General Counsel, What Makes an Effective Mentor?

A legal mentor is a seasoned and experienced lawyer who has navigated the intricacies of the law in a variety of settings, in-house as a legal leader, in a law firm as the leader of a practice group, as the lead lawyer on a complex case or transaction or as a member of law firm management. Mentors are intrigued by teaching others through experiential learning. With wisdom from a mentor, young legal professionals can more aptly align their legal goals with business objectives, learn new skills, and build confidence in their careers.

As a mentor, you must have a willingness and the desire to share the information you have gleaned from your years of experience. Empathize with your mentee; what it was like to walk in their shoes when embarking on your career?

The Association of Corporate Counsel has a formalized mentoring program that encourages in house lawyers to enroll as a mentor or as a mentee. The ACC notes: “Formal mentor relationships last one year, but we hope our new mentor program will develop long-term relationships that grow our members’ careers for years to come.”

There is an insightful discussion of mentoring in an August 10, 2021 article in the ACC Docket titled: “Why Mentoring is the Highlight of a Leader’s Career”. The author notes: “Leaders don’t become leaders without mentors – or their mentees”. In the article, Brian Ellis, SVP and General Counsel of Danaher reflects on his career and development. Brian leads a team of 300 and mentors and sponsors as many as he can. Ellis observed that one of the most valuable lessons he learned as a mentor was not getting in the way of leaders that report to you. “I listened more than I spoke, and I really just tried to help lead people versus trying to do their respective jobs, which I was not qualified to do”.

When you meet with your mentee, make sure you listen as much as you share advice. The lawyer must launch on their own and be empowered to make their own decisions, their own mistakes. You can help them frame challenges. They should provide context and parallel learning by applying the advice granted to their current experiences. A successful mentorship is to both give and receive. Keep this in mind to encourage success and bonding in the relationship.

If you are willing to embark on the journey with your mentee, make sure you fully commit to the extra time required. Make sure you can accommodate time-sensitive matters when needed. Success will entail a commitment and follow-through from both parties. If you’re ready to step up and serve, read on. What are some of the recurring characteristics of great mentors?

· Willing to devote time and effort to the relationship
· Some flexibility in work schedule to accommodate needs
· Steep knowledge in a practice area and the multiple applications of the law or regulations
· Provide constructive feedback on the legal principle or application of the law
· Good listener; culling out information or facts below the surface
· Sharing a solid network of resources
· Nonjudgmental; can you give feedback on style without jeopardizing the relationship?
· Providing context for the decision or your legal context

And as was stated- it is a two-way relationship. So, what success indicators should you look for when assessing mentees?

  • Building Trust – Trust develops over time. Have they been successfully mentored in the past, a dean, a coach, an advisor?
  • Responding to Feedback –Listen fully, then explore the problem and initiate a suggested solution. Does the mentee ask questions, take your suggestion at face value or become defensive?
  • Identify Goals – What are some of their career or life goals. Do they have a sense of how to achieve them, do they ask for feedback? Do they express intellectual curiosity?
  • Encouragement – The most valued mentoring skill. Ask them for an example of how they responded to positive verbal feedback. Are you willing to coach from the sidelines?
  • A mentor can open doors for mentees. Introduce mentees to appropriate contacts so their abilities are noticed by others and give your mentees opportunities that will enable them to interact with colleagues. Do they keep you apprised and express gratitude?

Finally, you have a unique opportunity to provide wisdom, knowledge, insight, and training that a new attorney may be lacking. As a legal leader, you can influence another lawyer’s career trajectory and promote long-term loyalty within the organization and nurture a strong referral network across organizations or industries. Many lawyers have found the long-term benefits to be personally and professionally rewarding.