Stop Pushing the Mentoring

Mentoring is a great idea.  But we – the legal profession and especially bar associations, which receive all the requests/demands to “do something” – seem to remain on a carousel of creating mentoring programs and mentoring opportunities like so many dating services.  Part of me wonders if the continued existence of lawyers needing mentors despite the existence of these programs doesn’t show some kind of failure.  The desire for a mentor is understandable and the benefits are positive.  But the approach to creating this relationship, as far as I can see, is to create artificial connections that are bound to lead to unsatisfactory results in the end.

My Lawyer Mentors

I studied law in the UK as part of a year spent at the University of Sheffield.  They offered a mentoring program and I was partnered with a barrister.  He was a busy litigator but took the time to show me around his chambers – like the inside of some Rumpole set – as well as to court.  I recall meeting once or twice but nothing else came of it.

When I went to law school in Little Rock, the school also offered a mentoring program and I signed up again and was partnered with a lawyer from one of the larger city firms.  As had happened in the UK, we got together and talked about the profession, had a coffee or two, and that was it.

I think it’s fair to say neither of those mentoring relationships was a success.  They failed for a number of reasons, but not for the lack of enthusiastic participants on both sides.  Could we both have been more persistent? Probably.  But at the end of the day, our primary connection was through the program, not something otherwise personal to us.

My Real-Life Mentors

Mentoring happened to me without me really noticing at first.  In fact, I was well into my career before I was actively engaging in what I recognized was behavior that would lead to mentoring.  It is quite possible that, if asked, the people who mentored me would not necessarily describe it as such.  I talked about some of the wisdom they shared in a profile a couple of years back on the Law Librarian Blog.

Most of them were my managers or somehow in my chain of command.  This work-related connection enabled us to have some basis for creating a relationship.  That’s not enough, on its own, to make me want to interact with others in my organizational hierarchy but it has been an almost universal element.

Once that relationship existed, it enabled me to talk about things other than the work.  I think it was when I went to work at the American Bar Association when I started to first be pro-active about seeking mentoring.  I’d been hired by one senior manager who had left the organization as soon as I arrived.  My new senior manager had a rather jaded idea of what my role was and didn’t value it.  Over time, that changed but I had to spend a lot of time establishing the basic rapport that might already have existed had he been the one to hire me.  I made a point of stopping by his office and asking him questions, lots of questions, about the ABA, potentially sensitive interactions, and things that I’d picked up and wanted to clarify.  His expertise was vital and the conversations broadened to encompass discussions related to career and the future.  He began to find ways to “keep you in the mix”, which helped as well.

This is often characterized as “managing up”, a phrase I dislike because of the pejorative, boot-licking connotation it can have.  I think if my approach had been one of fawning rather than inquiry, it would have failed.  One of the reasons I think mentoring programs can be ineffective is because they lack authenticity.  A boss can smell out artifice and self-promotion.  They may still allow it, for their own ego, but it’s not going to build towards anything.

My experience with that boss and earlier and subsequent ones has followed a similar pattern.  First, they tend to be people above me in the organization and we have a topical connection related to work.  Second, they are older than I am.  Third, gender hasn’t been an issue.  And we’re not friends.  I know a bit about their life and they typically ask enough to know my background but we’re not besties and our off-site interactions are typically related to coffee.  Fourth, it’s an ongoing experience.  I differentiate reaching out to someone for a one-off, “can I ask you something” get-together from mentoring.  The people who have filled the mentor role for me have been available for years, even after one or both of us have left the organization where we met.

If You Want a Mentor …

I realize this is one person’s experience with mentoring.  And I’m a first-world doughy, educated, white, middle-aged man so all the perqs are mine and who am I to tell people what to do.  But it seems that the effort needs to primarily be on the side of the mentee to put themselves out there.   If organizations are engaged in programs that are attempting matches, it’s hard to imagine that they can create relationships from which the participants can learn without an overbearing framework or failure.

In the last ten years or so, I have felt mentored.  As I say, I have no idea if anyone who has provided me with their insight and time would call themselves a mentor.  To do that:

  • I’ve identified people in my work place, sometimes in my professional areas of interest, and explored the initial relationship building.  As a subordinate, that means putting yourself out there and being shut down.  That hasn’t happened to me, so the first success has, I think, made me more confident in later attempts;
  • once we’re on a conversational footing, I ask questions that I want answers to that I know they can answer.  In some cases, this means exposing a bit more than you might be comfortable with, about your career or what’s not working in your role.  It’s one of the reasons a person outside your organization can be safer, but, again, I’ve not found it to have been a problem.  At some point the level of trust you have with this person, even a boss, makes having those discussions more possible;
  • communication becomes ongoing.  I don’t always stop by but I think “face time” is a key part of any relationship.  But these people are busy people and, if they’re higher profile, have many demands on their attention.  E-mail is often an easy way to keep in touch and a short, well-crafted question or observation for feedback can be just as useful to the mentee without being too demanding for the mentor.

Last, and most least, the awareness of having access to people who are willing to do mentor-y things means I am more cognizant of doing it myself.  I once signed up to act as a mentor but never ended up being matched.  I won’t do that again.  If I want to be a mentor, then I need to make sure that I am friendly and open to people who are colleagues, employees, peers who might be interested in whatever it is that I know.  Sometimes we’ll hit it off and there’s an opportunity to chat every so often.  It’s easy to spot those folks who are networking for jobs, or who are doing it because they were told it was the thing to do.  But there are people who I’ve developed that informal relationship with and sometimes talked about mentor-like topics.  Perhaps I won’t be certain I’ve mentored anyone any more than my mentors did me.  I’m not that worried about it.  The labels and structures aren’t where the value in mentoring is.


David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.