Your Voice

Mentorship is not all about the mentee

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Katherine Gustafson

Katherine Gustafson.

Mentorship. This one word can cause many a tough, battle-worn attorney to cringe. For many seasoned attorneys, the idea of being a mentor just sounds like you are being asked to add more hours of work to an already overloaded schedule. But before you reject the idea, consider the benefits that come with such a role.

The benefits of being mentored have been extolled in articles everywhere. Mentorship allows a mentee to make new connections, have a sounding board and gain deeper legal knowledge. Although being a mentor will take additional time, those who have filled this role have found that the mentor’s rewards can be as substantial as those of the mentee.

My mentorship journey began when I was asked to mentor a recent graduate. My immediate reaction was fear. I worried that I did not have enough experience or wisdom to support a mentee. Instead of declining the opportunity, however, I approached my own mentor and asked, once again, for her guidance. As she had always done, she gently, but firmly, encouraged me to step outside of my comfort zone and embrace this new challenge. I have now been a mentor for more than 10 years and have gained so much more from the experience than I would have ever anticipated.

1. Intrinsic rewards

Let’s face it, the practice of law is difficult, often frustrating, work. Even those of us who love our jobs sometimes feel burned out and unsatisfied. This burnout can affect our physical and mental health as well as our work productivity. We long for something in our daily work that satisfies our soul. Mentorship can be that magic ticket.

We have long known that helping others makes us feel good, but research by the University of Wisconsin—Madison’s La Follette School of Public Affairs proves it. The research concluded that helping others makes us happier. When you do something good for someone else, the pleasure centers in your brain light up and endorphins are released that give you a sensation referred to as a “helper’s high.” So, taking a little bit of time out of our daily life to help a new attorney find their way in the profession can counteract some stress and negativity that naturally accompanies law practice.

I recently worked with a graduate who was struggling to find her niche. She had a great job in the insurance defense field, but she didn’t have that sense of fulfillment. After listening to her explain her struggles, as well as learning about her passion for her family and their immigrant story, I introduced her to a colleague working in the immigration field. Within six months, my mentee had found a new position at an immigration law firm and was thrilled with her new environment. Now, every time I hear the excitement in my mentee’s voice when she talks about her work, I can’t help but smile knowing that I had a small part in helping her find her passion.

2. Expands network

Have you ever heard anyone say that they have too strong or too large of a network? Of course not, because everyone knows that having a strong network can only add to your success. The most effective mentors already have a strong network. Serving as a mentor, however, can strengthen that network by making connections to younger or newer professionals they might not have otherwise met. Not only does the mentor increase their network by adding the mentee, but the mentor will also likely add many of the connections that the mentee already has established.

In addition, because a mentor can rarely provide everything a mentee needs, the mentor has the perfect opportunity to find new connections for their mentee. Many people may feel uncomfortable approaching someone to ask for help for themselves; however, they are much more comfortable approaching someone new to help their mentee. When you introduce your mentee to a new connection, you are also adding the person to your own network. In other words, building your mentee’s network builds your own network at the same time.

3. Improves leadership

Mentorship and leadership encompass many of the same qualities. As you become a better mentor, you will also become a better leader. For example, mentorship is all about nourishing a common vision. Similarly, leadership requires one to nurture relationships between people who share a similar vision but may have different interpretations of that vision or different approaches to accomplishing that vision.

Additionally, mentorship requires putting a novice attorney into increasingly challenging situations while standing by with a helping hand when needed. Leadership requires an attorney to influence and guide people while allowing them to grow as attorneys. The more you grow as a mentor, the more you will grow as a leader.

4. Diversifies your perspectives

A mentee can be an excellent source of new ideas and perspectives. After years in practice, many attorneys run the risk of getting set in their ways. We tend to do things the same way we have always done them because it has worked for us in the past. But our world has changed dramatically in just the last decade. Mentees fresh out of law school are likely to have different ideas on technology, social responsibility, justice and a host of other topics. Discussions with a mentee can allow more seasoned attorneys to review and sometimes rethink their long-held beliefs. Additionally, mentees who are not burdened with years of experience often come up with new and innovative approaches to solving everyday problems we may have never considered.

Years ago, I mentored an attorney who was shocked when he learned that I knew very little about the companies I was buying office supplies from. Very passionately, he showed me how to become more socially responsible by buying from companies focused on the sustainability of the planet. I took his concern to heart and switched to suppliers focused on sustainability. Prior to this mentorship relationship, I never looked at anything other than cost and convenience when ordering office supplies. My mentee encouraged me to look at how my actions could impact—either positively or negatively—the environment around me.

5. Enhances your resume

It is no secret that employers want employees who are willing to go above and beyond their basic job expectations. Serving as a mentor shows that you are willing to give back to your firm and to the profession. It demonstrates that not only have you gone above and beyond in your professional life, but you are also willing to learn new skills and take on new challenges. To stand out from hundreds of other attorneys vying for a great legal position, your resume needs to have something that others’ do not have. Serving as a mentor identifies you as someone who likely has strong communication and leadership skills.

With so many potential benefits, now is the time to throw your hat in the ring and volunteer as a mentor. Not only will your mentee benefit from your guidance, but you are likely to reap benefits beyond what you expect.

Katherine Gustafson is the assistant dean and an associate professor at the Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School’s Tampa Bay campus. She devotes much of her time to working with students on professionalism and civility in the practice of law. Gustafson teaches torts, evidence and animal law classes. She has spent more than a decade mentoring law students and new lawyers. is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “Your Submissions, Your Voice.”

This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.

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