The Value of Finding -- and Being -- a Mentor in the Legal Profession

There are many different types of mentoring relationships, but all provide benefits to both the advisor and the protégé. These pairings are becoming more and more desirable, to the point that many legal job applicants inquire about a firm’s mentoring program during the interview process.

Value of a professional mentor

Good mentoring relationships are important from the very beginning of a legal career. In fact, they can be pivotal to the success or failure of law students. Good mentors, be they professors or practicing attorneys, can help students decide which type of law might suit them and how they can tailor their educational and career paths to align with their aspirations.

In addition, mentors can help law students expand their professional networks so they can land a promising internship, clerkship or legal job. Some mentors prepare mentees for job interviews by going over possible questions, the best answers and even salary negotiation strategies.

Long-lasting effects of mentoring at work

Mentoring doesn’t end after the mentee starts to practice. According to the National Legal Mentoring Consortium, “Clients, the public and the profession are best served through healthy lawyering practices and by the highest ideals of professionalism and collegiality, which can be effectively developed through mentoring.” The best mentoring relationships are long-term.

When paired with an in-house professional mentor, new lawyers and legal support staff have a sounding board for career advice and an experienced guide for the cases they’re preparing. Midlevel associates and senior attorneys also can provide novices with valuable coaching and can help them navigate the office culture and the courtroom. By offering insights, insider knowledge and gentle correction, mentors increase the chances that their mentees will have a successful legal career.

Mentoring as a two-way street

The mentee isn’t the only one who benefits from this relationship. By offering mentoring at work, a more experienced lawyer gets great satisfaction from helping less experienced ones develop into seasoned professionals. In addition, by introducing promising young legal talent to their professional network, mentors strengthen their own reputations. And as their protégés expand and develop their own practices, they often introduce their professional mentor to new contacts, returning the favor.

What’s more, the best teachers often learn from their students. Junior lawyers, paralegals and legal staff members are more apt to spend time poring over legal texts and researching strategies. In the process, they may come across a new application of a ruling that a more experienced lawyer hasn’t considered. Younger legal professionals may also have fresh and interesting ways of using law office technology in their jobs. Mentors can gain new perspectives from their protégés, which in turn can spark new ways of thinking, working and strategizing.

Types of mentoring relationships

Many firms are recognizing the increased demand for mentoring at work and are responding by implementing formal programs. Practices that don’t have mentorships could experience retention problems because young lawyers don’t have the guidance they need to stay engaged with their jobs. They could also have trouble recruiting new talent, as legal job candidates value such programs for personal growth and consider them highly when deciding which firm or organization to join.

While in-house mentorships are the most effective and yield a high return on investment, other options are possible. In workplaces without a structured program, junior lawyers can approach respected mid- or senior-level attorneys about the possibility of a mentoring relationship. Another option for new legal professionals is to continue a relationship with an existing mentor, such as a former professor. In addition, professional associations can match law students, paralegals and legal secretaries with mentors in their specialty. Nothing beats in-person mentorships, but such relationships can also exist online, by phone or via Skype.

There are no losers when it comes to mentoring at work and being mentored. With a little time investment, the less-experienced legal professional gains a wealth of knowledge that can’t be found in the classroom. The professional mentor gets the satisfaction of paying it forward and learning in return. And the legal organization benefits by having more engaged employees, lower turnover and a core team of associates ready to succeed retirees.