Mentorship 101

Are you my mentor?” It’s a question Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg warns is “a total mood killer” in her book Lean In. But for law students searching for guidance, it’s a valid question.
As third-year Osgoode Hall Law School student Rebecca Lockwood pointed out in her Canadian Lawyer 4Students column “Finding the one,” law students are repeatedly told to find a mentor. “Every career panel I’ve attended and every law school guide I’ve read have all provided me with the same piece of advice: every successful professional has a mentor — get one,” she wrote.

“Mentorship in the legal profession provides you a sense of collegiality, expectation of professionalism, and gives you a first look into how the profession runs,” says Charlotte Wolters, founder of the Women’s Legal Mentorship Program. “It helps set the tone for what you will experience as a lawyer.”

Since it’s such a vital part of building your career, here are some pointers for mentees and mentors on how to create a lasting, meaningful mentorship.


1. Expand your reach
As a law student searching for a mentor, you need to increase your exposure. You can do this by attending networking events and joining associations that interest you.

Promise Holmes Skinner, who recently graduated from the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, advises students to attend as many networking events as possible and keep an open mind because you never know who you’re going to connect with. As nerve-wracking as networking events are (especially as a first-year law student), you will benefit from attending them and expanding your network because there is always an opportunity to meet someone who is going to enhance your personal and professional life, she says.

Fernando Garcia, general counsel at Nissan Canada Inc., has mentored students through Osgoode’s mentor program with Legal Leaders for Diversity. He suggests students join organizations to meet new people. “Get involved in associations, get involved in the things that you find interesting and you will meet people who are of influence who can help you out through the process,” he says.

You can also look for a mentor outside of the legal profession. “It’s healthy to be maintaining working relationships with people outside of the profession,” says Susan Lightstone, senior educational consultant at the Ontario Court of Justice. “It gives you a wider world view and you’re bringing in diverse perspectives.”

Charlotte Wolters of the Women’s Legal Mentorship Program echoes this sentiment, adding there’s lots of wisdom to be gained from outside of the legal profession so you should look for a mentor even in unlikely places.
2. Sign up for mentorship programs
While it’s important for students to find a mentor on their own, they should also take advantage of existing mentorship programs, says Wolters. “If you’re summering or articling in a firm or with the government or a non-profit organization that has a formal mentorship program, enrol in it and take full advantage.”

In addition, informal mentorship should augment formal mentorship. An informal mentor can even be someone you observe at work to see how they conduct themselves professionally, says Wolters.

Holmes Skinner says she benefitted greatly from U of T law school’s Peer Mentorship Program, both as a mentee and mentor. As a mentee, she says it was a relief to know she had someone to talk to in first year. As a mentor, she says she formed really meaningful relationships and it was rewarding to give back.

Osgoode student Rebecca Lockwood says she is convinced mentorship forms more naturally than formally, but she noted there’s an advantage to formal programs as well. “Mentorship programs and introductions work wonderfully in getting the ball rolling and putting you in touch with the right people,” she wrote in her 4Students column.
3. Be wise in your approach
If going up to someone and bluntly asking if he or she will be your mentor isn’t the wisest move, how should you approach them?

“While asking a stranger to be a mentor rarely, if ever, works, approaching a stranger with a pointed, well-thought-out inquiry can yield results,” wrote Sandberg. In other words, you have to earn your mentor, says Lightstone. “If you want a mentor, you have to show that you’re willing, eager, and capable. It’s just not enough to go out and say, ‘I need a mentor,’” she says.

Your mentor needs to see you in action so find a way to demonstrate your capabilities, she says. “Find a way that you can get to know someone through your work. Particularly in law school there are opportunities to volunteer, there are opportunities to work outside of [the classroom],” says Lightstone.

“Intuitively, people invest in those who stand out for their talent or who can really benefit from help. Mentors continue to invest when mentees use their time well and are truly open to feedback,” wrote Sandberg.
4. Take the plunge
If you want a mentor, it’s up to you to take the initiative. You’re not owed a mentor, says Lightstone, you have to work hard to get one.

