Life is about relationships, especially mentor-mentee relationships. Mentors are people with more experience or knowledge and informally guide a mentee, person with less experience or less knowledge.
But why is having a mentor so vital?
You’ve probably heard the saying — “it’s not about what you know, it’s who you know.” Well, true story. It is all about who you know and having the emotional intelligence to leverage powerful industry connections is king., even in the legal community. While a pretty small crowd, it would behoove you as a law student, candidate sitting for the state’s bar exam, or even a new attorney, to begin identifying and developing these relationships as early as possible.
And this process starts the first day you begin law school. Keep in mind, you may be “competing” for these connections with students or classmates who have previously interned or worked in a law firm, courtroom, or prosecutor’s office. Meaning, you have catching up to do in putting your networking skills to use!
But if you’re feeling overwhelmed already and thinking that you haven’t planned this out this early, that’s okay, because when I started my first day of law school, neither did I. It may take you your 2L or 3L year to begin to identify these potentially invaluable relationships — or even into your first year of practice. Who cares, jump on-board when you can.
Even if you aren’t sure what area of law you want to practice, you’ll still want to identify someone you can look to for guidance and advice — whether it’s one of your law professors, your boss at your internship/externship, another attorney, or even a judge.
Mentors are a legal world lifeline because no one becomes successful in isolation. Finding people who inspire you is necessary to succeed in life and in the legal community.
How do you find mentors? Here are five tips to assist in your search for a legal mentor.
#1 — Treat Everyone With Kindness & Respect
“If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.”“Sirius Black,” J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
The Golden Rule. It is present in most if not all religions for a very important reason, it’s the best practice to live by.
So, in your search for a mentor treat classmates, professors, law school staff, paralegals, secretaries, lawyers, everyone you encounter with manners and kindness.
Many lawyers in training and new lawyers make the mistake of only being considerate of other lawyers or people they think can benefit them. That is a big mistake. Your reputation is everything and developing a bad one can take years to correct, if it is correctable at all.
Everyone has value and deserves to be treated with appreciation. If this concept does not come naturally, you must become a quick study of emotional intelligence because it is a huge predictor of life success.
#2 — Break the Ice!
“It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish…”“Samwise Gamgee,” J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring“
Start asking people for help. It can be baffling to know where to start as a 1L, or “first-year law student.” See, even learning the 101 language of the law community in general, can be a bit overwhelming.
So, ask for help. What’s the worst that can happen? Someone says “no” or doesn’t reply back to your email? Okay, maybe they’re busy or just not the right person you want on your side — and believe me, that is very important when choosing your mentor. Make sure they’re a decent human being at least.
Ask everyone. Speak with professors, law school staff, and classmates about mentoring opportunities. Even finding a professor who you just click with can turn into a mentoring opportunity.
Another way to start moving is to go to law school student events on campus. By attending and showing interest in my law school community, I became President of both the Federalist Society and the American Constitution Society (ACS) groups at my law school.
I recall back to my law school career, where my very own professors were heading up both the Federalist Society and the American Constitution Society (ACS), sharing with me that half, if not more of their career opportunities happened because of their connections through the national Federalist Society and ACS networks.
So, get started: ask questions, show up, and don’t be afraid to be a leader on campus.
#3 — Be Humble
“You must unlearn what you have learned.”Yoda, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
You may be looking for a mentor wrong. Maybe you are sending emails out blind and never getting a response.
If that’s the case, change your strategy. Sometimes you have to just catch your professor at the right time. Follow him to his office after class or ask if you can get coffee and talk before class.
You also never know where your most valuable experiences will come from. I worked an entire summer at a law firm, but only intermittently volunteered at a local legal clinic.
What experience ended up being the most valued by my first law firm job? It was the volunteering gig! Go figure…
So, be humble, appreciate your opportunities, and change up your tactics if you can’t get ahold of important people.
#4 — When There Are Obstacles, Persevere
“Things are only impossible until they’re not.”Captain Jean-Luc Picard, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (Patrick Stewart)
The ability to bounce back from obstacles, otherwise known as grit, is one the single most reliable indicators of success.
So, when the going gets rough, keep going. It’s not a matter of if you will encounter obstacles in meeting the right people, setting up the right job, or opening the right doors, its a matter of when.
Obstacles, like failures, are unavoidable. But, that’s the price of trying, investing in yourself, and taking chances.
Applying this to finding a mentor, if you have tried multiple times in multiple ways to connect with someone, try someone else. It may not be the right time for you two to connect, or there might be a better mentor out there you haven’t thought of yet.
As I continued through my 2L and 3L years, I had a difficult time finding a mentor who was local to Ohio and who primarily practiced intellectual property (IP). So, I broke the ice, and reached out to an alumnus from my law school, who now works in California, and asked if she could ask around. She found an IP attorney in Florida who eventually was my go-to! That’s great! Right?
I just had to be flexible, think outside the box, and ask around to get my IP lawyer mentor. If I gave up, I would have missed out on learning so much from my mentor and from the experience of asking for help.
So, when you encounter obstacles, persevere.
#5 —No Excuses
“We are what we believe we are.”C. S. Lewis
If you don’t think you are worthy of finding a great network, you probably won’t find one. But, if you think “It can’t be that hard. Other people have done it and I’m just as smart and worthy,” you’ll probably get it done.
Attitude makes a big difference. If you are suffering from negative self-talk, it will be that much harder for opportunities to come your way.
But, if you persist and keep working you’re life will change for the better. With the combination of manners, work ethic, and the humility to learn it’s very likely successful people will gravitate to you.
So, pay attention to the opportunities that come your way and be ready with the self-esteem and confidence to cease them.