The Benefits of Mentorship to Lawyer Wellness
The Bencher—March/April 2020
By Judge David W. Lannetti and Jennifer L. Eaton, Esquire
Among other challenges, a legal career can involve isolation, uncertainty, inflexible time constraints, family-related guilt, and dire client consequences. To combat these stressors, lawyers are often advised to focus on attaining a proper work-life balance. One often-overlooked resource in the pursuit of this “balance” is mentorship—both finding a mentor and serving as a mentor. A successful mentorship relationship can make your legal practice more productive and less stressful while positively contributing to your quality of life generally.
Mentorship Is a Key Element of a Healthy Work-Life Balance
Lawyer mentorship creates a partnership between two attorneys that can be enormously fulfilling while contributing to the health and well-being of both participants. Having another person who can empathize with your circumstances, brainstorm coping mechanisms, and share successful strategies can reduce stress and improve your situation. Additionally, having someone else with whom to discuss potential non-legal activities, including family interactions, can be extremely helpful. As a mentee, you will have someone else with whom you can consult, explore alternative options, and meet professional and community contacts. As a mentor, you can develop a greater purpose, give back while serving the profession, and maybe even make a new friend. Whether as a mentee or a mentor, the mentor relationship almost certainly will contribute to your well-being.
Finding the Right Mentor or Mentee
Like finding a good friend, finding the right mentor or mentee can take time—and usually some trial and error. Ideally, you will eventually have separate mentors in different aspects of your life but having an attorney mentor relationship is important due to the challenges inherent in legal work. One often-asked question is whether you should limit mentorship relations within the office you work. Although such relationships are certainty convenient, there are benefits to having a mentor outside the office. For mentees, having an “outsider” as a mentor can provide someone with an objective view regarding job-related challenges, including those involving your workmates. For mentors, finding a mentee in another office with similar career interests and an analogous professional trajectory will facilitate potential career advice beyond the mentee’s law office. Of course, there are reasons to have a mentor relationship within your firm, perhaps in addition to an outside mentor relationship. Many legal offices have a formal mentorship program primarily to guide and develop younger attorneys. Ultimately, you should pick the mentor-mentee situation that works best for your needs, your practice, and your goals. Many lawyers successfully maintain several mentor relationships simultaneously.
Being a Mentee
The benefits of a mentor relationship to a mentee are vast. The value of having a more experienced and knowledgeable person available to guide you through unfamiliar territory cannot be overstated. Although the traditional goal of a mentor relationship is to impart guidance and wisdom from a mentor to a mentee, mentees must understand that a successful relationship is a two-way street. A mentee should not expect to receive all the benefits of a mentor-mentee relationship. Instead, a mentee should look for opportunities to work with his or her mentor, usually in a professional setting. This may mean planning a continuing legal education program, co-authoring a legal publication, or looking for leadership opportunities in shared organizational interests. Another important aspect of being a mentee is keeping the mentor-mentee relationship going. The mentor in the relationship most likely has a busy professional and personal life, so a good mentee can contribute accountability to the relationship by touching base with the mentor on a regular basis. Some mentees do this by establishing a regular meeting or check-in schedule with their mentors. This periodic communication is beneficial to both parties, as it provides ongoing opportunities for the mentee to discuss current issues while they are fresh and gives the mentor the opportunity to timely provide advice and receive feedback. And the relationship is strengthened as each participant gets to know the other better.
Serving as a Mentor
Guiding and advising a mentee is a way to give back, inspire the future of the profession, and find additional fulfillment. Every attorney should strive to be a mentor during the course of his or her career, and it is never too early—or too late—to start. Newly admitted attorneys can seek out law student mentees, and soon-to-retire attorneys can offer their advice and guidance to subsequent generations. Before taking on a mentee, you should seriously consider your expectations regarding a successful relationship. For example, if you believe collaboration is an important part of the mentor-mentee dynamic, you should inquire whether your potential mentee is similarly interested. If you only have time for a monthly or quarterly check-in, then you should communicate that as well. The beginning of the mentor-mentee relationship is an important time, and managing expectations at the outset will help set the tone going forward. For instance, being a mentor may require giving difficult advice at times. Talking to your mentee in advance about how you will handle these conversations, should they arise in the future, may help facilitate a more productive relationship. Set the relationship parameters early and reevaluate them annually to see if they are working. There may even be a time when your mentee “graduates” and no longer needs your guidance and assistance in the same way as when he or she was a new attorney. Appreciate that mentorship is an ever-evolving endeavor.
Value of the Mentor-Mentee Relationship
Although every mentoring relationship is unique, certain attributes are common. From a guidance perspective, the relationship allows the mentor to share experiences and advice and the mentee to provide related feedback. From a collaboration perspective, the relationship can establish a sounding board for objective advice and feedback and can also identify opportunities for the parties to take on joint projects. From a support perspective, each can be the cheerleader of the other and help identify outlet activities that contribute to well-being and quality of life. And from a personal growth perspective, both can enjoy getting to know each other and positively contribute to one another’s development.
Like any relationship, the success of the mentor-mentee relationship depends on the effort and commitment of the parties. Although you will need to invest some time and energy, this should not deter you from participating in what very well could be an extremely meaningful and career-changing experience. Be a mentor, find a mentee, and see how you can make each other and the profession better. You may be surprised that as you participate—as either a mentee or mentor—you will be happier and more fulfilled.
Judge David W. Lannetti is a circuit court judge in Norfolk, Virginia (Virginia’s 4th Judicial Circuit), as well as an adjunct professor at both William & Mary and Regent University Schools of Law. Jennifer L. Eaton, Esquire, is an attorney at Vandeventer Black LLP in Norfolk, Virginia. Both are executive committee members, and Lannetti is a past president of the James Kent American Inn of Court. The views advanced in this article are those of the authors alone and should not be mistaken for the official views of the Norfolk Circuit Court or Vandeventer Black LLP.