by Charles Volkert, Esq.
If you’ve been asked to take a junior associate (or two) under your wing, you may feel honored — and perhaps a little unsure. Besides giving advice, what else should you be doing? Won’t mentoring take up a lot of time? And what would you get out of it?
When done right, mentoring relationships are beneficial to both parties. Young attorneys get real-life experience, management advice and a much-needed guide as they navigate the tricky waters of their career. A close relationship with an experienced lawyer can help them better understand the inner workings of the firm, court system and legal profession. In turn, good mentors learn from their pupils, as they’ll be exposed to new approaches to legal proceedings and technology. They’ll also hone their leadership skills.
Still, to make mentoring a positive and worthwhile experience, you have to invest in the relationship. Here are six steps to becoming a master mentor:
1. Set goals and purposes
A prerequisite to giving good advice is knowing your mentees’ professional aspirations. At your first meeting, talk about career goals: Where do they see themselves in three, five and 10 years? How would they like to further specialize in the firm, or do they see themselves more as generalists? What strengths would they like to further develop, and which weaknesses need shoring up? What role will you play in their professional development?
You might also want to come to that first meeting with your own list of skills and knowledge you want to help them acquire: the tricks of the trade you’ve picked up after years in the legal profession and lessons learned the hard way.
After discussing these two lists, establish ground rules, including how often to meet, what aspects are within the scope of the relationship, and whether the mentoring should be close- or open-ended. When you set expectations from the beginning, you tell mentees you’re serious about the relationship and their professional future.
2. Help identify opportunities
You’re aware of options for honing your legal skills, but junior attorneys may need your guidance to take advantage of them. Help mentees develop and grow by exposing them to various professional activities, such as in-house or local pro bono work and your state bar association’s committees. In addition, you can encourage them to take on leadership roles within the firm and in civic organizations.
3. Check in regularly
Your monthly or quarterly mentoring meetings shouldn’t be the only times you communicate. Make an effort to reach out more often; junior associates may be shy about bothering you with questions or coming to you with a problem, and a quick note from you may be just what they need to open up. Don’t forget that mentoring can and should occur outside the office walls. For example, you can invite them out for coffee or lunch, go for a walk and attend seminars together.
4. Promote networking
A young lawyer’s circle of contacts plays a large role in his or her future success, so make sure your mentees meet people both inside and outside the firm. Make introductions during all-company parties and professional conferences, and invite them to industry events. The more legal minds they meet, the more support they’ll have as they move up the ladder.
5. Advise them on work-life balance
You know how hard it can be to achieve work-life balance in the legal profession, especially for those just starting out. Give mentees advice on how to manage their time and caseloads so they don’t get overwhelmed and burn out. For example, perhaps they’re getting swept up in the minutiae of a specific case, or they’re not taking advantage of the services of legal support staff. Your time management advice can help them refocus their energies and increase their efficiency.
6. Maintain their confidence — and an open mind
At some point, your mentees may confide in you about dissatisfaction with colleagues or plans for a career move. Don’t violate their trust, and let them know you expect the same on their end. When you listen, stay open-minded. Although a mentor’s role is to guide, you also want to encourage them to make independent decisions.
More law firms are seeing the many benefits of in-house mentorships and are heeding management advice to start formal programs. When you make the effort to become a master mentor, the rewards are stronger junior associates, a solid future for your firm’s leadership and the personal satisfaction that you’re making a difference in a young professional’s life.
Charles A. Volkert is executive director of Robert Half Legal®, a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of attorneys, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. The company also offers a full suite of legal staffing and consulting services. Based in Menlo Park, Calif., Robert Half Legal has offices in major North American and global markets.
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Question & Answer
There are a lot of office politics at the law firm where I work. My coworkers love to build alliances, strategize to get ahead and talk about who said what — and I don’t! I need some career advice on how to manage the situation or, if necessary, how to play the game.
When it comes to government politics — the presidential primaries, how your representatives voted and so forth — you can tune out if you want. But office politics are a different matter, and maneuvering and jockeying for positions happens in every occupation and at every level. Even if you don’t like it, you need to know how to handle it in order to survive in your firm and get ahead in your legal career. The trick is to do it well. Here are three tips on how to play politics like a pro.
- Build a broad coalition
Having a good in-house network helps professionals manage office politics, especially in the legal world. Â Get to know the players in your organization — from entry-level legal secretaries to full partners. While the conventional wisdom is to focus attention on the power players, every connection is valuable, so pay attention to coworkers with less experience or those who sit lower on the organizational chart. At the same time, don’t be intimidated by senior executives. Get to know them as well, but in a genuine and respectful way. Empty flattery will just rub them the wrong way.
- Strike a good balance
Resist the temptation to participate in gossip or rumors, or to choose sides when faced with opposing opinions. Yet don’t be so pious or censorious that colleagues feel they can’t share any news with you. You want to stay in tune with happenings in the firm without being embroiled in controversy and negativity. Strive to build a personal brand that projects friendliness, competence, diplomacy and trustworthiness.
- Strategize your responses
Though you may strive for collaboration within the legal profession, you may become a victim of office politics. When you’re under attack, don’t automatically get defensive and strike back. Rather, take a moment to strategize best how to respond. Inam recommends talking with the person who has wronged you to understand his or her perspective, and working together to find a solution. Sometimes, the best move is to rise above the conflict and not react. This would give your attacker less ammunition to use against you.
In the legal profession, it’s not practical to keep your head down and steer completely clear of office politics. You don’t want to develop a reputation as someone who’s aloof and anti-social. The best career advice for someone who dislikes office drama is to know the rules and learn how to play the game well — but not play it often.
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