Many young legal professionals know plenty about the law but almost nothing about getting their careers up and running. To start on the right foot, they may need a mentor who can help them set professional goals, steer them toward career-boosting assignments and give them access to influential people and networks.

These pairings can take many different forms, but all benefit both the adviser and the protégé.

Legal mentoring for law students

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 best 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 to 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.

Finally, mentoring relationships can be game-changers for members of groups underrepresented in some parts of the legal profession, such as women and people of color.

A female partner who takes a new female lawyer under her wing can be a source of guidance and inspiration.

Long-lasting effects of mentoring at work

Mentoring doesn't end after the mentee starts to practice. In fact, the best mentoring relationships are long-term.

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."

When paired with a mentor, new lawyers and legal support staff have a built-in source for career advice and an experienced guide for the cases they're preparing. For example, experienced attorneys can also provide novices with valuable coaching and can help them navigate both 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.

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Legal mentoring as a two-way street

The mentee isn't the only one who benefits from this relationship. By being a mentor, 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 in a process known as reverse mentoring. Entry-level 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 are also likely to be digital natives who can introduce their advisors to cutting-edge trends in technology, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning. Mentors can gain new perspectives from their protégés, which in turn can spark new ways of thinking, working and strategizing.

Mentoring in the age of remote working

Pre-pandemic, it was common for mentors to drop by their mentees' office for a quick chat, take them out for coffee or gather all their protégés together for a group lunch. This kind of rapport-building is priceless, but it's hard to maintain when many legal professionals limit their in-person interactions and often avoid the office altogether.

Rather than abandoning their mentees, the best mentors have worked out how to maintain these relationships from a distance. Virtual meetings have replaced physical ones, and "my door is always open" has become "call me anytime." Mentoring in a socially distanced world may even have some advantages. For example, it wasn't always feasible or affordable to take mentees to a hearing or deposition in another state. Now, with many proceedings still being held online, it's never been easier to expose entry-level lawyers to the sharp end of the litigation process.

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Law firm mentor programs and other options

Many firms understand the value of mentoring and will be doing their best to kick-start their law firm mentor programs in the wake of the pandemic. Indeed, in this intensely competitive legal hiring market, it's critically important to offer pathways for professional development. Employers in the legal field that don't have mentorships could experience retention problems because young lawyers don't have the guidance they need to stay engaged with — or even succeed in — their jobs. These law firms and companies could also have trouble recruiting new talent, as legal job candidates value such programs for personal growth and consider them highly when deciding which 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, newly minted lawyers can approach respected mid- or senior-level attorneys about the possibility of a mentoring relationship. Another option for entry-level legal professionals is to continue a relationship with an existing mentor, such as a former professor or instructor. In addition, professional associations can match lawyers, paralegals and legal secretaries with mentors in their specialty.

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 mentor gets the satisfaction of paying it forward and learning in return. And the company benefits by having more engaged employees, lower turnover and a core team of associates ready to succeed.

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