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Developing a Relationship with Your Mentor

What’s the secret to success for the new lawyer? Many publications and web sites tell you to locate a mentor, but your mentoring experience will only be successful if you give serious consideration to your role as the mentee and your relationship with your mentor.
In the film version of John Grisham’s bestseller, The Firm, Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise) arrives for his first day at Bendini, Lambert & Locke and is introduced to his mentor, Avery Tolar (Gene Hackman). Although it is still morning, Avery suggests an early “working lunch” at his club, a lunch that revolves around Avery’s fondness for Bombay martinis on the rocks with three olives. Drinking with your mentor may be Hollywood’s way to cement the mentor-mentee relationship, but there are better and more productive approaches.
Show an interest in the mentor.
The value of the mentoring relationship is more than just learning the practical nuts and bolts of the practice of law. Your mentor can provide you with important insights into the culture and politics of the firm. To obtain these insights, you must show an interest in the mentor’s career. Encourage your mentor to talk about herself: why she became an attorney, how she experienced law school, what was life like as an associate, how did she become a partner, how has she navigated the hidden shoals of an organization filled with lawyers with large ego.
Ask questions.
Your mentor is a busy attorney who does not have the time to anticipate your questions. While recognizing the demands on the mentor’s time, you must seek her out. If you wait for your mentor to come to you, the relationship will wither and die. Be proactive and bring your questions to her. Your questions should be focused; vague questions will only serve to waste your mentor’s time. If possible, try to identify a theme or subject matter for your meeting. The more focused and interrelated your questions are, the more you will be able to learn from your mentor. A deep conversation on one or two specific topics is much more valuable than a cursory conversation on ten unrelated topics.
Schedule quiet times.
As a result of modern technology and the resulting demands of instant communication, it will be difficult to find the time for serious, uninterrupted communication with your mentor. Closing the mentor’s office door will seldom work – there are too many communication channels in the office that fee-generating demands can still enter through. Thus, the only way to really learn from your mentor is to schedule time away from the office and limit outside communication as much as possible. Determine what your mentor prefers to do when he wants to stop worrying about clients and the firm – is it golf, the theater, hiking or biking in a park, a long lunch, Saturday morning breakfast, hiding out at a coffee shop. Find out what works for your mentor, and then schedule an occasional time to engage in that activity. And if the activity is not your cup of tea, do it anyway.
Respect the confidentiality of the relationship.
Lawyers love to talk about themselves and their work. Your first professional relationships will be with other young associates at the firm, and gossiping with your peers is a time-tested method of blending in and becoming accepted. But gossiping about your mentor or what she has revealed to you will destroy the mentoring relationship. You can be assured that whatever you say will be repeated by others, and in the firm grapevine nothing is a secret for long. Thus, you must respect the confidentiality of your mentoring relationship. Your mentor is showing trust in you, and may even be testing that trust, by revealing information about herself and the dynamics of the firm.
Accept feedback.
You received a great deal of feedback in law school, much of which you want to forget. Feedback in law school was often from law professors who found great delight in skewering law students. But feedback now from your mentor is vital. Ask for feedback, encourage your mentor to provide it. Make sure that your mentor understands that you can accept feedback and not become defensive or feel threatened. If you react negatively to feedback from your mentor, the feedback will cease. Your mentor will not want to provide feedback if it creates unpleasantness in the relationship.
Say ‘Thank You’.
Let your mentor know that you appreciate the time and interest that he is investing in your future. In a busy world it is easy to forget to express gratitude. Your mentor is not receiving monetary rewards for mentoring. He has taken on mentoring responsibilities because of a genuine desire to help others and because he once was mentored and feels an obligation to assist you in the same manner. An occasional expression of your appreciation and gratitude for your mentor’s investment in your future will generate large dividends now and in the future.