Being a professional mentor: a how-to guide
The mentor-protégé relationship is as old as civilisation itself – in fact, during large portions of history it entirely substituted for formal education. Although mentoring can be a critical component of the development of the protégé, what’s less appreciated is the degree that this relationship can benefit the mentor as well.
Decide what you’re looking for
When searching for a protégé, there are two main possibilities: a law student or a junior associate at a law firm. Think carefully about this choice, because mentoring a law student and mentoring a junior associate are likely to be two very different experiences that place different demands on you. Naturally, the type of protégé you seek will determine where you look for him/her.
Find a protege using your professional network, your firm or an established programme
If your law firm has already established a mentorship programme, this would be the obvious choice. Not all law firms have established such programmes, however. Other possibilities include:
- A friend or acquaintance. Sometimes mentee relationships develop naturally, without any particular effort.
- An established mentorship programme, such as the one established by the Law Society (designed to assist solicitors from underrepresented groups).
- A mentorship programme established by a university, if you prefer to mentor a student. City University of London, for example, offers such a programme.
Set realistic expectations for your protégé
It’s important that you set realistic, written expectations for your protégé at the outset of your relationship. The two main reasons for this are that (i) your time is valuable, and you don’t need it wasted by an unmotivated or otherwise disappointing protégé, and (ii) clear expectations will likely operate as a great comfort to your protégé, who will almost certainly come into the relationship having no idea what will be expected of him.
Avoid spoon-feeding your protege
If you’ve ever worked as a teacher, you don’t need to be told this. If you haven’t, then it is worth mentioning. A mentor is a kind of teacher, and the best teachers provide their students with just enough to allow them to complete the task on their own – and no more than that. Don’t just answer questions – ask them. Your mentorship should operate as a challenge to your protégé, with you serving as a guide rather than a nanny.
Make it work for you too
The benefits of a mentor-protégé relationship should run both ways – and they frequently do, which at least partially explains the enduring popularity of mentorship programmes. The ability to clarify complex, arcane concepts in a simple and digestible way is a skill that can help you far beyond your mentorship. Imagine, for example, how such a skill might help you attract sophisticated business clients. Your mentorship should occupy a prominent place on your CV.
Stay in touch with your protégé after the mentorship ends. Your former protégé might turn out to be the best contact in your entire network some day – and one of the most loyal. Mentor several protégés over the years, and new connections could start forming that you never anticipated. When you consider the value you’re adding to your professional network, your time spent mentoring could turn out to be very well-spent indeed.