As a law student, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I went to a talk once where a practising lawyer said their most important piece of advice was to: “find a mentor”. They stressed the importance of having someone that you respect and that you can trust and go to for advice, whether it be in relation to a legal matter or whether it be on the bigger scale of your career as a whole.
I heeded these words as I took the shaky steps into the world of legal practice and made certain that I was on the lookout for a mentor to call my own.
Finding a mentor
As an early career lawyer, I discovered that it was relatively easy to identify who was a mentor and who was not. The mentor was the person that took the time to teach and nurture a young lawyer, supporting them to be a fully-fledged lawyer with their own file load and skills to boot. They listened, they supported, they reassured.
The non-mentor was the person with the mentality of: “Nobody taught me. I was thrown in and had to sink or swim. You should have to go it alone as I did.” This has never sat well with me, no matter how many times I have heard it.
I was fortunate that I had a mentor throughout my formative years as a lawyer, someone to guide me through the trials and tribulations that come with being in practice. Some of my peers were not so fortunate. The ones that did not have a mentor found themselves in the “sink or swim” category. Granted, they have turned out to be some seriously skilled and experienced young lawyers, but I can’t help but wonder at what cost? Will this see some of the skills of the older generation of lawyers being lost instead of passed on? What effect did it have on their mental health as they faced their early days in this demanding industry? Will these young lawyers one day perpetuate the same attitude towards mentoring as they experienced themselves? I digress, for more on this issue, Travis discusses empathy, leadership, and mentorship here.
The further into practice I got and the more my career grew, the more I realised that a mentorship did not need to be an exclusive arrangement. Every person has their own strengths and can provide something different to a mentee. You can have a whole team in your corner.
A team of mentors
Nowadays I find that I have a handful of mentors, each one of which provides me with something different.
From one mentor I get reassurance that we all make mistakes sometimes and there is always a solution. From another, I get a real sense of calm and problem-solving techniques, career advice and positivity. Probably the most surprising mentor is one that is close in age to me, although with much more legal experience under their belt. Even I must admit that when looking for a mentor, I always looked for the more “seasoned” lawyers in the office, but what I get from this individual is just as important as the others. From this mentor, I get a friend and someone who has walked in my shoes and come out the other side.
By having multiple mentors, I have something to aspire to at all different stages of my career, whether it be in the next 5 years or in 20 or 30 years down the track when I am the “seasoned” lawyer myself.
Becoming a mentor
A peer from university recently reached out to me because they were wrestling with a decision to move their legal career into a different field. I recall being slightly surprised they sought my advice in relation to their career move. Yet, I too made the big move from one firm to another, changing fields of law at the same time.
Suddenly I found myself with some wisdom of my own to share with another young lawyer… Without even knowing it was happening, I had made the move from mentee to mentor.
Approaching our catch up I thought back to all the reassurance and problem-solving I had received from my own mentors. With that in mind, I listened and we talked through the problem, weighing up the pros and cons, and then made a plan.
I’ve learnt no one can provide ‘perfect’ advice, but I realise the purpose of a mentor is to be a “sounding board”, helping to take a fresh look at a problem, offer perspective, share experience, ease fears and concerns, and ultimately offer support.
I am on a lifelong learning journey and I feel fortunate that, as I walk through my career, I have mentors that walk with me. My hope is that, in time, I will be a valued mentor and make someone else’s start in law just that little bit brighter.
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