As a new attorney traveling the steep learning curve of early-career practice, you need advice on matters that have nothing to do with black letter law, such as developing practical skills and relationships and learning how to cope with the everyday demands of practice. Mentorship helps you get up-to-speed and develop real world, practical legal and coping skills quicker and more effectively than they would on your own. According to the WSBA 2012 membership study, nearly half of the Bar may be retired or working part-time in five years, leaving in their wake a significant “knowledge gap.” So how do you bridge this mentoring gap and find a suitable mentor?
Do Your Homework
Don’t approach a prospective mentor with a vague agenda. Instead, figure out what you want your mentor to help you with. Do you need advice on running your own business or developing a marketing plan? Do you need help with networking? Or do you want a sounding board or someone to call when you have a question? Having a clear sense of your needs and career goals—both short- and long-term—will make your time with your mentor more productive.
The next step is to identify mentor candidates. University of Washington School of Law Assistant Dean Michelle Gonzalez suggests that would-be mentees select a mentor who has the experience and training the mentee seeks to obtain . “The ideal mentor is someone you respect and wish to emulate,” says Gonzalez.
Start by writing your potential mentor and explaining who you are, what you want, why you selected them, and when you are available to meet. You may need to follow your letter or email with a phone call if you don’t receive a response after a couple of weeks. If your prospective mentor agrees to meet you, send them your resume and a brief cover letter before the meeting so they will know more about you and your agenda. Like any relationship, trust is essential, so agree what you discuss is confidential. This will encourage you to be more open and honest with your mentor.
Meet, Listen, Learn
There are plenty of suitable places to meet, just not at your mentor’s office, where distractions abound. “A coffee shop is a totally acceptable place to meet,” comments Whatcom County Bar Association President, Jim Britain. If you have done your homework, you will come to the meeting equipped with specific, well-thought-out questions. Listen carefully to your mentor’s advice. You will quickly get a sense of whether there is sufficient chemistry to make the relationship work. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box for ways to learn from your mentor. Gonzalez suggests that newer attorneys consider shadowing their mentor for a day at the office, with clients, or in court.
If the fit is right, consider putting your mentorship agreement in writing, so both sides have a clear understanding of what the goals are, how often and in what manner you will communicate, and what the expectations are for each person. If the fit isn’t right, don’t be afraid to move on to relationships that are more productive. After meeting, show your appreciation by writing a thank you note and schedule any follow-up meetings.
And there’s no need to stop at one mentor. Gonzalez recommends that newer attorneys consider getting more than one mentor, as each mentor brings to the table unique strengths, weaknesses, perspective, and experience.