Phil Karter’s article, “Finding Your Obi-Wan: The Importance of Mentorship in Furthering the Young Lawyer's Career,” in The Legal Intelligencer
Reprinted with permission from the April 7, 2023, edition of The Legal Intelligencer © 2023 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited, contact 877-257-3382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finding Your Obi-Wan: The Importance of Mentorship in Furthering the Career of a Young Lawyer
By Phil Karter
Those of us fortunate enough to have had parents, older siblings, teachers or trusted friends who were there when we needed them to provide valuable career guidance and support can appreciate the importance of good mentoring relationships. When embarking on a legal career, the value of a good mentoring relationship within a law firm is no less important to a young lawyer’s career advancement. Developing confidence, skills and judgment, establishing career goals and building a successful practice can all be enhanced by such a relationship.
The range of mentorship relationships in law firms run the gamut, from formal programs with assigned mentors and regular meetings, to informal relationships that are the product of initiative on the part of the mentor or mentee, or that simply evolve from working closely together on various projects. In either case, there is no limitation on developing multiple mentoring relationships that serve different purposes. In large and midsize firms, for example, it is not unusual for a new associate to be assigned a mid-level or senior associate as well as a partner as mentors. Such an arrangement can provide the mentee greater comfort that he or she can have more open and honest conversations about how to succeed in a law firm with a colleague that has been through the process more recently than an older partner.
In smaller firms, where mentoring relationships tend to be less formal, there is often direct and frequent contact with the senior lawyer about the tasks assigned. In due course and at appropriate times (e.g., not the day before a big court filing is due), this can provide the younger lawyer with an opportunity to probe the less task-specific aspects of the job and his or her performance. It is also worth noting that informal mentors are not always lawyers themselves. An experienced paralegal or legal assistant, for example, can be a cornucopia of practical knowledge about how to get things done both inside and outside the firm.
Regardless of the formality or informality of the arrangement, the benefits a mentoring relationship can provide young lawyers include:
- Enhancing their substantive knowledge and practical skills so that they can hone in on the important facts, analyze the issue(s), figure out the law to apply and then communicate the conclusions effectively, both orally and in writing.
- Handling difficult situations, such as dealing with problematic clients or managing a heavy workload, especially if assigned projects or clients are coming from multiple sources that do not account for the competing priorities on the young lawyer’s task list.
- Building relationships with other lawyers, clients and professionals in related fields, which can help young lawyers develop a network of contacts that will be valuable throughout their careers.
- Identifying when there might be actual or potential ethical issues lurking, where experience and good judgment can help avoid problems for the young lawyer and the firm.
- Avoiding being pigeonholed into a particular practice area that is not of interest.
- Gaining hands-on experience through the opportunity to observe, if not participate directly, in client meetings, negotiations, court or other litigation proceedings.
- Interacting with clients and colleagues in a way that engenders confidence, trust and loyalty.
- Building a reputation by publishing, public speaking and/or joining professional organizations, and offering opportunities to assist these endeavors.
- Identifying strengths, weaknesses, suggestions or guidance on how to improve upon the latter.
As to the last point, the issue of not receiving adequate feedback is a familiar refrain heard from many young lawyers. Particularly when stretching over a period of years, this can create unnecessary uncertainty and anxiety. It is also a missed opportunity for the firm; if a young lawyer is meeting or exceeding expectations, letting him or her know this is being recognized is a great opportunity to build confidence, self-esteem and loyalty, as in “Hey, I really think I have a future here.”
If there are problems, helpful feedback and guidance can provide a course correction, or at least a heads up that a long-term future at the firm is not assured. When the initiative is not undertaken by the firm, this should not deter the younger lawyer from taking the initiative to solicit feedback. It may seem a little unnerving at first, depending on how comfortable the associate is with their senior counterpart, but a question as simple as, “Is there anything in the work product I provided you I could have done better?” is a great place to start. In the best of all worlds, the mentor will take the time to not just review and edit the mentee’s work product, but thereafter to review their edits with the younger lawyer and explain why changes, if any, were made.
Regarding the trend toward working remotely or on a hybrid schedule, it is worth being mindful that mentoring relationships tend to be strengthened by periodic face-to-face interaction. This may require more initiative on the part of the younger lawyer working remotely to ensure that they are not “out of sight, out of mind.”
Finally, what young lawyers may not intuitively realize when they join a law firm is that for a good many senior lawyers, mentoring arrangements can evolve into highly symbiotic relationships that offer mutual benefits to both mentees and mentors. Besides helping train the young lawyer to become a better lawyer (which can only inure to the senior lawyer’s and the firm’s benefit), there can be a great deal of personal fulfillment in seeing the positive impact that the wisdom and perspective shared with the younger lawyer can have on that person’s career.
Phil Karter is managing shareholder of the Philadelphia office of Chamberlain, Hrdlicka, White, Williams & Aughtry specializing in tax controversy and litigation. He is a former trial attorney with the Department of Justice Tax Division and may be reached at: email@example.com.