Are You My Mentor?

As FaceBook executive Sheryl Sandburg observes in Lean In, “If someone has to ask the question, the answer is probably no. When someone finds the right mentor, it is obvious.” While Sandburg joins the growing ranks who praise the benefits of mentoring, she also recognises that finding a mentor can be a challenge.

What factors might increase a lawyer’s chances of finding a mentor? Fiona Kay and Jean Wallace have explored this very question. Their research is part of a twenty-year, longitudinal study of the mentoring experiences of over 700 Ontario lawyers. Not surprisingly, they found that lawyers who started out in larger firms were more likely to have mentors. Lawyers who started in firms over 50 lawyers had a better chance of having a mentor than lawyers who started in firms over 20 lawyers. However, lawyers in firms under 10 lawyers were only half as likely to have mentors as their counter-parts in larger firms. While the study did not consider whether mentoring relationships were inter-firm compared to intra-firm, one would expect that the more lawyers in a firm the greater the likelihood of an individual lawyer has of making a successful mentoring connection. Larger firms would also be able to sustain structured mentoring programmes over time.

Kay and Wallace also found that women lawyers were more likely to have mentors than men lawyers. They consider this result to be surprising given the literature on the challenges women often face in private practice. However, given the number of studies that have recommended better access to mentoring resources for women lawyers, it may be that the message has finally gotten through. A study I am currently completing on factors that affect the success of women lawyers also indicates that three quarters of the women who responded had mentors.

In addition to gender and firm size, Kay and Wallace considered whether certain personality traits might increase a lawyer’s chances of finding a mentor. Their research suggested some correlation. However, as they conclude:

[W]hile potential protégés with certain characteristics and traits may search for an appropriate mentor, this does not necessarily guarantee that they will be mentored as the prospective mentor also has a say in the formation of the relationship. Several conditions must be met whereby the potential protégé wishes to be mentored by a particular mentor and the prospective mentor is interested and able to assist that specific individual with his or her career. While certain individual characteristics and personality traits might be important in predicting which individuals attempt to initiate mentoring relationships, these attributes may not be easily or accurately observable to potential mentors who are also key to this matching process. The individual characteristics examined in this study may better reflect which junior professionals seek a mentor, rather than which particular traits are identified by and attractive to potential mentors. [References omitted.]

Stated another way, if you’re out there looking to find a mentor your chances are better than if you’re just waiting for a mentor to find you.

While looking for a mentor is a step in the right direction, finding the right mentor is key. If you don’t have a good match, the relationship is likely to be a waste of time for both of you. Long ago, a formal mentoring programme paired me up with a senior lawyer who instructed me in the proper way to staple a document. This was not a good use of my time and I shudder to think that such a session might have added value to my mentor’s life. Another lawyer once described to me how interactions with their mentor left them struggling and feeling devastated. That’s not mentoring. And that sort of bullying situation isn’t likely to bring the mentee any rewards for their time.

Before you approach a possible mentor, ask yourself what you’re hoping to achieve from the relationship? Is what you want consistent with what a busy lawyer can offer? [Think mentor, not saviour.] Kay and Wallace outline two types of mentoring: career-related support and psychosocial support. Career-related support includes coaching, sponsorship, stretch assignments, and visibility which help the mentee advance their career. The career outcomes from career-related support are usually in the form of higher compensation and career advancement. In comparison, psychosocial support helps develop the mentee’s sense of identity and competence at what they’re doing. The career outcomes of psychosocial support come in higher levels of job satisfaction and career commitment.

Finally, think about if what you seek from a mentor can be delivered by one person. You may need to consider multiple mentors. For example, you might approach one person for career-related support and another for psychosocial support. Or you might seek guidance within your practice area for subject expertise but seek out someone on the management committee for advice on general firm practices. You will also likely need different mentors at different stages of your career. While finding multiple mentors is more work, Kay and Wallace’s study suggests that having multiple mentors can also increase the benefits for mentees:

[H]aving multiple mentors has approximately twice the beneficial effect to having a single mentor across all career rewards, independently of other variables in our model. The benefits of multiple mentors are particularly evident for the two extrinsic rewards [i.e. higher compensation and career advancement]; and in the case of earnings, having multiple mentors yields a sizable earnings advantage of approximately CDN$35,000 annually, over and above one’s years of experience, area of specialization, hours invested on a weekly basis, elite education, and organisational work context. Similarly, individuals with multiple mentors also achieve a satisfying level of career progress (β=.16). enjoy a sense of real social value to their work (β=.13), and report high levels of job satisfaction (β=.15), again controlling for the features of lawyers’ work and personal traits.

With potential benefits like that, it’s no wonder mentors are in short supply.

Next post: What should prospective mentors consider in taking on a mentee?

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