This article originally appeared in Bloomberg Law.
In our “Why Mentoring Matters” series, Foley & Lardner LLP partner Michelle Nuñez discusses the best way to go about mentoring others, based on her own experiences of being mentored as a young attorney with no law background. She stresses the importance of fostering trust, keeping confidences, and avoiding gossip.
Before law school, my interactions with lawyers were limited, and my interactions with non-litigators were non-existent. I grew up in a small rural town in Florida. After high school, I studied at MIT, where I was surrounded by engineers and scientists.
I went straight to law school after graduation. I was—and still am—the only lawyer in my family, and my summer internships and first associate position out of law school were my first experiences in a professional setting. So when I began my legal career as a regulatory attorney at a big law firm in Boston in 2007, I didn’t know what to expect and needed a lot of guidance.
While I had official firm mentors, the attorneys who I would consider my most important influences and mentors were not part of an official program, but colleagues who went out of their way to make themselves available to me. I could go to them with all of the questions I was too intimidated to ask the more senior attorneys—from how to look up an EDGAR filing, to how to navigate the unspoken politics of the office, to how to take a sick day.
Those relationships were crucial to my personal and professional development as a young associate and as I progressed in my career, I tried to take on that same informal mentoring role to my junior colleagues. My mentor relationships initially grew organically as I tended to supervise the same associates from project to project, creating an avenue for them to come to me with their own questions.
I lateraled to Foley as a senior associate in 2015, and after a year, I sat down to evaluate my career and job satisfaction. Up to that point, I had been focused on demonstrating my professional value and substantive skills, and I was receiving positive feedback on my career trajectory.
But I realized my current career path was too inwardly focused and something was missing. I decided to spend more time fostering relationships with associates, even ones outside my practice group, and explore ways I could be a resource as they developed their own careers.
I spent more time with associates on a daily basis, joined junior associates for coffee and drinks, got to know them personally, and eventually they started coming to me for advice. My job satisfaction increased dramatically.
Almost every office has at least one person who trades in gossip and cannot be trusted to keep a confidence. If you want to be an effective mentor, do not be that person. And if you are looking for a mentor, seek out someone with the opposite reputation.
Over the years, I’ve learned that the most effective mentoring relationships are ones in which each person can be open and honest with the other. Trust and discretion are essential.
I’ve personally gained the most from mentor relationships in which I could be vulnerable about my shortcomings and insecurities without fear that my career would be hindered as a result. When I was given client team leadership responsibilities early in my career, it was immensely helpful to admit to someone other than the partner overseeing me that I felt inadequate and to receive the encouragement and practical guidance I needed to succeed in these new roles. I strive to be someone who can talk through an issue with an associate in an honest and open manner.
While I of course have professional and fiduciary obligations in certain limited situations, being someone who creates psychological safety and can be trusted with a colleague’s vulnerabilities is essential to me in establishing a relationship conducive to effective mentoring. If someone I mentor can’t trust me to keep confidences and help them work through an issue without making things worse, I won’t be an effective mentor.
For example, I’ve occasionally mentored associates who have had to work for partners they found challenging for one reason or another. Part of the mentoring process is giving them space to openly discuss the ways in which they feel someone is being unreasonable or unnecessarily difficult without concern that venting or talking through an interaction will damage their relationship or reputation with that partner.
Likewise, if I’m not honest and transparent about the reality of a situation, even a difficult one, I won’t be helping them. If my mentee is contributing to a difficult relationship, they need to know and be given an opportunity to adjust their own behavior or attitude as well.
Do not underestimate the importance of getting to know your mentee on a personal level. Caring about them and respecting them as persons—not just as lawyers—can help foster the trust needed to provide more useful guidance. Our personal lives influence our work, so ask your mentee about their weekend plans, learn the name of their significant other (or children), and learn their likes and dislikes.
Everyone brings their own unique perspectives and experiences to a situation, and being able to understand the motivations, biases, and worldviews of not only yourself but also those you interact with can make a huge difference. As a mentor, I try to understand how my mentee views a particular issue and see if there are other perspectives to consider or additional information I can give them that would help them make a more informed decision or shift how they are interpreting the issue at hand.
Being successful at a law firm requires both traditional academic intelligence and, sometimes more importantly, emotional intelligence. Managing multiple demands from multiple stakeholders with often wildly different personalities, while still attempting to maintain a life outside of work, can be challenging.
Having positive mentors over the course of my career has been essential to my professional success, and serving as a formal and informal mentor to my colleagues has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my professional life.
As the legal industry evolves, strong mentorship and relationships will continue to be vital to a successful practice of law, and I will continue to encourage my colleagues to seek out meaningful mentor-mentee relationships over the course of their careers.
Reproduced with permission. Published June 1, 2022. Copyright 2022 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. 800-372-1033. For further use, please visit http://www.bna.com/copyright-permission-request/.