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For legal professionals just starting their career, or solo attorneys who spend most of their professional time working alone, it can be incredibly beneficial to seek out a mentor for encouragement and guidance.
Solo attorneys can get stuck in a certain mindset or workflow given the solitary nature of their profession. By working with a mentor, solo attorneys can get insights into their strengths and weaknesses from an outside perspective, which will help them apply new ways of thinking to their cases and, ultimately, advance their careers.
Mentoring in the workplace is a critically important element of career development for solo attorneys. However, it can be difficult to establish a mentor/mentee relationship when primarily working alone, as opposed to lawyers working at large firms with greater resources at their disposal.
Fortunately, there are a number of ways solo attorneys can build their network to meet potential mentors. The following are examples of organizations and resources that can introduce you to the right connections to forge a mentor/mentee relationship:
One way to find a mentor living in your area with the specific knowledge you’re seeking is to engage with your local bar association. Local bar associations generally have sections for different practice areas, each of which host section meetings that can serve as networking events. Since these meetings tend to be smaller and more intimate than general bar association meetings, you have a greater opportunity to build one-on-one relationships with fellow attendees and determine whether or not a potential mentor is in your midst.
Although the primary purpose of lawyer referral services is to connect individuals with attorneys in their area, these services can provide great value for solo attorneys looking to find a professional mentor. You can leverage the power of lawyer referral services by referring out files that may require another perspective or layer of expertise outside of your wheelhouse.
Connecting with lawyers with expertise you're looking for allows you to not only ask questions pertinent to a particular file, but gives you the opportunity form professional relationships that can eventually amount to mentorship.
While you may be working solo currently, that doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of connections you've built in previous job roles or in law school. Make sure to keep in contact with former colleagues who may be able to fulfill that mentorship role in the future. Frequent touchpoints, either online or in person, will help you grow those relationships which can naturally progress into asking someone to become your mentor.
Finding a mentor as a solo attorney can be a bit challenging, but that doesn’t mean you should work with just anyone. Although it may take more time and effort, it’s important to make sure that you choose a mentor whose values and experience align with yours. This will ensure that you both get the most out of the mentor/mentee relationship.
Consider the following when trying to find a professional mentor:
Obviously, you’ll get the most relevant guidance and insights if you work with a mentor who has experienced similar situations and faced similar challenges. Your mentor will be able to teach you how to navigate particular circumstances that you’re likely to encounter and give you the knowledge and tools you need to succeed in those situations.
Compatibility is a huge component of a strong mentoring relationship. You need to be comfortable asking questions and accepting constructive criticism from this person, so it’s important that you look for someone whose personality agrees with yours to an extent. Being able to freely and confidently engage with your mentor will optimize the value you get out of this relationship.
While it’s important to find someone you’re compatible with, your mentor shouldn’t be your mirror image. A key element of mentoring in the workplace is stepping out of your comfort zone. A good mentor will encourage you, but also push you to look at a situation through a different lens. Working with someone whose age, life experience, gender, race, etc. differs from yours allows you to evaluate cases within new contexts that you would have never considered without your mentor’s unique perspective.
Due to the sensitive nature of your work, it’s important to confide in a mentor you know is reputable and trustworthy. It can take time to build that foundation of trust, even when working with highly respected professionals, but you owe it to yourself and your clients to make smart decisions when sharing private information.
There is no one way to ask someone to be your mentor. The process varies depending on your existing relationship with that person.
If you have an established working relationship with this potential mentor and stay in relatively frequent contact with them, it’s as simple as sending an email or giving them a call and asking to meet for coffee or lunch to inquire about some career advice. If the initial meeting goes well, you can follow up with a message thanking them for their time and insights, and ask them if they would be interested in setting up more frequent touchpoints.
If you’re reaching out to someone you don’t have a strong relationship with, it’s going to take some additional touchpoints before asking for a meeting directly. Start with an introductory email that covers a little bit of your background and some commonalities that may pique this potential mentor’s interest. A few rounds of correspondence will help you start building that relationship and give you a better sense of whether or not this person is willing or able to mentor you. Once a connection has been established, ask them if they’d be interested in meeting for a brief, 30-minute meeting to get to know one another better, and only after that meeting should you follow up with a more explicit ask for mentorship.
Keep in mind that mentorship can mean different things to different people, so it’s very important that you set clear expectations about what you want out of this relationship from the start.
Lastly, don’t go overboard with messages if you don’t hear back from them. As you know, lawyers are busy people. Follow up once or twice in the weeks following your initial meeting, but after that, assume that this person does not have the time at the moment to be a mentor. You can check in with them every few months to maintain that connection and hopefully grow that relationship in the future, but for the time being, it’s best to move on to another option.