North of Boston Business magazine recently highlighted promising young leaders in its 40 Under 40 program. No doubt these highly impressive men and women have worked hard, made sacrifices, taken risk and have focused on the big picture and the long-range view when it came to their careers. But if I were a betting man, I’d also put good money down on there having been a mentor in most of these young superstars’ lives, if not in all of them.
What is mentoring, exactly? Mentoring is a trusting relationship between two professionals, one of whom is willing to openly share his or her experience in guiding the other in his or her professional or personal development. More holistic, personal and long-term in nature than a coaching relationship, a mentor offers practical training, guidance, support, contacts and other kinds of assistance to a less-experienced colleague in an effort to help him or her or grow as a professional person, not just an employee.
My own experience being mentored as a young lawyer was uneven. For one thing, most of the lawyers at my first law firm had little interest in spending non-billable time helping a younger lawyer get acclimated to the practice of law, or to provide guidance in a particular area of practice. We learned by doing – by doing legal research as requested by one of the firm’s partners; by participating in corporate transactions or trials as the junior member of the legal team, carrying the senior lawyer’s bag and helping organize the case and keep track of all the details.
We watched and learned, and listened. And did whatever we were entrusted to do.
In the beginning, mentoring was about making the professionals I managed more valuable to our firm (and to me) and maximizing our collective capacity. Once I became a partner in the law firm and began to generate my own work and eventually became charged with responsibility for managing my department, I needed competent and confident younger lawyers at the ready to assist me in getting the work done. I needed them to know their stuff; to work well with clients; to be able to think on their feet. But I also remembered how it felt to walk in their freshly polished wingtips, having graduated law school at the top of my class but with almost no practical understanding of how the court system works and how to work with clients or colleagues.
So I developed an approach to mentoring the lawyers in my practice, not only in order to help them become useful to me to get the work done, but much more importantly, to develop for themselves a sense of professional responsibility in dealing with clients and with courts. How to be candid and tactful; responsive to the requests of clients and other lawyers; and sensitive to ethical issues.
It evolved into something much more satisfying.
Over the years, I have developed deep and abiding friendships with many of the young lawyers with whom I have worked and whom I have had the privilege to help shape in some small way. For myself, I have come to the realization that I derive great personal satisfaction in advising others about highly technical and potentially economically rewarding legal structures that a particular client may benefit from. It is very satisfying work to help people in this way, and a privilege to train others to do so for their clients. I hope that my ability to see my own career in this way helps them realize their own professional satisfaction during those times we all have when we are putting in more hours than we would like in getting a particular job done.
It’s been said that no one learns as much about a subject as one who is forced to teach it. That saying applies to just about everything in life, and to mentoring in particular. In helping others develop a strong sense of professional judgment, it helps reinforce one’s own. In skills-based training, it forces us to keep up to date with new thinking, innovations, products and strategies. Moreover, the connection with another human being whom you are helping to nurture ends up doing as much – or more – for the mentor as for the mentee.
Has it made me a better lawyer? You bet – or at least a lawyer who is more professionally satisfied than many of the colleagues with whom I have practiced over the years.