Mentoring helps attorneys at all levels advance their careers

Programs allow seasoned lawyers to impart wisdom to the next generation

Online Exclusive: Columbia Law takes an innovative approach to mentoring

Wisdom is a rather ethereal quality. The concept itself means many things to different people, but largely centers on a deep understanding of people or things and the events and situations that surround them. Classical Greek philosophers considered wisdom to be one of the most important virtues, and many devoted their lives to teaching about ideas and experiences that they hoped would instill a similar pursuit of wisdom in their pupils.

Although thousands of years have passed since Plato and his mentor, Socrates, helped set a standard for modern philosophy and teaching, their passion and intent for scholarship and helping guide others down the path to personal enlightenment is still strong. Today’s legal profession owes a debt to the work of these great thinkers, and still actively strives to impart wisdom onto others.

That legacy for guiding others permeates the legal world. Starting in law schools and continuing throughout the careers of attorneys in law firms, corporate legal departments and professional organizations, the awareness that mentoring is critical to developing effective and intelligent lawyers is prevalent. At nearly every stop along the way in attorneys’ careers, opportunities abound for them to engage a wide variety of mentors. And mentoring isn’t just for novice lawyers—even the most experienced attorneys have relationships with peers and even subordinates through which they continue to learn new ideas and improve their practices.

The following pages will discuss the different aspects of mentoring throughout the legal profession, examining its importance, the traits of a good mentor or protégé, programs employed by legal departments, as well as suggestions for in-house attorneys on how to find mentors on their own.

Important Benefits

Ask most anyone in the legal profession and they will likely agree that mentoring is one of the most critical components to a lawyer’s success. A mentor can give a lawyer the tools needed to understand how to navigate his career, regardless of whether it’s in-house, or at a law firm, non-profit or a government agency. Not only do mentors instruct their protégés about points of view, experiences and skill sets that are different from their own, but mentors also can help them feel more comfortable and included in organizations. There also is a sponsorship aspect to the mentoring relationship, through which the mentor actively and affirmatively advocates for the protégé in his relationships with other people. The importance of this type of education and grooming cannot be discounted.

“We are a learning profession,” says 3M Senior Vice President, Legal Affairs and GC Marschall Smith. “The absolute requirement of lawyers as professionals is that we transmit and educate our colleagues and the next generation as it comes along. That sort of broad educational function is probably the defining aspect of what we do for a living. And on a day-to-day basis, the way that’s done in the real world is mentoring.”

While most in-house lawyers likely have had mentors in law school and potentially at law firms if they followed the traditional path to the corporate legal world, mentoring can still play an important role in their development. Corporate legal departments, and the organizations in which they’re based, are typically much more complex than law firms, and have additional levels of reporting. What’s more, when lawyers transition in-house, their day-to-day interactions involve more frequent contact with nonlawyers in the business lines of the organization, and their work demands more general business and political savvy. This can be a drastic change from their previous roles. The skills that were learned in mentoring relationships in law school or in firm life aren’t necessarily congruent with what are needed to work effectively in-house.

Because of this, mentors are a necessary component for corporate counsel as they learn to navigate this different environment, and understand not only what it means to be a good in-house lawyer, but also how to plot their professional path along the way.

Veta Richardson, president & CEO of the Association for Corporate Counsel (ACC), says that in-house lawyers are fortunate on this front because they have the potential for more diversity of good mentors in their organization—both other lawyers or people who are in the business lines. She also notes that the ACC offers the Corporate Counsel University, which is designed to help attorneys transition to in-house practice.

Defining Traits

In order to truly benefit from any mentoring relationship, both the mentor and protégé must ensure that they’re trustworthy, open and willing to participate in the requisite level of giveand- take inherent in any good personal interaction. First and foremost, for mentors, it’s imperative that they commit the time needed to make the relationship work.

“It’s awfully easy, when things are busy and rushed, to put off the [protégé] lunch,” Smith says. “You need to recognize that it’s vital to the future of the company, and also to the future of the individual who’s being mentored. It can’t be something you get to when you have time for it. And that’s hard in a corporation.”

A mentor needs to be willing to listen, to offer his best guidance and be candid with the protégé, especially regarding the mentor’s own background and challenges faced throughout his career. Mentors need to not be threatened by sharing their wisdom, and be able to push their protégés out of their comfort zones. An effective mentor also should be inspiring, supportive and encouraging of his protégé.

Conversely, a good protégé is someone who is coachable, recognizes he still has lots to learn and is willing to clearly articulate his expectations about what he hopes to gain from the relationship.

“To be a good [protégé], it takes some advance preparation and time gaining some self-knowledge to understand your strengths and weaknesses in order to take full advantage of the opportunity for advice from someone else,” Richardson says.

A committed protégé must be a good listener, and shouldn’t worry about looking like he doesn’t know what he thinks he should know. Protégés also shouldn’t be afraid of embracing their mentors’ advice and putting those teachings into practice.

