Mentor Relationship. . . All Important

The concept of the Mentor has been around for a long time. (An upscale magazine by that title was published in the United States a century ago.) Just what is a mentor, as that term has come to be understood, and what part can a mentor relationship play in career development?
 
The meaning of a mentor
 
The original Mentor was a friend of Odysseus, the king of Ithaca and hero of Homer's Odyssey, who was entrusted by the king with the education and training of his son Telemachus as the younger man learned the things he would need to know when he became king in his father's place. While the goal of the modern mentor may not be the creation of royalty, the basic principles remain the same: a mentor is a trusted professional friend whose seniority, knowledge, and concern for the training and development of a younger colleague make him or her especially suited to advance that training and development by advice, encouragement, and example.
 
The establishment of a mentor relationship can take place before a new lawyer leaves school and enters into practice. A favorite law school professor, one whose approach to the intellectual or philosophical aspects of the law a student finds especially appealing, can provide a lot of good advice, suggestions, and direction, particularly if his or her expertise lies in a branch of the law that the student has found to be of personal interest. Such similarities in mental attitude and approach will also be a hallmark of the mentor relationship in the setting of a law firm practice.
 
Aspects of the mentor relationship
 
Some of the most obviously apparent benefits of a mentor relationship will accrue to the junior member of the team. Many aspects of the day-to-day practice of law are beyond the scope of what the law schools are intended or expected to teach, including such things as technicalities of filings and court appearances, the likes and dislikes and expectations of particular judges, numerous specific facets of the mores of an American legal system that has had more than two centuries to develop, and state-by-state differences in the way that the business of the courts is carried out and the practice of law is conducted. The mentor has "been there, done that," and he or she can prevent any number of false starts and re-inventions of the wheel by providing a simple answer to a junior lawyer's question. (That the most significant factor in this equation is the requirement that the question get asked in the first place implicates another important aspect of the mentor relationship, which is that the senior member not appear so godlike as to discourage the asking of questions for fear that they somehow sound trivial in the grand scheme of things.)
 
There is a similar efficiency to be gained on the substantive side. The vast majority of legal issues or disputes involve variations on themes sounded many times before. A mentor, with his or her extensive background in an area of practice, will be able to recognize the river of thought and precedent into which the junior lawyer's inquiry is bound to flow and can direct the junior upstream to a place where he or she can gain a comprehensive view of the legal concerns raised by a given set of facts.
 
The mentor relationship can also provide a junior lawyer with a more subtle benefit, a sense of the way in which the firm views the problems that its clients bring to it for resolution and thus of the attitude the new lawyer should himself or herself maintain in providing solutions to those problems. The mentor will have thoroughly absorbed the culture of the firm and its approach to the practice of law, and he or she can impart to a new lawyer the nature of the firm's expectations when the new lawyer is presented with a set of facts and asked to play a part in providing a client with a satisfactory resolution of an opportunity or difficulty. The junior member of the team will thus have a way of assuring that his or her manner of looking out on the legal landscape and solving legal problems is in harmony with the way in which the firm has viewed such questions over the longer course of its existence. 
 
The quid for the quo
 
The benefits to be gained from the mentor relationship do not all flow in one direction. The senior member of the team will receive an immediate infusion of a fresh and broadened outlook on the issues that he or she and a junior lawyer have occasion to consider and attempt to resolve. To hear a fact situation discussed from the perspective of one who is looking at such a set of circumstances for the first time is, to some degree, to see the situation anew oneself.
 
The imparting of a firm's culture and outlook to a new lawyer is also a source of reciprocal benefits. The act of a senior member in expressing and explaining the firm's approach to the issues brought to it by its clients will itself have the effect of strengthening the firm's culture and renewing the senior member's own part in creating and sustaining it.
 
And we must not discount the benefit realized by a mentor from simply being able to internally acknowledge that he or she has been of help to a like-minded new lawyer in launching his or her career as a member of the firm. To hear a junior describe what to him or her appears to be an insoluble legal problem, and to be able to respond by formulating a quick lexis.com search which results in the production of a short list of cases that are precisely on point and answer the question asked in all its aspects, creates a sense of personal satisfaction that is more readily experienced than described.
 
For all these reasons, then, the mentor relationship is a win-win situation for both the mentor and the new lawyer to whom the mentor gives a boost as he or she sets out on a career in the law. It is indeed all important on many levels and in many ways.