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Mentors: how they can help you and how you should use them

Mentors: how they can help you and how you should use them

Matthew Dow


A great mentor can offer you valuable friendship, career and life advice. Most partners can positively recall an individual who possessed mentor-like qualities; they will typically state that this trusted confidant’s insight was crucial to their own subsequent personal success.

Further, through supervisor-led training, the concept of mentoring pervades the legal profession. Consequently, for your own professional development, it is helpful to understand what mentors may expect of you. Moreover, junior lawyers should make considerable efforts to ensure that they take full advantage of such opportunities.

Mentoring is often a formal commitment; for instance, most law firms promote official mentoring schemes. Likewise, to demonstrate management capability, associates are commonly obliged to take on mentees. However, a mentoring relationship can also be established unofficially. It could manifest as a regular coffee with a more experienced colleague, for example.

Mentoring can therefore be excellent for a lawyer’s professional and personal growth. In addition, considering the difficulty for applicants in distinguishing between law firms, a strong mentoring support system can represent a real selling point.

Yet one question remains unanswered on most graduate prospectuses: what exactly is a mentor?

My initial beliefs

Prior to working, my only experience with the idea of a mentor was that of a parody. I pictured JD longing for approval from Dr Cox in Scrubs, or Mr Miyagi advising “wax on, wax off” in The Karate Kid. Alternatively, I was wary of some enthusiastic lawyer ambushing me in Starbucks with their new Udemy life coach certificate.

I was not even particularly clear on what I was meant to do during any actual mentoring. Was I just there to receive advice from a senior colleague? Should I assume that our meeting is a one-off event? Am I expected to ask for work experience? Or would this be poor etiquette?

In addition, I was so uninformed about legal practice, I genuinely feared that I would look foolish asking basic questions. So, do I just ask my mentor about their career and avoid any questions personal to me? Alternatively, should I be accurate about my limited abilities, or actively try to sell myself?

What is a mentor?

From many positive mentoring encounters, I have now acquired the answers to a few of the above questions. The most obvious answer is that the appropriate response completely depends on the person that you are meeting. Your individual character will also determine the approach that best works for you.

Mentors may vary in their approaches, but the reason for your mutual association is habitually the same. Mentors traditionally use their acquired wisdom to help you to navigate through the complexities of your legal career. Typical conversations can touch on anything that is relevant to that mission.

For instance, you may discuss your experience and the challenges that you have faced in the firm to date. Or you could receive guidance on your preferred area post-qualification, or be offered strategies to successfully survive any office politics. An effective mentor may also advise on ways for you to enhance your legal skills and promotion prospects.

For context, any assigned mentor is usually internal and your relationship can last for many years. The individual will likely be more senior, but will not necessarily be from the same department. This proximity can be immensely valuable. Your mentor will have personal insight into the difficulties that you encounter at the firm. However, you should also be aware that any discussion between you may not be subject to confidentiality. Therefore, be conscious of the possible need for discretion.

A broader concept of mentoring

The concept of mentoring has also broadened in recent years. You will now see peer mentoring, official buddy schemes, reverse mentoring and even online accountability mentoring. There are also BAME, LGBTQ, religious identity and practice area mentoring groups.

These new learning avenues are significant. Partners who receive reverse mentoring from trainees may improve their delegating skills. Also, peer mentoring enables better communication throughout the business.

Elsewhere, online accountability networks involve an individual sending their mentor a brief weekly email outlining the mentee’s personal weekly targets. The following week, the mentee re-emails, confirming the targets that they actually accomplished. They additionally suggest any reasons that prevented them from meeting their ambitions. This process keeps the mentee accountable. The method also allows the mentor to regularly provide feedback. This feedback process has personally been very useful for me.

What have I gained from mentors?

I have obtained mentoring through a university initiative. I have also received welcomed guidance from many generous lawyers that I have stumbled across. My adopted mentors have included both experienced and junior lawyers. Further, I have benefited from my interactions with online legal career influencers.

At first, it seemed surreal to discuss personal growth elements with strangers. However, I eventually realised the opportunity that these meetings offered.

Each mentor was refreshingly honest. They were particularly open about the negative lifestyle aspects of the legal profession. I feel that their advice also presented valuable context about the realities of life in practice. This insight was inevitably absent from the sales-pitchy information that I often received from law firms’ presentations.

Ultimately, our meetings have helped me to make decisions on what I desire from a legal career. They have also improved my knowledge of niche practice areas, enabled me to better characterise the different law firms and enhanced my client management. Further, my mentors’ advice has substantially increased my scoring in assessment centres.

How best to use mentoring opportunities

It must be recognised that any mentor is sacrificing their time to help you. Also, most are genuinely interested to get to know you as a person. Therefore, you should ensure that you come prepared, listen and reciprocate their generosity.

In terms of practicalities, meetings are often structured and organised weeks in advance. One of my mentors requested that I provide an agenda of discussion topics. This agenda definitely helped me to clarify my thoughts. Therefore, I would recommend creating one, even if you are not asked to do so.

At the same time, do not be afraid to pivot off-topic. I casually asked one individual about an interesting activity that I saw on their LinkedIn page. Our discussion was completely off-piste. However, the advice it generated has constantly proved to be a valuable insight.

Moreover, be conscious that mentoring advice is not gospel. Some advice may simply not be relevant to your circumstances. To give an example, Chris Hargreaves’s fantastic book In Practice follows a set of fictional letters from an elderly legal mentor. The mentor’s letters are both valuable and misguided for a modern legal career. Nonetheless, Hargreaves leaves the reader to make the relevant judgement call. Any real-life advice should undergo a similar filtering process.

It also pays to explicitly ask your mentor what you can do for them. Many often assume that their inexperience means that the value exchange is solely one way. However, I was surprised to discover that one particular mentor was keen to receive feedback on their mentoring style. They felt that they benefited from obtaining a millennial’s perspective on topical issues.

Another mentor suggested that the best thing that I could do for them was to stay in touch. After all, law is a long career and legal practice is a small world. Given the wisdom that you have received from their inspired mentoring, you should be in a strong position to offer your mentor some great advice in the future.