For generations most law schools have focused on teaching students to “think like a lawyer” rather than how to actually practice law. Since the Great Recession, many who hoped to learn those skills on the job find themselves starting their own practice.
They may long for a mentor to show them the ropes. But just how do you find someone willing to invest time in helping you when so many lawyers already feel stressed and overworked? Here are a few tips to aid lawyers in solo or small firm practice in their search for a mentor.
1. Be cognizant of the huge favor you are asking
For many lawyers, every minute they spend helping you, they are sacrificing income-earning opportunities or precious time with loved ones. Be respectful of their time and be sure to express your appreciation.
2. Don’t actually ask someone to be your mentor
Committing to be a mentor sounds like a huge time-consuming responsibility to the person who hears that request. So a direct request can result in a rejection. Instead, ask if they would have time for a phone call, a coffee, a lunch or a few minutes after the meeting you are both attending, in which you might pick their brain on a specific topic. If they consent, at the end of that conversation, if you sense some rapport between you, you can ask whether they would mind if you contacted them with other questions from time to time.
3. Build a relationship before you make the ask
Don’t just call someone up out of the blue or ask someone for help the first time you meet them. If you don’t know them well already, start building a relationship by engaging them in conversation (whether by email or in person). Tell them something specific that you respect about them or that you liked about a talk they gave, an article they wrote, something on their website or a comment they made in a group discussion. Specificity helps to establish your sincerity and credibility. Useful positive feedback provides a benefit to the recipient, greasing the wheel for further interaction.
4. To find a mentor, you need to get out there and get involved
Attend local bar association meetings or interest groups relating to your area of practice on a regular basis. Once or twice does not provide sufficient opportunity for people to get to know and like you enough to want to help you. If judges run for office in your jurisdiction, go to judicial fundraisers. Attend CLE programs in person and chat with the people you encounter there. Go to law school alumni functions in your town. Hang out at the court house, watch some trials and chat with lawyers in the halls or the coffee shop. Talk to clerks and court staff about which attorneys are helpful to young lawyers.
5. Give before you take
As I mentioned before, mentoring you can easily feel like a burden to your prospective mentor. Transform that burden into a benefit by getting creative about ways that you can be of help to them. If you have plenty of time available, you could offer to work in their office very cheaply or for free for a certain period of time in exchange for “learning at their feet.” If they’re involved in the bar or other group, offer to help out by setting up chairs, handing out name tags, cleaning up afterwards, sending out reminder emails, managing a social media page for the group, or doing any other task that needs to be done.
Many seasoned lawyers could use some cross-mentoring or even “do it for me” time with regard to technology. What baffles them may be second nature to you. Perhaps you can edit and post information on their website or write some blog posts for them. Give them tips on using their smartphone or tablet optimally. Show them fun, useful or time-saving apps. They may not even know what to ask for, so brainstorm a list of ideas about how you might be helpful to them.
6. Contact your state and local bar association, law school and alumni group
Many such organizations offer formal mentor matching programs. Sometimes, however, they have far more potential mentees than mentors signing up. If you do get a mentor that way, be sure to follow the steps previously described to foster a long-standing relationship, instead of just receiving a couple of hurried meetings with them.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Debra L. Bruce is President of Lawyer-Coach LLC, which provides executive coaching and training for lawyers on practice management, productivity and business development. Capitalizing on 18 years in law practice and 15 years coaching, she helps lawyers adapt effectively to the unprecedented changes occurring in the legal industry today. She serves on the board of the ABA Law Practice magazine and on the Law Practice Management Committee of the State Bar of Texas.