Mentoring

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Mentoring: Its Time Has Come—Again
by Dan Pinnington
August 2004

One of the most popular articles in the last issue of LawPracticeToday was Wendy Werner's article on mentoring. In response to the interest, we decided to make mentoring the focus of this issue of LPT.

We have collected some great articles on mentoring. Both mentors and mentees will find practical advice and insights on how to make a mentoring relationships work better. Regardless of whether you are planning to enter into a more formal mentoring relationship or program, or already in one, you will find direction on how to prepare for, structure, and participate in a mentoring relationship.

Mentoring is a tradition that has withstood the test of time—and today is making a comeback. Back in the 13th century, when judges had to provide for the apprenticeship of lawyers, mentoring was the only way lawyers could learn their craft. Today, although legal training is more formalized, interest in mentoring persists. Why? Because mentoring was, and continues to be, one of the most effective ways to pass on skills, knowledge and wisdom, and train the next generation of professionals.

A number of factors have brought mentoring back into vogue: increased concern with incivility in the profession; a desire to improve the profession’s public image; and a growing recognition that the profession of law is becoming the business of law. Both sole practitioners and lawyers at law firms are now recognizing that mentoring makes good business sense.

What is Mentoring

If you ask 10 different people to define mentoring, you will get 10 different answers. Although there are dozens of more complex definitions, at its most basic level mentoring is the passing on of skills, knowledge, and wisdom from one person to another.

Mentoring relationships can be informal and unstructured, more complex and procedure-based, or somewhere in between. But no matter what form they take, the structure of the relationship is not as important as the learning that occurs. We all thrive when we learn in the presence and with the help of others who have gone before us.

Mentors do more than simply pass on knowledge and information. They impart lessons on the art and science of living, and, in the case of lawyers, the art and science of the practice of law. And through the very act of mentoring, they help others acquire vital knowledge and skills more quickly, and often more effectively, than if it was acquired through the “school of hard knocks.”

The New Style of Mentoring

In many ways, today’s mentoring relationships function quite differently from those of the past.

In the traditional style of mentoring, the primary goal was a one-way transfer of a broad range of knowledge or information. The mentor was the authoritarian source of this information, and directed all other aspects of the mentoring relationship. The mentee was a passive recipient and often had little say or control in the relationship. The relationship lasted for a set period of time, and a mentee would have only one mentor. Mentoring would only occur on a face-to-face basis.

Today many mentoring relationships have evolved to become more focused on learning. Unlike the traditional model, learner-centered mentoring is a dynamic and two-way relationship that involves critical reflection and full participation by both partners. The mentor assumes a role of a facilitator. The mentee becomes a proactive and equal partner, helping direct the relationship and set its goals. The mentee can also have multiple mentors over a lifetime, and even concurrently. There will still be face-to-face interaction, but mentoring can also occur by telephone, e-mail, or other means.

There is no right way to mentor. Every mentoring relationship is as unique as the individuals involved in it. However, no matter who the individuals or what shape the relationship takes, setting some goals and completing some groundwork can help create a stronger and more productive relationship. The Preparing for a Mentoring Relationship article reviews the steps that mentors and mentees should consider as they prepare to engage in a mentoring relationship.

Mentoring can be difficult at times, and every mentoring relationship must find its own equilibrium and path. As the relationship progresses, there are several things that mentor and mentee can to do make it work better. These include things like communication and candid feedback, and pro-actively working to overcome obstacles. For more ideas on how you can improve an ongoing mentoring relationship, see the Making an Ongoing Mentoring Relationship Stronger and More Productive article.

Many firms now see mentoring as a key part of educating new associates in a way that increases their skills and ultimately integrates them as fill and productive members of a firm. The Mentoring Associates: It’s Ssimply Good for Business article highlights what several Canadian firms are doing with their mentoring programs.

Why Mentoring is Good for the Legal Profession

Mentoring not only benefits the individuals involved, but also pays dividends for the profession as a whole. Sole practitioners, lawyers who are just starting out at a law firm, or lawyers who are moving into a new area of practice can learn from the experience of others through a mentoring relationship.

