About being a Mentor

Among the very rare things in life – like pleasant subway commutes, comfortable winters in Toronto and low-fat donuts – a true mentor is something that is hard to come by. All that said, I still recall wanting a mentor when I was younger without knowing what the term really meant. I knew it was someone who might take an interest in you besides the obligatory concern you hope to get from your parents. It also sounded like something that successful people might have in common. It turns out I was not entirely wrong because it seems the most successful people in life can point to a mentor that helped them along the way, whether in an official capacity or not.

Yet one of the most consistent laments among young lawyers is a lack of good mentors on Bay Street and beyond. Instead, young lawyers have found that this fabled mentor is actually a workaholic that gives neither instructions nor feedback, and at best, makes time for a hasty lunch with them twice a year. If associates are missing out, then it follows that the law firms and companies they work for will too. So for the mentors out there and the mentees who might have settled for a free lunch in lieu of real edification in the past, here are five things you should know about mentorship.

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

If you are a mentor, you have likely (or hopefully) have achieved some success. But your success may have come irrespective or sometimes even despite elements of your practice style. Even if your particular brand of law has made you successful, others might not be able to pull it off the way that you do. What a gruff senior partner may be able to get away with in negotiating a difficult deal, a junior with a habit of smiling in tough situations may not. Imparting your tricks of the trade is part of the gift of mentorship. But it can sometimes be a tough call to make, especially if your tactics are questionable but ultimately achieve the best results for your client. Is it bad to impart an aggressive negotiating style where you insist on an unreasonable but beneficial provision in an agreement? Just make sure your style is always tempered with the knowledge that it is not the only way to do things as other partners will likely have different preferences. A few mentors I spoke with considered it their duty to encourage their mentee to work with other partners and in many cases, make those introductions.

Don’t Be A Deadbeat Mentor

Like my colleague once said, “becoming a mentor is like becoming a parent, some people just shouldn’t do it”. Much like having kids or a puppy, becoming a mentor is a huge undertaking. So, if you are one of those people who are chronically over-stretching their time, mentoring may not be your bag. I know this seems obvious but ask yourself, do you cringe when the phone rings and you are in the middle of drafting something? Or are you someone who is motivated by altruism or even by the self-important feeling of being able to give somebody an answer. Beyond the time commitment, mentorship should only be undertaken by those who truly get enjoyment out of someone else’s success. It’s a nice sentiment, but let’s be honest, some of us are not wired that way. In the greatest exercise of self-awareness, mentorship may not for those whose personality doesn’t really lend easily to things like listening, teaching and not passing judgment. So it seems that the answer to avoiding deadbeat mentors is for all of us to be a little bit more honest with ourselves.

Open It, And They Will Come?

Having an open door policy is the daily practice of being approachable. Though it might seem obvious, some mentors need to be reminded that it starts with actually keeping your door open. Sure we are all entitled to some private closed-door moments, but keeping your door barely ajar most days does not scream, “I’m here for you”. Beyond open doors, many of the mentors I spoke with considered it their duty in the first few months or even years of mentorship to be the proactive one. One mentor explained that he would stop by his mentee’s office on a regular basis which engendered the comfort necessary for his mentee to also make casual visits. Casual visits allow for more frequent updates and are a way to relieve the mentee of feeling like they are taking up too much of the mentor’s time.

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