“Find people within your community or within the area of practice that you’re interested in and approach them,” says Garcia. “I tend to find that people are really good about that and really want to provide people with a helping hand.”

Get out of your comfort zone, he adds. “A lot of people are too nervous or too shy to ask. The reality is once you develop those networks, I find if you just get up there and talk to somebody, you’ll strike a relationship right away and people tend to be very good about investing their time and their interest in your career,” he says.

When meeting someone for the first time, make sure you get their card and follow up with them later on, says Holmes Skinner. Try calling or e-mailing the person to ask for guidance in a specific area of the law, she says, then start to build the relationship from there.
5. Be professional
Keep in mind that a mentorship is a professional relationship. “The legal professional mentor is not your best friend,” says Wolters.

Sandberg echoes the sentiment: “It may turn into a friendship, but the foundation is a professional relationship.”

Holmes Skinner considers one of her mentors a close friend as they have a very candid relationship, but she says it’s important to let your mentor dictate the tone of the relationship.

Part of being professional is being prepared, says Lightstone. “Don’t waste your mentor’s time, assume that your mentor has very limited time,” she says. “Come prepared with specific questions [and] don’t be afraid to ask questions.”

1. Pay it forward
If you benefitted from having a mentor, you should return the favour. “Be a person in your community that’s looking to help out and give others the opportunities that you’ve been privileged enough to obtain,” says Garcia.

Lightstone agrees. “You can’t expect the profession to give just to you, you have to expect to give back,” she says. Particularly in the legal profession, which is meant to be collegial, you should be thinking about how you can translate what you learned as a mentee into how you can become a mentor someday, she adds.
2. Set expectations

Mentorship might be new to you, but it’s important the mentor sets the expectations for success because chances are the mentee will be too afraid to do so. When a mentorship fails, it’s usually because both parties haven’t discussed how the relationship is going to work, says Wolters.

It is best if the mentor establishes a framework for how to communicate and how often.

For example, are you going to communicate via e-mail, Skype, or get together once a month for lunch? Once this is established then both parties will know what is expected of them, therefore increasing the chances of the mentorship succeeding, says Wolters.

3. Put the mentee at ease
Approaching someone to be their mentor causes anxiety for most students, so make it easier on them by being friendly and approachable. “Open up the relationship and open up the trust,” says Holmes Skinner. “Sometimes sharing personal anecdotes or personal information can really make the mentee feel a lot more comfortable than asking questions and putting themself out there.” In her experience as a mentor, she says establishing an authentic friendship is the best way to connect with mentees.

Although it’s up to the mentee to make the initial contact with a potential mentor, the mentor should also take an active role in establishing the structure and tone of the relationship.

There’s a power differential between mentees and mentors, says Wolters, so oftentimes mentees are hesitant to ask questions. “Law students and articling students might not always ask the critical questions they want and they’re burning to ask. So it’s really up to the mentor to help probe that relationship,” she says.

4. Maximize the benefits
Mentorship is a two-way street. Mentors should consider what they can offer a mentee and what they want out of the relationship as well, says Wolters.

“Mentorship is often a more reciprocal relationship that it may appear, especially in situations where people are already working at the same company,” wrote Sandberg. “The mentee may receive more direct assistance, but the mentor receives benefits too, including useful information, greater commitment from colleagues, and a sense of fulfillment and pride.”

Also, mentors can learn a lot from mentees, says Wolters. For example, law students often have new techniques or different ideas that can benefit your practice. Just as mentees have specific goals in mind, you should also consider what you want to gain from the relationship.

5. Invest in your mentee
The best kind of mentor is one who invests in their mentee’s development. A good mentor will provide advice, show you the ropes, and introduce you to new networks, says Garcia.

If done right, a mentorship can last a lifetime, says Lightstone, so you want to ensure you are committed to your mentee and make time for them.

“The strongest relationships spring out of a real and often earned connection felt by both sides,” wrote Sandberg.

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