Building a Good Mentoring Relationship

©2005 Los Angeles Lawyer magazine.  Posted with permission.

Michael A. Geibelson is a partner in the Los Angeles office of Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi L.L.P., where he practices business tort litigation and heads the Mentoring Committee. For additional information on mentoring plus checklists that can serve as starting points for the development of an action plan, visit

Who does not remember a parent, teacher, or other grownup who made a significant impact on our young lives, motivating growth and improvement in some meaningful way? Yet, as adult professionals, finding the time to locate, develop, and maintain those types of nurturing relationships becomes increasingly difficult. What may have worked as a casual way for adolescents to better their skills in cooking, math, mechanics, or carpentry lacks enough structure to propel professional development—a goal far too important to leave to chance.

In the legal world, being involved in a mentor-mentee relationship may be the only way that lawyers can get as much out of the law as they put into it. In a large firm, mentoring is essential in ensuring that associates have equal opportunities to succeed and that their work is noticed. It also helps bridge the gaps between departments and practice groups, which weekly assignments may not permit. In a small office, mentoring is a necessary label to identify an organic process that otherwise might get lost in the hustle of running the practice. And in every setting, mentoring makes the transition from law school to professional life a little easier, the learning curve a little less steep, and the practice a little more fulfilling.

While no formula exists to make every mentoring relationship successful, you can apply simple tactics to create meaningful and productive mentor-mentee matches.

Pick a mentor. If your firm does not have a mentoring program, test the waters to determine interest in setting up a formal process, which can take the awkwardness out of finding an appropriate mentor and provide a graceful mechanism for finding a new one if the first does not work out.

Formal or not, locating an appropriate mentor is critical to the development of a solid, productive mentor-mentee relationship. A potential mentor must be interested, willing, and committed. Beyond that, the faces of mentors vary as widely as those of their mentees. As a general rule, a mentor must be old enough to offer sage advice gained from a variety of practice experiences, yet young enough to be attuned to developing areas of the law, the practice, and the future of the profession. Above all else, a mentor must be someone you trust as a confidant in matters of legal and business judgment.

Unfortunately, these qualities are hard to glean merely from an introductory lunch. Simply put, if you discover the relationship lacking, find another mentor.

Keep it confidential. Young associates consistently express concerns that their mentors are evaluating them even while trying to teach them. How the mentor uses (or does not use) the information the mentee ultimately discloses will determine whether the relationship evolves into one of the utmost trust and confidence or whether it falters because the mentor uses (or is perceived to use) confidential information against the associate.

To alleviate some of this concern, the mentor and mentee must agree from the outset that all communications are confidential, with one caveat: The mentor must be permitted to make disclosures required by law, the Rules of Professional Conduct, or the policies of the firm. While the level of confidentiality of the relationship falls short of what is required for other relationships lawyers have, the caveat ensures that the mentor can do the right thing and thus teach the important lesson of admitting fault when appropriate. The mentor must make the required disclosures anyway, so new attorneys might as well agree to this protocol from the beginning.

Make mentoring a regular part of practice. Those who want to mentor but fail to do so adequately often blame the lack of time of both parties and the lack of the mentee’s commitment. Unfortunately, they fail to recognize that mentoring is a long-term process that should not get lost in the shuffle of other work. To fully realize its potential (for example, skills improvement, successful marketing, associate retention), mentoring must become a regular part of practice. This requires the imposition of structure on what otherwise should be a fluid relationship involving teaching and learning. In time, the relationship will evolve into a more natural one. Until then, a bit of planning is required. The burden initially will fall on the mentee’s shoulders, but planning can be as easy as picking dates, selecting discussion topics, and setting an action plan.

Pick dates now. Attorneys’ calendars fill up fast. However, you cannot leave to chance the opportunities for meetings and discussions about issues other than the work at hand. Pick dates in advance for the entire year, and save impromptu mentoring for less foreseeable issues that arise. Set the meetings either in your office or over a meal to prevent your mentor from being distracted.

Select the topics for discussion. Imposing structure on the relationship need not stop at picking dates. Individual meetings should be devoted to one or two topics related to the advancement of the practice. Prepare for the meetings as you would for meetings with a potential client; that is, don’t think of the mentoring relationship as a one-way street with the mentor merely giving advice. Instead, actively engage yourself in the process by preparing bullet points, lists of ideas, plans, and goals. Tie these to the topics to be discussed at the individual meetings.

Marketing skills are an essential discussion topic for attorneys interested in the management and continued success of a firm. Tap mentors to help develop and implement a marketing plan with realistic goals for a young associate. Seek out direction about how to publish an article or participate in a bar committee or community group. Talk about the type of publications and organizations that would be meaningful for your practice area.

Training in substantive law and procedure is another issue that requires planning. Your mentor’s input into your continuing legal education plan should round out knowledge of the law by including in-depth courses in areas practiced every day as well as courses about topics not regularly encountered in practice.

The ongoing development of a variety of legal skills must be arranged. In addition to training in substantive areas of law, young litigators must learn the practice ropes from depositions to court appearances, from mediation and settlement conferences to arbitrations and trials. Mentors play an invaluable role in identifying these practice milestones and the ways to reach them through case opportunities and through formal training via entities such as the National Institute for Trial Advocacy, the American Board of Trial Advocates Masters in Trial, and the local Trial Advocacy Project.

Honing your writing skills is even more important now as fewer and fewer courts consider oral argument to be a right rather than an option for which a litigant must demonstrate a need (in writing, by the way). Mentors offer another set of eyes to comment on and critique young lawyers’ written work and to help develop a style. Mentees should provide their mentors with a writing sample untouched by other hands to review, edit, and discuss on a regular basis. Submit the sample far enough in advance of a meeting to allow the mentor enough time to review it and make substantive comments.

Exposure to a variety of cases early on is essential to choosing a path for your legal career. Too many lawyers get burned out and either have to take steps backward in their career path when moving to another job, or fall out of the law entirely because they follow a path of least resistance in the cases assigned to them. Mentors are well suited to keeping an eye on a new lawyer’s exposure to a variety of cases and to discussing opportunities for getting other kinds of cases, even ones that are outside the mentor’s area of practice.

Set an action plan. Too many mentees complain of having infrequent discussions about the same topics. They describe these discussions as little more than periodic check-ups. While the above mentor-mentee strategies may likely resolve these complaints, mentees must do their part to assure that the discussion moves forward. What is the best way to do so? Prepare an action plan containing action items for the short, medium, and long terms. The action plan becomes a starting point from which to focus on approaches for professional development. It should reflect a breadth of skills and practice opportunities over a number of years. While the action plan is not meant to be an all-inclusive list of professional opportunities nor a gauge of ability, it should be used on an ongoing basis to keep the mentor and mentee engaged in the process and to mark progress over time.

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