Mentoring: Learning From Others’ Experiences
By Cheryl Stephens
Vice-Chair, CBA National Law Practice Management & Technology Section
By lending support to a junior colleague, be it personally or professionally, a mentor plays an important role in the business community. They are a source of information and inspiration for a new recruit and help not only to set an example for future generations, but also to build the business community, by strengthening ties between generations.
When many of us were young practitioners, there was little talk of mentorship. In recent years, however, mentoring has risen to prominence and is now quite popular in the business world. Increasingly, businesses are beginning to see the value of passing on skills and advice from the older generation to the newer one through the personal dynamic that exists in a mentor-protégé relationship.
Lawyers are also gradually beginning to appreciate the benefits that can be transferred from partner to associate in a mentoring scenario. More than just a valuable source of skills and knowledge, the mentor imparts wisdom on how to avoid breakdowns in the lawyer/client relationship, or how to balance work and personal life commitment and other key elements of a legal career that aren’t taught in law school.
What is mentoring?
Broadly speaking, mentoring is a defined relationship that exists between a junior and a senior. By extension, in the business world, it becomes the relationship between a new recruit and an experienced team member and one in which the new recruit benefits from the older employee’s years of experience.
In formal programs, a mentoring relationship is structured in a one-on-one dynamic with a focus on the needs of the protégé with the aim of helping them develop to their fullest potential. Programs often last in terms of years, but can be tailored to suit the specific needs of either party in the relationship.
The attractiveness of mentoring comes from the fact that it centres around a personal and flexible dynamic between two people, the key elements of which are respect, communication and honesty. Participants in voluntary mentoring relationships can define their own terms and actively design and redesign the relationship as time passes and needs change. In some cases, a new hire may be given two mentors: one to provide technical assistance in his or her practice area and the other to advise on corporate culture or other career issues.
Blurring the line somewhat are personal issues and typically, a mentor will not act as an advocate for career advancement, or advise or assist in issues such as: dispute resolution, lending money or financial assistance, personal issues (unless otherwise agreed upon), client confidence, or excessive instruction in substantive law.
Benefits of mentoring
Mentoring benefits the junior professional in both personal and career arenas. The support of the mentor engenders increased self-confidence, beneficial self-reflection, and a conscious approach to balancing work and life. Mentors also provide career guidance and help with goal setting.
Many participants consider the most valuable feature to be the creation of a safe haven for frank disclosure: a place where the junior lawyer can ask dumb questions without judgment and find out what he doesn't know. For the law firm, mentoring benefits include enhanced communication that promotes competence and enhances morale. These contribute to career satisfaction and associate retention.
Finding a mentor
Often, the process of finding a mentor is one of simply asking. Consider someone who might be a suitable role model for your own career, or professional development (What aspects of their work are attractive to you? Whom do you admire?) and ask them for their assistance.
It’s likely that this person will be quite flattered by your request for assistance, even if they cannot meet your needs.
Here is a sampling only of the wide variety of mentoring programs already available in the legal community:
- In 2003, the BC Branch of the CBA established the Women Lawyers Forum whose mentoring program was launched in January and primarily matches women mentors and mentees.
- Legal Aid Ontario supports the thousands of lawyers across Ontario delivering legal aid through the Mentor Hotline. For more information, call the hotline at 416-979-9342 or toll free at 1-800-668-8258 extension 4734.
- Ontario Trial Lawyers Association's on-line Mentor Directory provides an up-to-date database of all Lawyer Members of OTLA who have agreed to act as Mentors. For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
- The Lawyer-to-Lawyer Network of the Ontario Bar Association (www.oba.org) provides its members with the opportunity to share experiences and build long-term relationships between mentors and mentees. Call toll free 1-800-668-8900.
- The Advisory Services Department of the Law Society of Upper Canada offers limited mentoring support by volunteer practitioners engaged in private practice. For more information, call (416) 947-3369 or 1-800-668-7380.
- The Law Society of Alberta’s Office of the Practice Advisor offers a Mentor Program in the areas of family law, criminal law, wills & estates, and real property. For more information, contact (403) 429-3343 or toll-free at 1-800-272-8839.
Are you a mentor?
Being a mentor demands commitment and an ability to solve problems and may not be a good fit for some people. That said, however, mentoring might be for you if you’re the type of person who welcomes the opportunity to reflect on the significant events in your life, and the obstacles you overcame and the lessons you learned.
Don't let your own self-doubts hold you back from helping another lawyer avoid your own mistakes. Even a mediocre mentor can be helpful by providing knowledge, experience, and access to information and referrals. A superior relationship can be built with developed listening skills, problem-solving abilities, and a grasp of people and politics.
If you would like to mentor, but you don't have the time, remember that the relationship can be designed to be flexible, requiring only one or two phone calls weekly or less frequent face-to-face meetings. The relationship should be about quality time, as opposed to quantity.
Cheryl Stephens is a professional Mentor/Muse and a consultant to individuals and law firms in affiliation with the Practice Development Group at ACT Training, Ltd. Contact her at email@example.com or 604-739-0443.
From the Winter 2004 newsletter of the CBA's National Law Practice Management and Technology Section.
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