Often, when people think of mentoring, they envision a “big brother” or “big sister” — an adult giving guidance to a youth. Our society needs mentors, especially for young people who seek stronger role models in their lives. In fact, in 2003, President George W. Bush proclaimed January to be National Mentoring Month in support of a campaign to encourage participation in youth mentorship.

However, mentorship is also an effective way for companies and business people — including lawyers — to engage in both personal and professional development.

Mentoring is essential to ensure the legal profession remains a respected and rewarding career. It not only helps protégés build valuable skills and gain confidence and expertise, it helps the legal field by building a stronger community and maintaining high standards of effectiveness.

What Is a Mentor?

In Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, the king of Ithaca, Odysseus, fought in the Trojan War for 20 years. During that time, Odysseus entrusted his good friend Mentor with the care of his kingdom and the upbringing of his son. Today, the word defines a person who is a positive, guiding influence.

Mentoring is a process of entering a relationship with a person who wants guidance from a more experienced, knowledgeable individual in a certain area. The protégé may be someone younger, or simply someone who is just starting out in a certain field.

A mentor is like a coach, but a coach is a person who teaches you how to hone a particular skill. The mentor provides patient guidance and valuable perspective. While a coach might be a mentor, a mentor is more than a coach.

Why Seek a Mentor?

Let’s say you’re new to a location or practice area. Or maybe you’re happy where you are, but you’re having challenges in some aspect of your career. You may want to seek guidance from someone who can help be your personal advocate, helping you navigate the norms of the profession in that area.

It’s important to understand that a mentor is not responsible for your development: you are. You need a clear mental picture of what you want to achieve.

Mentors can supply wisdom, advice and encouragement to help you map a path to achieve your goals. They can also challenge their protégés to take on bigger challenges. They can teach protégés to make sound decisions by asking difficult-to-answer questions and sharing their own experiences in a nonjudgmental way.

But you also must be open to constructive feedback and the clear, unvarnished truth. You must be willing to do the work and accountable for your results.

Many people attribute their professional success to the influence of a mentor — and most can tell you that the relationship wasn’t always easy, but it was worthwhile.

What’s In It for the Mentor?

If you have substantial knowledge and experience in a certain area, you might be a great mentor for someone who is looking for more expertise in that very subject. But only if you really want to help that person.

The mentoring relationship is really about the person being mentored.

However, that’s not to say there’s nothing in it for the mentor. There are many benefits to helping others.

Scientific research suggests that when we engage in social relationships with others, we’re practicing social regulation of emotion. When we listen to a friend or protégé talk about their experiences and feelings, we help them regulate their own emotions. In doing so, we’re also regulating our own emotions. And this mutual regulation of emotion decreases depression and anxiety and improves our own emotional well-being.

Studies also show that people who volunteer to help others typically live longer, experience fewer symptoms of chronic pain, have lower blood pressure, and are more likely to describe themselves as happy.

Also, as a mentor, you’ll be spending time with someone who wants to hear your stories, your experiences, and your advice. How often does that happen?

Finally, in the healthiest teaching relationships, the teacher learns almost as much as the student. The mentor will deepen his or her own knowledge and skill, seeing it through a new set of eyes. Communicating about your life experience can offer you a new relationship with your past: assigning new value to what you have done, and a positive way to build on it.

The Relationship

We offer the following guidelines for a successful and effective mentoring relationship:

Make sure you can communicate honestly. Both the mentor and the protégé must be comfortable communicating with each other. Each must be willing to give the other permission, and feel permitted to be vulnerable and honest, and to accept honesty and vulnerability. If either person doesn’t feel supported enough to communicate openly, the relationship isn’t right.

Structure will set you free. Establish a clear structure for meeting intervals (e.g., weekly), meeting length (e.g., an hour each time), dates and times. Will the meetings be in person, by phone, or webcast? Decide who’s responsible for scheduling or keeping track of details, or anything else that needs to happen — such as making reservations if you’re meeting over dinner, etc. Clarifying exactly how things will happen and who will do them can help you both avoid irritating each other.

Set clear boundaries. Part of your structure should include defining what each person is OK with, and what you’re not OK with. Is this a strictly professional relationship, or is it OK to talk about personal things sometimes? How do you want to deal with things when one person is upset with the other (because this will probably happen)? How late is OK (maybe 5 minutes), and how late requires a text or call (anything more than 5 minutes)?

Have fun!
Once the formalities are out of the way, it’s important to relax and simply enjoy the relationship. Laugh. Share your feelings. Be irreverent.

Mentoring can be incredibly rewarding for both the mentor and the person being mentored if you both commit to establishing a mutually beneficial relationship. Make your mentoring meetings something you look forward to having.

Otherwise, what’s the point?

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