Every mentoring relationship must find its own equilibrium
and path. As time passes the partners will get to know
each other, and a stronger personal relationship will
As the relationship progresses, there are
several things that mentor and mentee can to do make
it work better. Effective communication and candid feedback
are key. Both partners should try to ensure time is
used as effectively and efficiently as possible. And,
both mentor and mentee should monitor the learning process
and progress, to ensure that the mentee’s learning
goals are going to be reached.
The Art of Positive Feedback
One of the most important aspects of a mentoring relationship
is how the mentor provides advice and feedback to the
mentee, and how the mentee responds to that communication.
Giving feedback in a positive and constructive way
is often difficult for mentors. At the same time, receiving
that feedback without getting defensive is often difficult
for mentees. To ensure it is well received, feedback
should be thoughtful, specific, timely, candid, and
constructive. When considering how to frame communication
with a mentee, focus on the mentor’s key role:
to nurture the mentee’s growth by facilitating
an accepting, open and affirming learning atmosphere.
For example, when asked a question, avoid the temptation
to instantly offer an answer. Instead, work at listening
to the question and understanding the issue with which
the mentee is struggling.
Then challenge the mentee to think the question through
to a solution. Using open-ended questions that start
with “how” or “what” often help
direct the mentee to the answer. This technique will
help the mentee develop the ability to critically think
through problems and arrive at a solution on their own.
Finally, celebrate the successes, and don’t shy
away from talking about the failures, and what can be
learned from them. This will help the learning process
and build the mentee’s confidence. With patience
and time, the partners should develop a good rapport
and become more comfortable with openly and freely conversing
with each other.
Like all relationships, mentoring comes with its share
of unanticipated obstacles. Some will be under the control
of the mentor or mentee, others will be external to
both. Some may even result in the termination of the
The most common obstacles are:
- the mentee wants too much time;
- the mentee needs too much help;
- the mentee seeks help on personal or other issues
that are outside the agreed upon boundaries for the
- the mentor is too busy or is inaccessible; or
- other unforeseen or unexpected circumstances affect
the ability of one of the partners to participate
in the relationship as originally agreed.
The key to overcoming obstacles is to make sure both
mentee and mentor expect them, and are prepared to promptly
and properly deal with them. A partner who is upset
or struggling with some aspect of the relationship should
be candid with the other partner. The partners must
be prepared to discuss the nature of any problem, why
it is an obstacle, and then work together to resolve
the issue. If the problems continue, the relationship
Making Efficient Use of Time
A mentoring relationship will involve less time if
the partners effectively manage the time they have.
To accomplish this, try the following:
- Schedule meetings in advance.
- Be serious and diligent about scheduling and keeping
appointments and returning e-mails and phone calls.
- The quality of time spent together is more important
than the quantity of time spent together. Do not multitask
at mentoring meetings; both partners should focus
solely on the issues at hand.
- Maximize the time spent together by fully preparing
for any discussions or meetings.
- If appropriate, start each session or discussion
with a progress review or update so as to focus the
session in on the critical issues.
- If appropriate, book a follow-up session at the
conclusion of a meeting or discussion.
- Monitor the time that is being spent on mentoring
and look for opportunities to more effectively or
efficiently use that time.
If changes occur that make existing time commitments
a problem, don’t automatically abandon the relationship.
Explore options for maintaining the relationship. Take
a timeout if necessary, and, if possible, reconsider
the time commitments so that they work for both partners.
Evaluate The Relationship as it Progresses
Once underway, most mentoring relationships require
little intervention. To improve the relationship, mentor
and mentee should consider meeting at some agreed interval
to evaluate how things are progressing.
Ideally the timing of these meetings should be set
at the start of the relationship. In the first year,
frequent meetings—perhaps every quarter—are
likely necessary to help fine-tune the relationship
and address minor unanticipated difficulties. Once things
are running smoothly, meeting every six months or so
is likely sufficient. Of course, unanticipated difficulties
would necessitate a meeting.
In preparing for these meetings mentor and mentee should
ask themselves the following questions:
- Are we on track to reach the goals of our mentoring
- What do I think about my mentor/mentee?
