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Finding and Using Mentors to Grow Your Legal Career

Published: Oct 02, 2023

 Diversity       Law       Networking       Workplace Issues       
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At Vault Law’s 2022 1L Diversity Informational Career Readiness Summit, Vault’s Senior Law Editor, Carter Isham, was joined by Alice Nofzinger (Associate at Paul, Weiss), Melissa Marks (Partner at Gunderson Dettmer), and Karlie Ilaria (Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Paul Hastings) to discuss finding and using mentors to grow your legal career. We’ve highlighted four takeaways from the panel session below.

For more insights like this, join us at this year's Diversity in Law Informational Career Readiness Summit on November 9, 2023.

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How to Find Mentors

Senior associates in your practice area, the partner on your first big case, or the attorney assigned to you through your firm’s mentorship program are some of the more obvious places to look for mentors. You can—and should—look beyond your practice group for additional mentors. Find mentors through something that provides a connection point, whether that is joining an affinity group, participating in wellness initiatives, or getting involved in pro bono efforts. Show investment in your career so potential mentors see you as worth their time.

Integrate your efforts to connect with new people into your day. Leave your door open if you’re in the office, talk to people in the elevator instead of looking at your phone, or even ask a different attorney to join you for coffee every week. And remember, not everyone is inclined to be a mentor (or good at it), so don’t take it personally if someone shows little interest in mentoring you.

Build a Mentor Panel

Different mentors can serve different needs—some might help you improve specific skills, while others will help you develop your business relationships. An important mentor relationship can be long lasting; it can also be a brief but essential relationship at one point in your career, giving critical advice at a pivotal moment. Moreover, mentors don’t always have to be senior to you; someone at an equal level can provide guidance or a sounding board. Rather than looking for one person to guide you in all things, build a mentor panel. Find one attorney with a good practice mix and another with the work-life balance you want. Build a panel of mentors to call on for different areas of focus.

Respect Your Mentors’ Time

Think of a mentor as someone who has experience that could be useful to you, but understand that it’s your responsibility to determine what they can share with you. As you would for an interview, do background research and prepare so you can help them help you with specific questions or specific asks. You also want to build a connection with your mentors so they don’t feel like you’re only reaching out when you need something. Drop by their office to wish them a good weekend, schedule coffee just to check in, and follow up if you see they’ve received an award, spoken on a panel, or have some other accomplishment. For times when you do want their advice, ask if they prefer a drop-by visit or a scheduled chat—and if you’re asking for significant time out of their schedule, take on the work of scheduling (but don’t just drop a meeting on someone’s calendar without warning!).

A Mentor Versus a Sponsor

Both mentors and sponsors are people who provide guidance as you advance in your career. Mentor relationships are generally one-directional—you receive advice from the mentor. The duration of a mentor relationship can range from one crucial conversation to years of advice, and a mentor can be someone with whom you don’t necessarily work closely.

Sponsor relationships are more likely to be with someone in your practice area or team—someone who sees on a regular basis how you work, the quality of your work product, your work ethic, etc. A sponsor needs to be familiar enough with who you are, as a person and an attorney, to want to promote you or even put their reputation on the line for you. Sponsor relationships are also more long term than a mentor relationship might be. Because of this, sponsors are key to career success and harder to find than mentors. While you may have many mentors over your career, expect to have just one or two sponsors.

While sponsors are important, start with mentors. Gather advice and learn how to cultivate a mentor relationship as you find your feet in your new role. You’ll find the people who will be your sponsors as you continue to grow your career, and both mentor and sponsor relationships will serve you as you grow in your legal career.

 

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