The number one problem with mentoring programs in law firms is this: nobody knows what to do with them.

Hooray for Mentoring! Except…
Here’s my take: if you’re not using the opportunity for mentoring properly then frankly, just don’t take it up in the first place.

Okay, so your firm’s got a mentoring program.

Once you hear about it you think “Yes, there’s a mentoring programme! Excellent.”

Then your mentor is allocated to you (or you choose them if you’re really lucky).

You have your first meeting and it goes something like this:

You: “Well, “so what do we talk about?”

Them: “I don’t know, what do you want to talk about?”

You: “I don’t know, stuff?”

Them: “Right, okay, well see you next time.”

And that’s the first and last mentoring meeting you have.

Capitalise on your Mentoring Program
If you are fortunate enough to have a mentor who is a senior lawyer in your firm, then you need to know how to capitalise on that situation.

Otherwise you’re wasting their time. You are certainly wasting your time.

You are also disrespecting them by not capitalising on the offer they have made to be an open book for you to learn from.

Here’s my take: if you’re not using the opportunity for mentoring properly then frankly, just don’t take it up in the first place.

Of course, some firms have compulsory mentoring, and I understand why they do it. But it’s a terrible idea because inevitably it results in participants who don’t really want to be there and don’t know what they’re doing.

So if you have a mentor let’s explore a few ways you can benefit from the opportunity.

#1 – Politics and People
No – not Trump. Nor Turnbull.

Instead, internal politics in your firm. Your mentor can help you understand the lie of the land.

Firms are political creatures. It does you good to know who are the powerful partners and who are not. Of course they’re all partners, but who are the people who really make the decisions?

Who are the people who have successful practices?

Who are the people to model yourself off if you are aspiring to become a partner in that firm?

Of course you might not get all of this information and I’m not saying that your mentoring should become a big gossip session. Instead, think about this: where can you learn the most from the people around you?

Within this category you also have a chance to find out who you should watch closely. You have a lot of valuable assets in the people in your firm and the experience that they have. Your mentor is just one opportunity.

You might look for people are are good at:

getting clients
serving clients
delivering technical advice in simple ways
communicating
business operations
That last one is a serious contender for “most valuable information” – who are the best business owners? Who are the people who really know how to run a business?

These are the people you can be learning from by observation. Not necessarily one on one, you might not have that access, but through watching what they do, how they do it and figuring out why they are considered to be at the top of their game.

#2 – Where do you Need to Improve?
Mentors aren’t just there to puff you up and give you encouragement – sometimes their best purpose is to point out areas of concern. Your job is to give them permission to be honest to you about areas for improvement in your practice.

What do they think you could be doing better? What are you doing well?

That sort of continual improvement is far more effective and useful than the annual review process (which is largely a waste of time designed to make HR happy because it means they’ve got forms they can put on your file).

What is a useful process for growth is if you give your mentor permission to assess and reassess and help and grow you in those areas in which you might have some weakness.

But perhaps it also gives them permission to identify those areas of weakness if you’re struggling to have enough self-awareness in that department.

#3 – Benchmarking
How are you going compared to people?

Do you know? You might not have that sort of information. Your mentor, if they’re senior enough, may be able to give you some feedback.

What is the perception of you and does it align with the perception that you’re trying to get? Are you a safe pair of hands? Are people concerned about your work in some way?

That degree of honesty is so important because you may find that you’re inadvertently developing a reputation that you don’t want to be developing.

Of course, finding out information about this particular topic comes down to the relationship you have with your mentor. They need to be comfortable to give you that kind of information and they need to know you well enough to do it.

If you are not honest and open with them, they won’t be honest and open with you. So a little bit of reciprocal trust can go a long way, especially when asking for honest feedback. A little bit of openness from you and vulnerability can be helpful, and of course respectful questioning.

Now within the context of both benchmarking and areas for improvement, I want to say that you don’t need to accept everything your mentor says to you.

Your mentor is not there to tell you exactly what to do, nor are they always right. Your mentor is there to be a bit of a confidant, to be someone who gives you honest feedback, to be someone who can give you big picture strategic decision making.

They might help you implement, but they won’t do the implementation for you.

Your job is to listen to them respectfully, to hear what they have to say and to take the things that you think are extremely valuable to you and run with them.

But you don’t have to do everything.

It’s not the same as your boss telling you to do something, the nature of mentoring is more consultation and feedback, but it’s up to you to actually take steps. If you are someone who has had a weakness identified, what are you going to do? How are you going to break that down and grow in that area?

What are you going to learn? Perhaps you need to buy a book, perhaps you need to take a course, perhaps you just need to focus more attentively on something in particular. But, feel free to ignore your mentor’s advice if you think that that’s a good idea.

And last, but not least…

#4 – Consistency and Planning
Consistency in a relationship, I’ve mentioned it before. You need to have a consistent and regular meetings with your mentor.

It’s not a ticking the box situation where “oh we’re supposed to have 10 meetings”.

Set those meetings up regularly.

Know what you’re going to discuss in advance.

Perhaps you email them “Today, I’d like to discuss…” or “next week at our meeting, I’d really like to discuss the following things…”.

That way you don’t forget, you don’t get overrun by other stuff, and you give them a little bit of time to think so that they can offer you some real value.

Consistent, planned and organised mentoring relationships will propel you further, faster than ad hoc pieces of disorganised drivel.

If you want to make the most of your mentoring relationship have a plan.

But what to plan if you have no ideas? You know by now that I think the most value you can get in terms of mentoring is going to be your legal skills.

So perhaps you might want to round out your mentoring in those core areas of legal skills:

professional growth
communication
marketing and networking
business skills.
Perhaps they can help you develop a plan to grow in those areas?

If you want to grow your practice, how are you going to do it? What areas do you want to do it in? What’s the strategy you’re going to use to do it?

If they’re a partner, the chances are they have a practice, which means at some point, they’ve got to got some clients. How do they do it? What did they do? What would they do now? What did they do wrong? What were their mistakes? How can you learn from what they did wrong in the past? What’s their best piece of advice?

This is the kind of information that’s useful to get from a mentor.

But Be Careful
There’ll be some of these things that you can and cannot discuss. You need to be cautious about confidentiality.

Many internal firm mentoring programs are not confidential. What you report to your mentor might get reported to other people inside the firm.

So you need to be cautious about that and you need to trust your mentor an appropriate amount to ensure you’re getting the most out of the relationship.

In a Nutshell
So, these tips aren’t too hard to follow, right?

If you have the opportunity for mentoring, take it but use it properly. Otherwise it’s an asset that you’re really not utilising to best advantage.

Don’t hesitate to offer some further advice in the comments if you found a really great way of enjoying the mentoring process.

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