- What is working well, and why?
- What could be working better?
- What changes can be made to make things work better?
- What are we spending too much time on?
- What are we spending too little time on?
- How well are we communicating?
- Is there anything we can do improve our communications?
- Is there anything we can to do more effectively
use our time?
- Are there any other changes we can make to improve
The mentee, who is the primary beneficiary in the mentoring
relationship, should be proactive in making sure that
this review process occurs. Evaluating the relationship’s
progress reminds both partners of its goals, and helps
them focus on how to improve the relationship going
A formal review and clear end to a mentoring relationship
can make it a more positive learning experience for
both mentor and mentee. This is the case regardless
if a mentoring relationship is ending because its goals
have been reached, if it has run out of steam, or has
to be terminated due to other unforeseen circumstances.
The end should be seen as an opportunity to review
what did and didn’t work in the relationship,
and more importantly, to reflect on the results, so
that every lesson that can be learned from the relationship
is recognized. Both partners should celebrate its successes,
acknowledge its failures, and conclude the relationship
with positive feelings. A small token of appreciation
from mentee to mentor also may be appropriate.
Partners who are interested in continuing to work together
could use this formal ending as a spring board for new
discussions aimed at setting new goals for a new mentoring
If the relationship is being dissolved, the mentor
may be willing to continue acting as a resource to the
mentee, albeit on a less frequent and more informal
way. In many cases, the partners opt to stay in touch
after the relationship is concluded.
And to bring the process full circle, mentees should
consider passing on the knowledge and skills they gained
by entering into a new mentoring relationship –
as a mentor.
Ideally, working with a mentor should be one part of
an overall career map or plan. If you are a sole practitioner
or a member of a small firm, you will have a great deal
of control over your destiny. If you are a member of
a medium or larger firm, the firm will likely play a
larger part in setting your goals and destiny. In either
case, it is important that you assume the responsibility
for planning and mapping out your future.
Consider your career in the larger context of your
life. Step back and take a look at the bigger picture.
What is most important to you? Identify the things that
will generate your greatest interest, enthusiasm and
energy. This will help you to identify a career that
will be personally satisfying to you. Personal satisfaction
is important to happiness and success, both inside and
outside of your legal career.
You should develop a career map and action plan that
is goal oriented. Where are you today? Where do you
want to get to? What do you have to do to get there?
Set specific goals, and list the steps necessary to
reach these goals. Next work to implement this plan
with a detailed time table and to-do list. Discuss your
plans with your mentor, and discuss ideas on
how you can work together to attain these goals.
Identify your strengths and weaknesses. Look for opportunities
that let you leverage your strengths. Take steps to
increase your skills in weak areas. This can be done
through continuing legal education, workshops or other
skill enhancing activities.
As you proceed with the execution of your plan, review
your goals and evaluate your progress. Update and adjust
your plans as required. Again, discuss and review your
progress with your mentor.
Mentoring programs are coming back into vogue at law
firms. The benefits of having a formal firm mentoring
program include the following:
Faster integration of associates into a law
firm: Participating in a mentoring program
will help associates learn a firm’s polices and
procedures, and get acquainted with lawyers and staff.
A clear road map of expectations for practice
development: A mentoring program will give
an associate a road map of how they should be progressing,
and a clear understanding of what is expected from a
practice development point of view.
Associates will have a broader perspective:
Associates who are encouraged to participate
at different stages of a variety of different matters
will have a better understanding of the practice of
Although law firm mentoring programs vary in their
formality and complexity, certain steps are critical
to creating a successful mentoring program, and a firm
where mentoring is part of the firm culture.
The 1996 Report of the Professionalism Committee
produced by the Legal Education and Admissions to the
Bar Section of the American Bar Association contains
an excellent model mentoring policy. It contains extensive
annotations and would serve as an excellent precedent
for a firm implementing a mentoring program.
This is an excerpt from the Managing
a Mentoring Relationship booklet, published by the
Dan Pinnington (dan.Pinnington@lawpro.ca)
works for the Lawyers' Professional Indemnity Company
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.