually promote a person. They actively seek to have the sponsoree considered for new roles, promotions, appointments and take a vested interest in seeing their careers advance. Sponsors promote sponsorees to others. That being said, mentorship and sponsorship are not mutually exclusive. Both also serve different interests and both are critical for lawyers, especially first-generation and diverse lawyers.
But how does one find a mentor/sponsor? Here are some basic but important pieces of advice:
Don’t be afraid to ask! If after doing your research, you identify someone who has established a career similar to one you would like to pursue or if there is someone in an industry or sector in wnich you may want to practice, reach out and ask them for a call or to meet you for a coffee.
People do not like unsolicited sales pitches! Focus on building a relationship or meeting a few times before you pop the question and ask someone to invest their time and effort in mentoring you.
Attend networking events and sign up for formal mentorship programs within your diversity associations, in-house associations, bar association, law society, etc. This will give you instant access to a mentor and it will create networking opportunities with other colleagues.
Leverage social media. Use tools such as LinkedIn to identify common contacts, review the background of potential mentors and, once you build up the courage, you can reach out and make the connection.
If your mentorship is a formal one, make sure that you come to your meetings prepared, with a set of prepared questions or updates on objectives you may have set in previous meetings. Remember, they are volunteering their time, so make sure you make the most of every minute and that your mentor sees that you are making an effort.
Finally, but very importantly, do not forget to return the favour when you can. The practice of law is a small, fairly close-knit profession. Make sure that, as the saying goes, as you get closer to the top, you reach down and help someone else up.
Once you read this, either make a commitment to mentor a law student or recent call to the bar or go out there and ask someone to be your mentor. In eliminating barriers faced by law students and lawyers, this one can be an easy fix. Start today!