United States: Finding The Right Mix Of Mentors In Your First Year

Last Updated: September 24 2014
Article by Elana Baurer

"Ask about their mentoring programs," urged a recent law school graduate and friend of mine when I began interviewing with firms during the summer before my 2L year. Dutifully, I followed her instructions, and in each interview I asked about the firm's mentoring program and personal experiences with mentorship in various firms. The responses I received were interesting—most firms did have mentorship programs, but the attorney responses about their personal experiences with mentorship, both as a mentor and a mentee, ranged from almost non-involvement to completely career-shaping encounters.

It was not until I actually began my summer at Duane Morris a year later, however, that I realized the importance of mentors in Big Law. During my summer at the firm, I was fortunate to be paired with mentors—both partners and associates—who were invested in mentoring and invested in my success at the firm. These were individuals who had actual experiences with the work environment that quickly became my daily reality. They had gone through the same daily challenges and triumphs, navigated the maze of corporate hierarchy, and mulled over the same choices that I was facing.

My mentors reflected on their own experiences as newcomers. For example, my partner mentor, Sarah, told me a story about how her mentor gave her the opportunity to first-chair a trial while she was just an associate and how that catapulted her to excel in courtroom advocacy. They helped me find work that interested me, helped me review how I approached the work assigned to me, and briefed me on best practices in engaging with attorneys at different levels in the firm.

When I came back to work at the firm full-time after graduation and joined the employment, labor, benefits and immigration group, I was able to continue working with Sarah as my mentor. I quickly realized how invaluable her mentorship was in guiding me to diversify my workload; pushing me to develop and grow in my legal writing and take initiative in my own legal education; exposing me to different opportunities, like various trainings, and getting to observe proceedings like Equal Employment Opportunity Commission mediations; and helping me feel the pulse of the firm's employment practice and prioritize accordingly.

Sarah taught me to follow up with the partners I worked for, to check back in a few days after completing an assignment to make sure that they did not need any additional work from me on a particular issue. When I took her advice, I found that the partners would often give me new work, even if it was unrelated to the first assignment, and in so doing, I could ask for feedback on the first project even while taking on something new. I kept my workflow steady and was able to develop relationships with partners early on. In addition, Sarah taught me to view each interaction as a learning opportunity and each attorney at the firm as someone who had something to teach me. I soon began to view everyone around me as a potential mentor.

Because I spend half of my time doing corporate immigration work, I realized that I needed to develop a mentor in the immigration group as well. The immigration practice is integrated into the wider employment labor benefits and immigration practice at the firm, but it is a whole separate area of the law with its own separate challenges. Luckily, the partner who supervises my immigration work, Karen, fell into this role naturally, and we began informally mimicking the structured mentor program established by the firm, including feedback sessions, setting meetings to check in, and creating periodic immigration-focused business plans.

Having an informal mentor on the immigration side has allowed me to develop concrete goals within my immigration practice and work toward those goals. My immigration mentor has also pushed me to attend as many CLEs and trainings as possible, and supported me in pursuing opportunities to go outside the firm and learn about a variety of immigration law issues from experienced practitioners in the region. Karen encouraged me to think about my legal voice outside of specific cases, and has been helping me develop an article for an immigration publication and encouraging me to blog or use other social media to develop my presence as an immigration attorney.

I have recently been developing a second mentor relationship in the immigration group with another partner, Amy, who has instilled in me the importance of understanding immigration theory before being able to effectively practice as an immigration lawyer. By starting each case with a recitation of the theory of the type of visa being sought, I have been able to keep my writing more clear and precise.

Although my associate mentor from my summer at the firm, John, is not in my practice group, he has also continued to play an important role in my development as a young associate. John taught me nitty-gritty skills, like how I should proofread time and time again every piece of writing before I submit it until I finally have a draft with no errors. He is also a constant sounding board for my ideas and has helped me think about networking strategy as a young associate. Indeed, based on how much I have grown and learned from my relationship with him, I have sought out mentorship from other associates—senior, mid-level and other junior associates—because developing those relationships has provided me with tremendous insight into both the firm and the practice of law. All of my mentors have added value to my work product and work goals, and have helped me navigate a first-year associate's role in a big firm.

While I may be an extreme example of a mentor-seeking first-year, the importance of effective mentoring for first-year associates in big law firms cannot be exaggerated. Surrounding yourself with more experienced attorneys whom you trust and whom you know will help you figure out the tricky situations you are sure to encounter at the very beginning of your career will provide you with resources to consult and the internal security to build your instincts and then make the decisions and take the risks that make a great lawyer truly great.

So go find your mentors; don't wait for them to come to you. Make use of your firm's mentorship program, but if your mentor is not a great match or if your mentor can't mentor all of your practice interests, then keep going and find someone to supplement your needs.

This article originally appeared in The Legal Intelligencer and is republished here with permission from law.com.

Disclaimer: This Alert has been prepared and published for informational purposes only and is not offered, nor should be construed, as legal advice. For more information, please see the firm's full disclaimer.

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