If you practice in a law firm you likely take for granted the fact there is a confidant down the hall who is instantly and easily accessible if a question arises. If you are a sole practitioner, you will appreciate this is a luxury that you don’t have. Mentoring can help newly called lawyers get a leg up on the incredible amount of learning that lies ahead. Law schools and bar courses simply cannot impart the skills and experience that are critical for practising law proficiently.

No matter what the background of the participants, a mentoring relationship can accelerate the process through which critical skills are gained, and can help prevent mistakes. When individual lawyers more quickly increase their skills to become an integral part of the profession and the administration of justice, the profession itself benefits.

Some Common Mentoring Myths

The myths that often deter prospective mentors and mentees from participating in mentoring relationships are, as this section points out, just that: common misperceptions based on inaccurate information.

Myth: Mentoring will take too much time

Fact: Participants in mentoring relationships consistently report that mentoring takes less time than they expected. One or two short phone calls a week often is all that is required in a less formal relationship. A more formal relationship will take more time. In either case, the key to dealing with the issue of time is effective time management. From the outset, participants need to have consistent expectations on the amount of time to be spent on the relationship; and they need to make the most efficient use of their time together.

Myth: Only seasoned practitioners make good mentors

Fact: Unfortunately, many lawyers who have been in practice for five or ten years do not consider themselves to be potential mentors. In fact, they are often in a better position to mentor than those who have been practising 15 to 20 or more years. The five-to-ten year lawyer has more current experience handling the issues that a young lawyer may be struggling with, and thus may be in a better position to help.

Recognizing this reality, many law firms today are assigning senior associates to mentor new junior associates, while the senior associates are being mentored by partners.

Myth: Mentor and mentee must be in the same place

Fact: In traditional mentoring relationships, the mentor and mentee were usually in one place and interaction occurred on a face-to-face basis. However, new ways of communicating, via the Web, e-mail, and other new technologies today make long-distance mentoring more feasible and more common.

The key to successful long-distance mentoring is a shared understanding of how and when communications will occur. While some face-to-face meetings may be necessary, telephone calls and/or e-mails often are satisfactory for most subsequent discussions.

A principal benefit of long-distance mentoring is that it significantly expands the field of mentors available to any one lawyer. This is especially useful for those who practice in smaller communities where a suitable mentor may not be available locally, or in situations where the only local mentor candidate is a lawyer who often acts on the other side of matters you handle.

Myth: Only young lawyers can benefit from being a mentee

Fact: Mentoring can and does benefit even an experienced lawyer. For example, if you are expanding your practice into a new area of law, access to a lawyer with experience in that area of law would significantly reduce your learning curve. Similarly, an experienced lawyer joining a new firm could benefit from a short-term mentoring relationship. Having a mentor ensures that the new law firm member is more quickly integrated into the firm, including matters such as the firm’s procedures, and is introduced to its clients and contacts.

Summary

The pressures of today’s fast-changing practice climate make it more important than ever for lawyers to work to improve their skills. Regardless of whether you are a sole practitioner starting out on your own, or a new associate joining a law firm, mentoring is an excellent way for you to more quickly gain the skills that are critical for a successful law practice.

Mentoring also pays tremendous benefits for mentors, both personally and professionally. Nor do you have to be a seasoned practitioner to act as a mentor: In fact, lawyers in practice for as little as five years can often better relate to the concerns of a new lawyer.

Consider getting involved in a mentoring relationship, either as a mentor or a mentee. If you work at a law firm, try to develop a mentoring program and culture at your firm. There is no doubt, being involved in a mentoring relationship requires an investment of time and effort. Whether you are the mentor or mentee, you’ll likely discover this investment provides an enriching learning experience that will pay you generous dividends, and benefit the profession.


Dan Pinnington (dan.Pinnington@lawpro.ca) works for the Lawyers' Professional Indemnity Company (www.lawpro.ca) to help the 20,000 practising lawyers in Ontario avoid malpractice claims. He speaks and writes frequently on a variety of risk management and legal technology topics. Through practicePRO (www.practicepro.ca) he provides Ontario lawyers with practical how-to resources aimed at helping them succeed in the practice of law.