As the year draws to a close, I always try and take stock of where I am, both professionally and individually. I also take pride in trying to help others take time for self-reflection as the year winds down.
I have been blessed to have several people to look up to, both in my profession and in my personal life, and I hope to be that person for newer attorneys who are just getting started in what can often be a lonely and competitive field.
I was recently asked by my firm to help implement a mentorship program whereby younger attorneys and paralegals would be assigned to someone to help them along in their career generally, and more specifically at our firm. As the first associate hired by my firm, it seemed a fitting job, as I had already begun the process of making sure that younger attorneys had someone to talk to and receive both honest feedback and encouragement. I have worked with every one of our younger attorneys to help them develop their skills, but also their own style and voice.
So as I sat down to read the draft proposal for our firm’s mentorship program, I had in the back of the mind all of the advice that I had been given in my career, as well as all of the advice that I had already thus far given to the younger attorneys at my firm. The proposal called for people in supervisory roles to be mentors to those that they supervise. But, to me, a mentor is someone who is more senior, or an equal, professionally, but not necessarily your supervisor. It is someone that you can look up to, to talk to about how you are progressing through your career, and who can help guide you, without fear that whatever you say to them will be taken into consideration for your compensation or promotion.
The more that I thought about how to structure a program that has requirements for who mentors will be and what mentors will be required to do, I thought back to some of my own experiences, and how I received some of the better advice that I had received in my career. But more importantly, I thought about the times when younger attorneys looked at me and thanked me for advice that I had given, in order to try to incorporate these things into the program.
I remembered my first day at my first law firm, where I was handed a case list with 30 cases on it and thrown to the wolves. For me, it seemed like the perfect way to learn. Within my first week, I was attending a mediation with a very experienced mediator who knew I was green and started to test me as to whether I had actually come prepared to negotiate a settlement on behalf of my client. I answered each of his questions, and before I knew it, an hour had passed, and we hadn’t even begun to talk numbers. Then he asked me what I valued the case at, and when I told him, he agreed, and convinced the other side to take my proposal. He told me “if you never forget this moment, and how prepared you were for this mediation, you’re never going to have trouble being successful in this field. It’s the attorneys that forget, who stop preparing, and who stop taking their duties to their clients seriously that end up burnt out, tired, and depressed.”
This mediator’s words have never left me. I constantly remind myself of the rush of adrenaline that first week with a list of cases to learn, and to figure out how best to get up to speed and develop strategy – but not for the reason you may think, because in the weeks to come, I often felt overwhelmed and in over my head, as there was nobody at that firm to turn to when I needed help. Everyone looked out for themselves and their own bottom line, and very few were kind enough to take the time to teach a young attorney how to improve in his or her job. I teach younger associates to be overprepared, to plan out every step of a case, and I make sure that they never feel the overwhelming feeling of loneliness that I often felt.
It is not hard to see why so many in our profession feel so alone, but in reality, it is a mistake for any of us to allow someone else, especially a colleague or employee, to feel that way. I try to preach to attorneys all the time that even if you lose out on thirty minutes of productivity helping a younger attorney, you will gain it back in droves in the improvement in their work that comes both from your guidance and their sense of pride, knowing they work somewhere that values them. The same lesson goes for any profession – make sure that those who work with and for you know how much they are appreciated. It will be the greatest investment you make in your company’s long-term success.
*A version of this article was originally published in Bay Window Magazine, January 2020