Similar to mentors needing to make time available to meet, protégés must not let their mentors’ schedules interfere with their relationships or willingness to reach out.

“I tell people whom I mentor all the time: Don’t be put off if you call or email me and I don’t get back to you immediately, or I don’t reach out to you as frequently as you may like,” says Morgan, Lewis & Bockius Partner Sandra Phillips, who previously was SVP and associate general counsel at Pfizer Inc. “Sometimes there are just not enough hours in the day to be mindful. But if someone calls me or sends me an email once a week, that’s not something I’m going to ignore or be irritated by. In fact, I’m going to praise the person for taking the initiative to make the relationship work.”

Aside from time, there also is a certain amount of personal chemistry needed to make any mentorship work. And if that chemistry isn’t there, both parties should not be afraid to suggest a change.

Practical Programs

The frequency with which corporate legal departments have mentoring programs, or the levels of complexity or formality in which they exist, varies widely among companies. Pete Boerner, a managing director in legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa’s In-House Practice Group, says that he doesn’t see many formal mentoring programs at companies. If they do exist, they’re either informal or not talked about since they’re not necessarily something general counsel or legal departments see themselves needing.

“It’s typically not something that people are evaluated by,” he says. “In a performance review, most GCs are not going to be evaluated on whether there is a mentoring program in place. And for that matter, the legal departments in many companies do not formally pay attention to professional development programs. If there’s no professional development, or a GC with that bias, you’re probably not going to see a formal mentoring program.”

Of those legal departments that do have formal mentoring programs, they tend to come in a few different forms. There is the traditional method of senior lawyers mentoring junior attorneys. There is the group mentoring model in which a senior lawyer will mentor a group of junior lawyers. There also are peer mentoring programs in which lawyers assist others who may not be in their division. And there also are reverse mentoring programs in which people who are in the earlier stages of their careers mentor more-experienced attorneys in the department to help them to see the organization from the eyes of people at an earlier stage.

“[Reverse mentoring is] good for law firms, but it’s really good for in-house counsel,” Phillips says. “Many times, when you get to be a senior leader in a legal department, you need the feedback and the perspectives of those in the organization who are at a different level because that’s where a lot of the organizational dynamics and morale issues are, and that’s where people need more training and exposure. And of course, in this process, the more senior lawyer is going to impart certain types of wisdom and guidance on the more junior lawyer even though the roles are reversed.”

Gap Inc.’s legal department last year unveiled a one-year mentoring program intended to promote individual attorneys’ development. The program was developed in tandem with the HR department, which helped to design and promote the program, as well as recruit mentors from other departments in the company. The program’s mentors, who predominantly come from outside the legal department, receive copies of protégés’ individual development plans, which detail what they’re working on to further develop their careers, and use that to guide their instruction. Mentors and protégés meet monthly, and there is a feedback system in place to monitor progress.

Gap also has had an informal, more organic mentoring program in place for years. “People can directly ask other members of the department to mentor them, or they can come to me and I will work to match them with mentors,” says EVP, GC, Corporate Secretary & Chief Compliance Officer Michelle Banks, adding that she believes it was important for the department to retain both formal and informal programs. “We have people who have opted in to both, and we have people who participate in only one or the other. That’s why I feel strongly that there is a benefit to both programs.”

Like Gap, in addition to promoting informal mentoring, 3M has a formal program that pairs senior executives throughout the company with mid-level, high-potential people—primarily diverse candidates—with the intent of strengthening the company.

“Since coming to 3M, I’ve had a [protégé] every year,” Smith says. “It has to be somebody outside of legal affairs whom I meet with at least twice a month, and ideally once a week, for an hour or two of discussion about what’s going on, how does this make sense, where is your career going, what does your career look like, etc.”

3M also has a program within the legal department that assigns mentors to attorneys, paralegals and even their administrative staff.

Going Forward

Because not every company or legal department has a formal mentoring program, people desiring additional tutoring should seek out mentors on their own. Phillips says that if people dig hard enough, there may be an affinity, diversity inclusion or HR group tasked with professional development at the organization that can help recommend a mentor.

Another avenue Phillips suggests is to reach out to outside counsel as prospective mentors because they are eager to find ways to extend their partnerships with clients. Even though they are at law firms, she believes there’s still a great deal an in-house attorney can learn from them.

If those routes don’t return desirable results, in-house lawyers should not be afraid to simply ask senior-level attorneys for help. Once a relationship has been built, it’s extremely rare for anyone being asked to serve as a mentor to say no. “People are generally flattered and supportive,” Banks says. “People should approach this pretty aggressively and just ask.”

But at the end of the day, a mentor is simply wherever you find one. “Mentors don’t have to be in a certain shape, size or color—they just has to be people who have navigated their careers to a point where they can reach back and help folks at least get to that point,” Phillips says.

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